David Belasco, Manager of Actors
From the Green Book Magazine
WHEN I was a little boy, long ago, and spoke of the theatre as “the show”—it is the beginning that is always the most difficult in any task and I am grateful to James Whitcomb Riley for having written “The Little Old Man in the Tin Shop,” for his beginning may truthfully be mine.
Very well then—when I was a little boy long ago in San Francisco though it is not nearly so long as it seems—once upon a night I clambered the noisy stairs to the gallery of the old Bush Street Theatre, lured by the lively bills on the sidewalkboards announcing the engagement of Fritz Emmett. What the play was I do not remember—Fritz Something, or Fritz Somewhere, for after all it was the personality of Emmett that drew the crowds, not his play. But I do remember a certain actor in the company, an actor no less earnest than poor, who appeared in three different characters in the piece, each more wretchedly played than the other, all combining to form a performance of singular badness. I may explain the impression this player made upon me by recalling that even then I hoped, some day, to be an actor myself, and was as eagerly watchful of ill performances on the part of the players it was given me to see as of the best. And this man was so very bad as a dude, an Italian, and a negro, that I then and there selected his performance as the starting-point of my ambition.
“I must never be so bad,” I adjured myself as I crept down those thumping stairs out into the street.
The lure of the theatre had me fast, and I became an usher. For several years I ushed. Probably a finer little usher than I never slammed down a seat and poked a program into an outstretched hand. At any rate I prefer to think that such was the case.
It was while 1 was engaged in assuming a talent when I had it not, as an usher, that I first came to know David Belasco. I say “know” but that is not the word, for between us hung that subtle gossamer, that transparent but no less impenetrable curtain that separates the “front of the house” from the fairyland of lights behind the scenes.
Mr. Belasco at that time was stage-manager at the old Baldwin Theatre, the Daly’s of the coast, if I may call it so. Even then, as I recall, the master craftsman’s touch was discernible in the productions that were made by him. Surrounded by no glamor of romance, he was merely a tireless toiler—a toiler in shirt-sleeves—attempting to wrest Older out of chaos. The world had not then discovered David Belasco; indeed, I doubt if he had really discovered himself.
The seasons passed. I became an actor; that in the process I became also prematurely gray may not, perhaps. be pertinent. But at last there came a day that I shall never forget. It was at the end of a matinee at Weber & Fields’ theatre in New York. I had been making love on a green bench to Lillian Russell in the burlesque, and on leaving the theatre after the performance a note was handed me by the stage doorkeeper. It was a simple request, signed by David Belasco, that I call on him. And the next afternoon I obeyed the summons—for it was quite that—a summons; moreover a summons that meant more to me than a king’s command.
David Belasco was in his office in Carnegie Hall. And what a bijou office it was—see, I am drawing the plan of it here on the blotter as I write, and it was little larger than the plan, I assure you, a watchcharm of an office. I came upon Belasco as he was preparing to move ; he had taken another room upstairs—I wish I might say a smaller one. He was in his shirt-sleeves —arranging a mountainous mass of papers—plays, parts, sketches, scene models, all the documents of his work. And this is the sort of a man he seemed to me—a dynamo of human energy wrapped in black—all but the shirt-sleeves and the priest13’collar. His flat, pinless cravat was black, his shoes were black, his eyes—the most wonderful eyes in the world—were black. The face he turned to me was smooth and round, a face mingling suggestions of the actor and the cleric, a mobile face that seemed to light as our eyes met. He snatched a great pile of papers from the only chair in the room and said :
I had approached this little office with less fear than I might have felt, less perhaps than I should have felt. For success had been mine—in a little way and I was proud—in a rather larger way. But at the command to sit down—spoken as if he were ordering a child, all that selfesteem fled from me and I realized that here T was face to face with the master of his craft, the man, above $2
all others, whom I had come to regard as the greatest producing manager in America.
As he talked he sat on the end of his desk—thrusting bundles of papers aside to make room. He said he had frequently seen me in various burlesques and wondered if I had ever had hopes of one day starring in a legitimate play. I frankly told him that I had never had any other hopes.
“How would you like to star under my management?” he casually inquired.
I gulped and tried to smile, and I distinctly recall that my fingers spasmodically closed around an old horse-shoe that lay there on the desk. An instant of great joy for me, and then, remembering my contract, hope fled, as it had often fled before. I told him that my engagement had eighteen months to run.
“Ah !” he said, inclining his white head. “We’ll wait !”
Thereupon came back to me—why I do not know—some of the valor that had been mine as I approached the office. There was nothing I could say; nothing I should say, and so I said what proved to be the right thing. I told him that years before, from the top gallery of the old Bush Street Theatre in San Francisco, I had seen an actor—no, not double on brass—but triple in character.
“I shall never forget him,” I said, “for never in 1113' life have I seen a worse actor.”
That vagrant memory proved to be the touchstone.
Pausing, as if in doubt, David Belasco lanced me with those marvelous eyes. Then he smiled; and my smile met his as our hands touched. With that smile and hand-clasp began our friendship, a friendship that on my part shall live as long as it is given me to live, and that on his, I pray, may live as long.
Eighteen months crept by on leaden feet ; then dawned the day when I was free, Meantime I had neither seen David Belasco nor had a word from him. Could the beginning of an association such as ours has since become have less romance about it?
“Should I go to him?” I asked myself.
He was a very important man, besieged by all too many aspiring players and yet—I need not have worried over my missed opportunity. On the Saturday of the week that my contract expired came another note from him, a note as simple and direct as the man himself. I have kept it—shall keep it always ; it lies here before me now.
Come and see me.
So another meeting followed. I am ashamed for myself to say how speedily it followed. It was in the new office — the bigger office —for those eighteen months had meant as much to David Belasco as the coming eighteen months meant, in promise, to me. The blind goddess had lifted for a little instant the band across her eyes, and singling him out from among the many, had poured her benefits upon him. He was become a great man, yet success had only softened him. To me he seemed gentler than he had been before; and a more gentle man I have never known.
The necessary business-arrangements were completed with such celerity that, after signing my name to the contract, I blinked. And that is the only contract I have ever signed with him.
“There,” said Belasco, “I’m glad that is over with.”
For you must know that it is the details of business that distress him as they do every man and woman v/ho is gifted—or shall I say cursed? —with that elusive but no less definite quality of personality that we have come to define as the artisttemperament.
As he spoke he smiled. There is something bewitching in David Belasco’s smile—a shadow of pity, it
seems to me, much humor, and more of whimsy, a smile with something of heart-reaching sadness in it, for the man can never forget the old hard days of yester year when, confronting material tasks worthy of a Hercules’ prowess, he still strove to create from the elusive, unmastered art-sense within him.
I awakened at last and, from the clouds whither I had been lifted by realization that in ten minutes I had become a Belasco star—on paper— I dropped solidly back to earth.
“But what shall we do for a play?” I asked.
“It is being written.” was the calm, assuring reply accompanied by a twinkle of eyes from beneath the white thatch of brows.
I knew David Belasco for a magician, but I had not dreamed of magic equal to this.
“So you knew I would come?” I said.
He nodded: “How did you
It was then, for the first time that I was given to understand something of David Belasco’s philosophy —the philosophy that has been his from the beginning.
Leaning toward me, and resting one hand on my knee, he said:
“I wanted you with me. I have wanted you with me for two years. You’ll learn. David, if you haven’t already, that in this world a man may have whatever he sets his heart upon, provided he wants it hard enough.”
He rose then, and still in the mood my question had induced, walked to the window and stood there, gazing down into the current of the street. Perhaps he regretted having given me that glimpse of his hidden self: perhaps, in voicing that single tenet of his creed his mind had flown back to the dead days when he had first set his heart on achieving that which was now his—success, the world’s recognition, a oeoole’s praise. I do not know. But this T do know; that the little speech served as a seal, a seal of gold, upon the document of friendship created when our eyes had met and our hands had clasped in fellowship, eighteen months before. I remember that the sun was sinking, a ball of fire balanced on the distant roofs.
“Do yon see that sun, David?” The man at the window asked, and so quietly it was as if he were thinking aloud. “It’s not going forever, over behind those roofs. It’s coming up again to-morrow brighter than ever before. It’s your sun, David, and it’s going to give Tomorrow—to you.”
Then I did not understand him : but now, in the light of the years that have passed, I do. And for all the successive To-morrows that sun has brought me, a part of my gratitude is due the man who stood at the window that afternoon gazing into the West, whence he, himself, a young Lochinvar of his art, had come with burnished lance to conquer.
“Besides,” he added, with the whimsical playfulness that those who are closest to him love him for the best of all, “I found another horse-shoe this morning; which proves it, if proof be necessary.”
For David Belasco—the David Belasco whom I know and knowing, love—possesses all the surface-characteristics of the genius that he is. His superstitions are brilliantly illuminating. and bv a system of what may well be called “comparative philosophv” he analyzes them and justifies his belief in them.
Thus, one afternoon during the New York run of “The Auctioneer” we were walking through FortySecond Street. Suddenly Mr. Belasco stooned and picked up a piece of coal which he stowed awav in one of the capacious pockets of his overcoat. Our conversation had suffered no break, and though T wondered, it was not until he had thus stooped and picked up a third piece
of coal that my curiosity obtained the upper hand.
As it chanced, a little girl of the streets, a tiny, wan-faced elf with a shawl over her brown head and a basket on her thin arm, had spied that bit of coal at the same instant.
Belasco had been the quicker, Reading the distress in the child’s face, he gave her a dime, but kept the bit of coal.
“Will you please tell me,” I exploded at last, “why you go about picking up coal? Do you need it? If you do, I—•”
“David,” he said, with that illuminating smile, as he walked on, “I always pick up coal. I have a box ir, the studio full of coal that I have picked up.”
“But why?” I insisted.
“Because, David,” he explained, as if he were a patient master and 1 a backward pupil, “coal is power— potential power. Coal runs this great world. Can I afford to pass a bit of this potential power lying at my feet without picking it up and making it a part of myself? Who can say that my success has not been due to that very thing—a subtle absorption into my very being of the potential power in the bits of coal I have picked up.”
No further explanation was necessary or forthcoming, for with an exclamation of delight he stooped again and rescued a bent and rusty nail which he dropped into his pocket along with the coal.
“Now nails are different,” he proceeded, soberly. “Nails hold things together. A nail is the most perfect symbol of cohesion that I know of. And what perception is of more value to a dramatist than a sense of cohesion. There mustn’t be any warping or cracks in a play, David. It must be tight. It must hold water. In order that this sense may be reinforced in my mind from time to time, I pick up nails. If you do not pick up nails, David,” he added wisely, “I would suggest that you acquire the habit.”
The analytical sense, you ' say? Perhaps, but at least a characteristic and a lovable trait for all it may give to him at last he arrives at the studio after a walk, a certain likeness to a base-burner.
The ordinary superstitions, however, save those that invest the black cat and the horseshoe with magical properties, have no part in his catalogue of virtuous beliefs. He is little concerned with the opening of an umbrella in the theatre, and is quite immune to the ill effects attendant upon a deadhead entering a playhouse on an opening night in advance of a “paid admission.”
In this connection I recall distinctly an incident that occurred on the night we opened in “The Music Master” in Atlantic City. We had worked hard for weeks ; we were tired; mentally we were wretchedly afraid the play would prove a failure, but late in the afternoon Belasco appeared and I have never seen him gayer. He told us that the play was going to be a great success. The reason for his confidence in that dark hour I did not learn until the next day. At the very doorway of the theatre that afternoon he had found a nail, a piece of coal, and a horseshoe; further, a black cat, crouching on the sill of the stage-entrance, had rubbed against his ankles and permitted him to caress her.
Could the spirits of the night, that rule our lives have worked to better purpose? Dear David Belasco, may you go on finding coal and nails and horseshoes and black cats through years unnumbered!
It is my belief, however, that these amusing crochets are the mere whimsical fancies of a man whose mind is really never off the work to which he has dedicated his life. For no one knows better than David Belasco that what the Fates hold for a man must be wrested from them, and no man ever worked hard-
er for his heart’s desire than he. His life has been one long song of toil. That he loves his labor has, of course, rendered it the less arduous, but patient toil has been his portion always, and will be, I have no doubt, until the end. Day and night are one to him—time to be utilized, to be bent to his will, to serve as a slave in the creation of that upon which he has set his heart. I have known him to work day after day without leaving his studio, begrudging the minutes necessary to snatch a bite of food from the tray that is brought to him. Many are the occasions when, completely exhausted, he has fallen asleep in his chair, his white head pillowed on his arms firing out across his desk. He works always at the top of his bent. No minuita is too small for his consideration ; no project too great for eager, practical consideration.
While engaged upon the composition of a play, there is nothing in the world to him but that play. A relay of stenographers are frequently employed in taking his swift dictation. He does not write dialogue; he talks it. Only in this way can he obtain any idea of aural accuracy, the sound of talk. As a play nears the night of production I have known him, after a series of rehearsals covering eighteen hours, to go on testing various effects in lighting the long night through.
The day preceding the first night he never leaves the theatre. A hasty supper is eaten on the stage, and after the last curtain has fallen, and the crowds have gone, there, in the deserted theatre, he will sit, peopling the vacant stage with the creatures of his wondrous fancy till dawn streaks the eastern sky and in the street rise the shrill cries of the newsboys. It is for them he has waited—dreamed and waited.
What will the papers say of the work that he has done? For what they say means more to him, I believe, than to any other man in his profession. Sometimes they hurt him —the papers—but more often they cheer him, and always he is eager for the apt suggestion, the constructive criticism that will help in making more perfect the dramatic wares he next may offer. Not that he is prone to act upon every suggestion that may be given him, for he is the master of his own mind, and once that mind decides a thing is right nothing less than divine objection would suffice to change it. Yet the critics may never know in what degree they have assisted David Belasco in the work that he has made his own.
And what a work it is! And how he joys in it! It is his life—his all.
Society does not know him, though for years it has eagerly sought an opportunity to bring him to itself. Mrs. Belasco and his charming daughters represent him there, and into his home-life he never carries the atmosphere of the playhouse. To the stranger his shyness might readily be mistaken for indifference. But indifference to life in any aspect is inconceivable of him. Indeed, he is indifferent to nothing. The little things of life that we are all^ prone to forget in the bustle of existence are never forgotten by him.
I have never seen him out of patience, I wonder of how many stagedirectors that may truthfully be said. \Ye, his players, are given every opportunity to express ourselves in the development of the character it is given us to personate, and I have seen him again and again write speech after speech when the original seemed to h-im difficult of delivery, until at last the actor spoke the words naturally. I have seen him rewrite entire scenes to suit his actors.
Usually the attempt is made to reorganize the actor to fit the scene. A player may appear restless in a
chair. “Are you uncomfortable?” Belasco will ask. “Try another chair.”
Chair after chair may be tried. In the end a special chair may have to be made. Everything with him is done for the actor’s sake. I believe David Belasco to be the greatest actor’s manager in the world.
The most human of men at all times, among his intimates he becomes a boy. No child in play was ever gayer than he when surrounded by those whom he knows to be his friends. Nor are they many ; a few congenial souls—a table laden with the sweets that he in dulges in—I fear too much sometimes—and David Belasco reveals himself as a man in whom the artsense is supreme, but who is none the less a man.
The final curtain had fallen on the fust performance of “The Auctioneer.” That afternoon he had spent an hour in the only curiosity-shop the little Connecticut town possessed—for he loves the antique—and now that the play was launched, the load lifted from his mind and he was the boy again. At midnight we sought out a little restaurant familiar to us both. He assumed the role of host. The order was served.
Leaning back in his wooden chair he exclaimed.
“David, do you know why I like to produce plays?” Because,” he went on, “first nights give me an opportunity to indulge in a little supper.”
Ble swept the crescent of dishes with a gesture—a half a cantaloupe —a dish of prunes, a plate of dry toast, a fat piece of apple-pie, and a portion of cold rice pudding.
Yet it may be from such a diet that he draws the sweetness of his spirit, a spirit that one feels as one feels the flash of his eyes, the clasp of his hand, or the tearful beauty of his smile.