By Edward Choate
Since no ancestor or other member of my family has ever, to my knowledge, previously been infected with the virus theatricoccus, I have always had a great deal of explaining to do, not only about having decided to pursue so questionable a career, but also to make clear exactly what it is that a “manager” does. When I first became an actor in a stock company, I was looked upon at home with great suspicion, but at least there wasn’t any doubt as to my function. The second step in my march up (or down) the theatrical ladder caused more confusion, involving, as it did, assistant press agenting, making up payrolls, answering the switchboard, reading scripts, trying to raise backing, and interviewing actors for an about-to-be-prominent producer. This came under the general heading of : “learning the business,” and while it was frowned upon with slightly less intensity than the acting had been, the whole thing was still pretty suspect among my former friends, aunts, cousins and schoolmates.
The about-to-be-prominent producer suddenly had the hit of his life and my connection with him, though humble, nevertheless gave me a certain positive identity in the non-theatrical world because I could, on occasion, help get tickets for the sho
w. Anyone even remotely connected with a big success does arouse a certain amount of genuine curiosity and even a bit of respect in the outside world. This leads to the inev
itable questions. “What do you do?” you are constantly asked. “Did you write the play?” “Did you paint the scenery yourself?” It seems to be a difficult thought process to imagine that anything goes on in connection with the theatre that cannot be seen up there on the stage. How the play got there, who paid to prepare it, and who sees that the actors show up regularly eight times a week, does not seem to enter the public’s mind.
As for the whole delicate question of why it is scarcely possible to buy tickets at the box office with any reasonable ease or comfort except for the more dubious attractions, the public imagines that this situation is solely tied up with the easily identifiable “public enemy” who works behind the ticket window, and those other traditional menaces to society, the ticket speculators, sometimes also affectionately referred to as “gyps” or “gougers.” Since this is actually much more the responsibility of the man who owns the show and whoever “manages” it for him, it becomes rather embarrassing and even ignoble to use this is an example of the great responsibility of those who operate behind the scenes in show business.
ANYWAY, THERE’S GLAMOUR
To the world at large, the theatre is a notoriously glamorous occupation except as it concerns the business manager. When one tries to explain one’s really essential duties, he ends up apologizing for not playing the leading part or having written the play, or at least for not having personally told the actors and authors what to do. While there is a certain inflated importance in being involved with a smash hit, even in the anomalous position of “manager,” this is more than cancelled out by the much greater proportion of flops with which we are inevitably connected. Those old friends and relatives I’ve been talking about who always object that they don’t know what you do in the theatre have too many opportunities to add that they don’t know what ever possessed you to pick such a crazy business anyway. This conclusion is always accompanied by the remark that if the play was really as terrible as that, why couldn’t you have seen this clearly from the beginning and simply have skipped the whole thing.
To the public at large, the producer himself is in the same cloudy position as the manager, the company manager, or the business manager, or that vaguest of all categories, the general manager. Apparently a major portion of audiences take it for granted that what they see on the stage has happened spontaneously. The day of Charles Frohman and Charles Dillingham, whose labels were a guarantee of quality, has pretty well passed. Each production must create its own following and the legend “Brock Pemberton Presents” sells a negligible amount of tickets. As for the public’s being interested in the list of names which comes at the end of the program and is headed “Staff for the Producer,” surely no one bothers to read it unless he is in the business himself and wants to find out who may have gotten the job for which he feel he was better qualified.
The manager really does not deserve much sympathy for the lack of appreciation by the public of his vital role in the carrying out of theatre business. Making up payrolls and budgets; checking overtime for dress rehearsals; arguing with business agents about some of the more precise interpretations of IA rules and regulations; counting up and settling; bargaining and booking for New York and the road; negotiating with agents for clients’ services; dealing with the scene designers’ penchant for museum piece antiques, rare tapestries for drapes, gardens of artificial flowers, and baggage cars full of electrical equipment; and learning to be expert psychoanalysts in order to stay on good terms with treasurers – these are compensations enough. If the theatre should ultimately fail him as a source of livelihood and excitement, surely the manager’s years of close association have qualified him to move on into the fields of the highest diplomacy and the manipulation of human destiny every bit as dramatic as a performance of “Annie Get Your Gun” – or Laurence Olivier playing “Oedipus.”
This article originally appeared in ATPAM’s 1948 Benefit for Welfare Fund Souvenir Book