The Theatrical Press Agent

BARNETT FRANKLIN May 1 1909

The Theatrical Press Agent

BARNETT FRANKLIN May 1 1909

The Theatrical Press Agent

BARNETT FRANKLIN

From Overland Monthly

THERE be all sorts and kinds of publicity promoters, but the theatrical press-agent occupies a unique position all his own. As a professional booster he stands unquestionably supreme. He is a real, unadulterated “Class A” article, and he pales all other seekers of free advertising into insipid insignificance.

The theatrical press-agent, as you undoubtedly know, is an individual possessed of abnormal imagination who is hired by a theatrical manager for the purpose of calling the playgoing public’s attention to that particular manager’s theatrical attraction or “star.” It is his business to drum up business, to create a general interest in the attraction he represents. The obvious object of all this is, of course, to swell the box-office receipts to such an extent that a post-mortem examination will not find that the production was merely an “artistic, though not a financial, success.”

Now some misguided souls may have a sort of dim, faint notion in their cerebrums that the success of a theatrical venture depends entirely upon the worth of the play, the quality of the acting, and the character of the costumery and scenic investiture. Permit me at once to scatter a few handsful of disillusion on this notion at once. True, it is advisable ever to have a good play and capable interpreters, and the other details of production should be of the best. But, bless you, it does not much matter with the press-agent 108

what is the merit of the attraction he is delegated to root for. It is the sole object of this conscienceless individual to corral the attention of the public, and you may feel secure that he is going to work his very sturdiest to do it. And it is a matter of record that many a first-rate production has failed absolutely just because it was inefficiently pressagented, while others, barren of excellence, have been floated upon the wave of prosperity solely because of the workings of the publicity man.

’Tis a mégaphonie age we live in, and the theatrical press-agent is a necessary product of it. A very large percentage of Americans is theatregoing, still there is great competition in the “show business,” for playhouses are more than merely numerous. The more skillful the pressagent, the more successfully he kindles interest in the production he represents. And there is no “star” so luminous—even though his name be a “household word”—that can afford to disdain the offices of the press-agent. And, truly, there should be a feeling in every star’s heart akin to love for him, for the patient, plodding soul who never has written a word save in praise of the whole guild of actors, and who, in so doing, has antidoted many a vitriolic paragraph emanating from that poor, villified, hunted, haunted analyst of plays termed a dramatic critic.

The dramatic critic and the pressagent are sworn foes. It is the dramatic critic’s business to tell the truth about a theatrical performance in the columns of his paper, and it is the endeavor of the press-agent to prevent this as far as possible and, in addition, to see that a few “news” stories of a complimentary nature get into subsequent issues of the paper so as to render the workings of the despised dramatic critic null and void. Ah, I know whereof I speak, good folk, for I, alack-a-day, am an humble chronicler of the drama myself.

And if the critic “turns down” a press-agent’s “fake,” which happens to be a very thinly disguised eulogy of his show, why it does not feaze the man of brass for so much as an instant. It may be that he has been currying favor with the managingeditor by artful means all these months for just this day of necessity, and so to him he goes with his plaint and a request for the use of his “true story” in the magazine section of the paper. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t, but your real thing in press-agents is never disheartened by non-success. In the bright lexicon of pressagentdom there is no such word as fail. As some distinguished philosopher has, I believe, recommended, he tries, tries again.

George Ade relates the tale of the success of a ruse of this nature when he was dramatic critic on a Chicago paper. The irrepressible press-agent had been with him all morning in an endeavor to get him to make use of a two-column article saturated with guff and fluff attesting to the supreme excellence of his show. It was so palpable an advertisement, and the disciple of Ananias that had penned it had dragged in so many eulogistic superlatives in an endeavor to entice the people theatrewards, that Ade would have none of it.

The next day Ade was astounded to find the rejected “fake” featured on the editorial page, and rushed

into the managing editor's room with the paper to solve the mystery.

“That’s the sort of theatrical stuff to write,” said the editor, before Ade could say a word. “Bright, newsy, readable stuff. And it only cost me twenty dollars, too.” !!!???!!!

But the successful handling of a “fake” is getting harder and harder these days. A story must be pretty plausible before it passes muster in the modern newspaper office. The time is gone when so much as an inch notice will be given to an account of the actress who is robbed of her diamonds, even, as sometimes actually happens, the tale is true. The hackneyed, roadworn methods of the press-agent of days gone by will not work. The modern pressagent must be an up-to-the-minute proposition, whose think-factory would make Munchausen himself turn a beautiful emerald tone with envy. The stories circulated several years ag'o of Anna Held’s bathing in milk, and of Mrs. Patrick Campbell having tan bark spread in the street to deaden the rumbling sounds that annoyed her during her performances, are two excellent instances in point which serve to show that the press-agent of to-day is a consistent and creditable product of the age.

However “bizarre” and attractive he makes his story, the press agent must never forget that the main object of the yarn is to advertise, and that he must get valuable advertising. And so this professional prevaricator works fundamentally towards the enlargement of audiences. He has to be careful that the newspaperiety he secures for his “star” is not equipped with a boomerang. It must be minus the recoil. The pressagent that started the story, during Mrs. Campbell’s engagement in New York, that the actress had won a large sum of money from society women at bridge-whist, meant well, but he did not figure accurately, for the whole affair brought down on Mrs. Campbell a torrent of such strong denunciation from the pulpit that she was obliged to enter a “denial.”

But the man who invented the Anna Held milk bath was a genius. Who he happens to be I do not know, but, according to statistics, he is quite as numerous as the historic folk that claim to have come over in the “Mayflower.” And it was a very simple, and comparatively inexpensive, piece of advertising. Every morning a dealer in lacteal fluid drove up to the vivacious Anna’s apartments, and carried therein numerous cans of beautiful, white milk. The papers were full of accounts of this proceeding, and people stood around mornings in order to see the milk delivered. The story traveled all over the country, and the good citizens of Kenebec, Ind., and Polunka, Mo., knew quite as much about Anna and her supposed daily ablutions as the frequenters of the Great White Lane. And when Miss Held trailed her way across the country, interrogating people with the great question, “Oh, Won’t you Come and Play Wiz Me?” the box-office receipts were of such a character as to cause her manager to perpetually exhibit the brand of blandishment that does not wear off.

When a certain musical comedy was booked in Denver recently—a musical comedy of the conventional order, and not any more risque than the average—the press-agent accidentally overheard a remark in a hotel lobby to the effect that the speaker opined that he didn’t “believe that Denver would stand for anything too lively in the show business just now.” That little remark started the press-agent. His show had not been dragging in an overplus of coin of the realm and it was his duty to boom things a little. Upon inquiry he discovered that Denver harbored a Women’s Purity League that was arraigned particu-

larlv against theatrical performances iio

of such a nature that no self-respecting girl would take her mother to. By fair means and foul, he let it get to the ears of the well-meaning ladies of the league that one of the features of the show would be a day parade along the main street of forty of the young women of the company attired in bathing suits. The Women’s Purity League accepted the bait with alacrity. It burst forth with an announcement that it had information that a “vile, immoral and indecent” production was billed to appear at one of the principal theatres on the following weel\ and, proclaiming aloud the name ot the play, called upon all decentminded citizens to suppress the insult to a Christian and law-abiding community.

Then the press-agent went to work with a vengeance. The papers were filled with comments on the controversy, and the press-agent wrote ponderous letters for publication which averred that he was properly horrified at it all, and pleaded with the public to judge of the falseness of the accusation when the show came to town. Which the kindly public proceeded to do, for the records have it that it played to capacity, and that the S.R.O. sign, the actor’s joy, was posted each night at the door.

Another artful dodge that secured a goodly quota of advertising was one where the New York papers “bit” for a yarn of a barber delaying the performance of “Taps” until nine o’clock one evening. The only preparation required in that case was to post the man of shears and to hold the curtain at the theatre. Herbert Kelcey, according to the papers next day, had just been shaved, when he discovered that he was minus anything resembling currency in his pockets.

“I’ll pay you to-morrow,” he remarked. “I’m Herbert Kelcey, the actor.”

“Herbert Kelcey!” the tonsorialist cried. “Nix on the heated ozone. Dat gag won’t go. You stay right where you are until you pony up that fifteen cents.”

A messenger was hastily summoned, and the papers stated that the actor was released shortly after the usual time for “ringing up.” The advertising power of this “fake” lay in the novelty of the idea that a barber could keep a thousand people waiting for their entertainment. The humorous quality in the thing made for the tale being repeated, and, as an attempt at publicity, the affair was an unqualified success.

Some very clever stunts in pressagentry are often not fully foreseen. Grace George once in Chicago decided that she would not open on Sunday night. She had been working hard on the road, and eight performances a week she felt marked the limit of her endurance. The town, however, had been billed, and the press-agent proceeded to have an inspiration. New announcements of the changed date were printed and pasted over the others. He then permitted the newspapers to indulge in a little curiosity as to the reason for the change of dates. The pressagent reluctantly gave forth the information that Miss George did not believe in giving performances on Sunday. Hooray! At least a dozen clergymen told their congregations about it from the pulpit the dav before the opening of the play. They unwittingly officiated as admirable assistants to the ingenious, paid publicity man.

Henry Miller was about to produce a new play in New York, and, rehearsals not progressing to his satisfaction, he determined to put off the contemplated opening for a short time. So the press-agent was called in that he might give a waiting world some valid reason for the condition of affairs. What was done was to advertise widely that the reason for the postponement lay in the fact that Mr. Miller had lost the only

manuscript of the play, without which no performance could be given, and that he would pay a reward of $1,000 for its return. And so rehearsals kept right on, the production was put in smooth working order, and public interest was kept up.

George M. Cohan, the playwright and actor, is one “star” who makes a most efficient press-agent for himself. Many and various have been his schemes, and they are nearly always successful. Recently a noted Broadway restaurant received instructions to prepare dinner for a composer, music-publisher, playwright and comedian. Cohan finally arrived singly and alone, and he had such a difficult time in assuring the stewards that he was the cjuartet expected that the papers gave the story good space the next day.

And who will gainsay the talent of the “Divine Sarah” as a Bernhardt promotion committee? The stories she has had circulated about her lions and peacocks'and gorillas and other choice household pets; her continuously-announced “farewell” tour; and her appeal to the French ambassador at Washington protesting against her exclusion from playhouses in this country conti oiled by the Theatrical Syndicate, as well as her subsequent appearances in a circus tent, are examples of pressagentism that are worthy of any regular member of the guild.

But it is the great American institution, the professional theatrical press-agent, the man paid by the theatrical manager to boom productions according to the dictates of an unbridled imagination, to whom I specifically refer as “that extraordinary personage” in the line that captions this article. That genial, gen-^ tie, modest, unassuming soul commands my admiration, inspires my wonder, and, in his possession of one particularly noble attribute, secures my respect.