A Billion Dollar Amusement Business

GLENMORE DAVIS January 1 1909

A Billion Dollar Amusement Business

GLENMORE DAVIS January 1 1909

IN no other branch of American activity is so much money invested as in amusements. In no other business save stock gambling and the biggest kind of a monopoly is money made or lost so quickly. No other business pays such large salaries or such large returns on the capital invested. No other business is so far-reaching in its appeal, and no other business is half so varied. Ever since time began people have sought amusement from outside sources, but never in history has there existed a nation with such a passion for expensive entertainments as that of the United States of America.

Our theatricals may be on a lower plane than those of some other countries, but we pay more for them than does all Europe combined. American taste for music may be depraved, but grand opera, comic opera, symphony concerts, and brass bands draw more money here than they do in all the rest of the world. Name any branch of amusements you wish— Wagnerian opera, Shakesperian drama, baseball, prize-fighting, the circus, motion pictures, expositions, vaudeville, the horse show, or a German band—and it is a certainty that it is more popular, better patronized, and more remunerative in the United States than anywhere else. This is partially due to the fact that we, as a nation, are rich, and partly to the fact that we are amusement mad. There is such a thing as the billion-dollar smile, and it is spread today from Seattle to New York, from Bangor to the Gulf.

Last summer the whole country was baseball mad, and in eight Eastern cities upward of six million dollars were spent by amusement-loving fans. Now the theatrical and operatic seasons are well under way, and before the dandelions sprout again in the parks fifteen million dollars will have passed into the box offices of New York City alone. Two months before the Metropolitan Opera House opened for the first performance of the present season, six hundred and fifty thousand dollars had been paid in by subscribers. One month before that Mr. Hammerstein had collected two hundred and forty-seven thousand dollars in Philadelphia toward the year’s support of the temple of music which he built in the Quaker City, and the New York Hippodrome at that time was playing to as much as eleven thousand dollars a day. A billion-dollar smile? Figure it out for yourself.

Americans have to pay big prices for their smiles because it costs a great deal to furnish them. Theatres and other places where entertainment is to be found must be located in accessible places in the very centres of population. Such sites are invariably the most valuable and the most expensive. There are eighty-six play houses in New York City, the majority on street corners where it would be natural to expect to find towering office buildings. Father Knickerbocker requires these theatres to have numerous exits on streets, and stipulates that they be nothing more than theatres—a stipulation which prevents them reaching skyward farther than the roofs over the fly-galleries. Hence a theatre in New York must be absolutely self-supporting.

The eighty-six playhouses of the biggest American city bring yearly rentals ranging from fifteen thousand to one hundred and ninety-five thousand dollars, and the average—thirty thousand dollars a year—holds good in Chicago, where there are twenty-two theatres; in Philadelphia, where there are the same number; in Boston, where there are fourteen; in Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburg and Cincinnati, each of which has eight; in Buffalo and Washington, which have seven each; in St. Louis, where there are ten—in fact, in every one of the American centres of population.

As every one who has arrived at the age of comprehension knows, there are scores of American amusements besides theatricals. Each is a separate and distinct business with its own variations; each is complex, costly, and, in the long run, tremendously remunerative; and each is necessary in the building of the billion-dollar smile else it would not exist. The biggest, the most complex, the most widely interesting, the most costly, and the most potent of all is the one which has to do with the men and women who paint their faces, impersonate real and imaginary characters, and strut nightly across five hundred American stages, before as many thousand people who are unable or unwilling to amuse themselves. A few inside facts concerning Theatreland, the things one sees there, the people who populate it, the men who control it, and the money and brains involved in it may be taken as indicative of similar quantities in the other branches of the amusement world; for amusements, no matter how dissimilar they may seem on the face, are all alike basically. Some one gets an idea, builds on it, puts a fence around it, and demands of the public a dollar a head for the privilege of “having a look.” That’s all there is to the “show game.” If you have what is vernacularly known as “the goods” you succeed—are an astute manager and wear diamonds. If the smile-loving people don’t care for your goods you close the box office search for another idea, and, once you have found it, start all over again.

The average American theatrical production is conceived by a human being who is designated a playwright. He writes what he considers the Great American Drama and takes it to a man of supposedly vulgar ideas who sits behind a mahogany desk smoking a black cigar and fingering a bank roll. Playwrights never produce their own plays. Sometimes they don’t even write them; but always, when they are presented successfully, they take full credit for everything in sight and incidentally accept the royalties. If the play fails the author invariably blames the manager. If it succeeds it is because the piece is so big that even the producer’s vulgarity, asinity, and utter inability to appreciate Art could not destroy its worth. In other words, any author will tell you that plays succeed in spite of managers —not on account of them.

Generally the playwright insists on reading his play. He figures that no brain other than his can appreciate the subtleties and beauties of his composition, and forgets that any real audience which hears it must get its impression from a dozen actor-intellects much less keen than the one possessed by the poor, looked-down-upon manager. The manager, however, has been in the same position before, and if he is wise he reads the play himself, explaining that, while his brain-cells may be undeveloped, his time and his money are his, to do with as he likes. He reads the play, likes it, sends for the author, draws up a contract, and they come to an agreement. The author, who realizes that his is a master-work, makes a modest demand for five thousand dollars down, but the manager finally gets him to accept two thousand, and agrees to give him five per cent of the gross up to four thousand a week, seven per cent, of the gross when it is over four thousand and under eight and ten per cent, of the total when it foots up eight thousand a week or over. They sign the contract after the author has impressed on the man with the bank roll the necessity of having Miss Tottie Coughdrops play the lead, and the awful ruin that will come from altering a single line of the masterpiece.

The manager has a stage director to whom he pays seventy-five hundred dollars a year, and a press agent to whom he pays six thousand dollars, and he immediately starts them to work, building, casting, and booming the play. A company of actors is engaged at salaries ranging from forty to five hundred dollars a week—the total amounts to twenty-seven hundred dollars every seven days—and, as none of these players has saved a cent during the summer, he advances two week’s salary to each, as well as the money for their costumes. For eight thousand dollars he has the scenery and “props” built, six thousand is spent on scenic painting, electrical effects and lithographing. The piece goes into rehearsals, and after another thousand has been dissipated in whipping the company into shape the Man of Means and No Brains buys three hundred dollars’ worth of railway tickets, signs a check for five hundred dollars for transporting the show, and they all go away to Rochester to try the masterpiece on the “dog.”

He is $21,800 “in” before the curtain rises on the opening performance. For two weeks he stays with the show, neglecting all other business in an effort to bring order out of chaos and realize the author’s conviction that this is the Great American Play. Of course the receipts during these two weeks are far below the expenses, and, when the show finally lands in a Broadway playhouse ready for the great test, the manager has backed the author to the extent of $26,400. Incidentally he has seen a number of glaring errors in the piece and has forced the obstinate improvement on W. Shakespeare to cut lines, re-write scenes, eliminate characters, and obliterate dialogue, until the manuscript is about as similar to the original as a pair of gauze stockings is to a silkworm. If the play succeeds, the author will never say a word of thanks to the man responsible for the thousand and one changes; but if it fails he will damn him eternally as an idiotic meddler, a carpenter, a gas-fitter—anything but an expert in plays and players.

But the play doesn’t fail. It makes a hit; and the next morning the reviewers proclaim it a powerful and welcome aid to the billion-dollar smile. It settles down to a season’s run and week after week draws an average of ten thousand dollars into the manager’s coffers. He is playing “fifty-fifty”—that is, the theatre gets half of the gross receipts and he gets half. They divide on the newspaper advertising, which amounts to one hundred dollars a day, and they pay equal shares of the billboard, street car, subway, and elevated booming. When he signs the first royalty check for one thousand dollars he learns that this is to be sent to a playbroker who three years before made a life contract with the at-that-time unknown playwright, whereby the broker is to get ten per cent, of all royalties which may come to the author, no matter whether he (the broker) has been instrumental in disposing of the play or not. At the end of the week, after subtracting all expenses from his share of the box office receipts, the manager possesses profits amounting to eight hundred and fifty dollars. The author has nine hundred dollars, the playbroker one hundred dollars, and the house management, after deducting all disbursements for lighting, stage hands, ushers, advertising—everything save the rent—is winner to the extent of $2,800.

This goes along for thirty weeks, when the hot weather forces the business to such an ebb that the theatre closes and the show goes to the storehouse for the summer. The manager balances his accounts and finds that of the original $26,400 spent on the production he has regained $20,500, and is $5,900 loser on the season. The author has put twenty-five thousand dollars in the bank, or spent it; the playbroker has soaked away three thousand dollars—not spent it— and the theatre is winner to the extent of eighty thousand dollars, out of which forty-five thousand dollars must be paid for rent. If, as generally happens, the play does not average more than eight thousand dollars a week, all these profits are materially diminished, while the manager’s losses are greatly increased. But he is not complaining. He smiles his share of the billion-dollar smile, realizing that he has the dramatic success of the year, and bides his time until cold air shall again make theatricals interesting.

His production is practically paid for, he has no unsettled bills (perhaps) and he possesses the greatest of all theatrical assets—the record of having remained an entire season at one of the leading Broadway playhouses. The whole country has heard of the play and is waiting for it. The manager’s innings have arrived. He orders a duplicate production; he engages and rehearses a second and less expensive company, and as the first of September approaches he makes a pilgrimage to the New Amsterdam Theatre on Forty-second Street, near Broadway. In this theatre, which they built and own, the Messrs. Marc Klaw and Abraham Lincoln Erlanger have their offices and from there they control the chief theatrical interests of the United States. They are the men who pull the strings which work the muscles that make the great American face break into the billion-dollar smile. Because they control three-fourths of the available first-class “time,” a producer is forced to come to them for booking when he is ready to start on tour. Our manager is a man of importance, and he obtains an immediate audience. A frozen-faced man opens a set of books, does a little scratching on a pad, and before many hours have slipped by things are arranged satisfactorily. The “Number One” company will open in Chicago, Labor Day, and work east, playing only in the big cities until Boston is reached, where the run is to be indefinite. The “Number Two” company will start in St. Louis and, after swinging round a circle made up of Minneapolis, St. Paul, Milwaukee, Kansas City, and Omaha, will make a beeline for Denver and the Pacific Coast. The original organization does not take half of the gross—it takes sixty and sixty-five per cent, and the second company gobbles, on an average, seventy-five per cent, of all the money taken through the box office window. The result? The organization which didn’t quite pay for itself during the thirty weeks’ metropolitan engagement plays forty weeks to an average weekly profit of $2,600, and the second company plays forty-two weeks to an average weekly profit of nine hundred dollars.

The manager greets the dandelions and the hot weather of late June with a broad grin. He has made $141,000 on the season—$104,000 by the first company and $37,800 by the second company. From this he subtracts $5,900 unpaid on the original production and $8,000 which it cost him to build the “Number Two” show and if he has been wise, he still has a net profit of $127,000 drawing interest in the bank.

These two companies should be good for $80,000 the third year, and, if the play is a “Brewster’s Millions,” or a “Way Down East,” or a “Polly of the Circus,” it should continue to bring fifty thousand dollars for the next three seasons. If it is a musical play or a dramatic piece, requiring a small cast and an inexpensive production, these profits may be greatly increased. “Floradora” made six hundred and thirty thousand dollars in three years. The “Merry Widow” has made two millions for its several producers and four hundred thousand dollars for the composer. “Paid in Full,” written by a young newspaper man who less than two years ago was drawing a salary of fifty dollars a week, played an entire season at the Astor Theatre, New York, and this year five companies are presenting it throughout the country. The profits from this little play will amount into the hundreds of thousands of dollars before the second season is over and the author is receiving weekly royalties bigger than any year’s salary he ever before made.

In the making of the theatrical part of the billion-dollar smile a curiously varied lot of wheels are constantly turning. There are establishments whose sole business is the typewriting of theatrical manuscripts; there are in New York a dozen scene-painting firms, employing from ten to one hundred men each. Frederic Thompson’s stage carpentering, stage property, and electrical shops at Luna Park, Coney Island, employ one hundred and fifty men, all experts in the construction of the inanimate parts of theatrical productions. One wigmaking establishment last year furnished the false hair for one hundred and seven plays, and for one of these four hundred wigs were necessary.

Along Broadway and Sixth Avenue there are forty establishments which have as their several functions the manufacture or sale of grease paints, costumes, stage shoes, and stage lamps. One firm makes a comfortable fortune annually by furnishing chorus girls to managers; another does nothing but furnish “supers” for mob scenes; a dozen make a business of “placing” actors and actresses; five do nothing save sell plays, while a half dozen others make a business of furnishing plays for stock companies. Down on Twenty-eighth Street, which is known as “Tin Pan Alley,” a dozen music publishing houses grind out new song “hits” daily, and every month or so one of these songs becomes so popular that it makes for the author from fifteen to forty thousand dollars in half a year. In every block there is some school of acting or some academy where stage dancing is taught, and there are at least two places where, for six hundred dollars down, the people in charge will teach you how to write successful plays any one of which may be the Great American Drama. Stage transfer companies, trunk makers, theatrical photographers, and tremendous plants which make millions from the manufacture of photographs and block signs dot the landscape of Theatreland. Boarding-houses by the score which cater to none but theatrical folk, and printing plants which exist by the making and sale of theatrical post cards, theatre tickets, and theatrical newspapers are as thick as the actors themselves. All these and more are part, and parcel to the billion-dollar smile—they are absolutely necessary to it.

Is it clear to you that there really is a billion-dollar smile? Do you believe that hundreds of thousands of people, scores of variegated trades and professions, and millions and millions of good, hard, round dollars are constantly at work in the effort to keep this sign of good nature ever present on everybody’s face? Perhaps the fact will be a bit clearer if you take a glimpse at one of the smallest and seemingly most inconsequential things in the amusement world —the motion-picture industry.

There are six thousand individual motion-picture exhibition houses in the United States. Nine firms manufacture the films which furnish the material for the 4,500,000 performances which are given during the amusement season. In the manufacturers’ association upwards of one hundred film-service firms are represented, and every week twenty-one new reels of one thousand feet each are placed on the American market. So keen has become the competition in this film business that several firms maintain stock companies which do nothing but pose for motion pictures. Before the film is finally exposed the company goes through a course of rehearsals quite as rigorous as any preparation for a Broadway “first night,” and one company is made up of well-known players headed by a former leading man for Madam Modjeska. Thousands of men, thousands of machines, millions of dollars are represented in this business, which has become so popular and so powerful, even in the big cities where other amusements are plentiful, that three of the most famous New York playhouses have been changed from vaudeville to picture theatres— the Union Square, the Harlem Opera House, and the Twenty-third Street Theatre. One of these auditoriums brings an annual rental of forty-six thousand dollars, and the total sum paid for locations in this country is more than six million dollars.

But pictures, like phonographs and band concerts, and musical festivals and penny arcades, are the small reasons for smiling, although they represent many millions of dollars and are responsible for a goodly portion of the grins, laughs, giggles, chuckles, chortles and guffaws which are constantly being heard in this good-natured land. There are other and bigger elements—there must be, for our standard of humor, like our standard of living, is as variegated as a Pennsylvania patchwork quilt or a Massachusetts mince pie.

A considerable wrinkle in the national smile is occasioned by that most American of all amusements, the circus; expositions are another big factor, as are their near relatives, the great summer parks; baseball, the national game, is an entertainment which contributes a large part of the oft-mentioned billion; college sports, especially football, are becoming yearly more popular as amusements, and there is not so great a difference between the entertaining possibilities of prizefighting and grand opera as would appear from a casual consideration of their opposite characteristics. Understand, people do not get all their amusements in theatres; all their smiles are not brought about by watching play-actors; Spaniards obtain more enjoyment from bull-fights than from Calderon and Lope de Vegas; scenic railways and “helter-skelters” are quite as powerful amusement purveyors in America as are C. Fitch and R. Wagner.

It costs thousands of dollars a day to keep a circus “on the road,” and there are a score of big and little tent shows operating ’twixt the Atlantic and the Pacific between the months of March and November. The average American may have an innate love for the sawdust ring and the excitement in and around “big tops,” but he also has an instinctive bump of caustic criticism and a bred-in-the-bone hatred of being duped —despite anything the late Mr. Barnum may have had to say. A circus, to succeed, must be good because its patrons are expert judges of circuses. Competition among tent shows has become so strong that nothing save the extraordinary can live through a season, and the extraordinary costs money—hence the billion-dollar smile.

Do you know that every circus—John Robinson’s, the Forepaugh-Sells, Barnum and Bailey’s and the Ringling Brothers, Buffalo Bill’s, the Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch—has connected with it a carefully organized department which watches the crop reports, the weather reports, the market reports, and the financial conditions of the whole United States as keenly as does the Government itself or the corporations which depend on interior industrial affairs for their very existence? Before “booking” Galion, Ohio, a circus looks over the reports for the last five years. The man who maps out the route finds whether the town is prosperous or poverty-stricken, he investigates the weather conditions that have existed during the six months previous; he inquires whether serious strikes or other labor troubles have visited Galion and the neighboring towns recently; he already knows the conditions of the roads, and the railway, hotel, and exhibiting facilities of the place, and when the time for decision arrives, he can name within two hundred dollars the business which the show will do in Galion, rain or shine. He is an expert. If he were not the circus would fail. Ninety-six car trains, seven hundred animals, and one thousand employees with a daily expense of five thousand dollars are things not to be trifled with—especially when winter quarters are eight months away and the whole countryside is dotted with competitors all alive and alert and willing and anxious to grab every dollar in or out of sight.

The billion-dollar smile is a result of business acumen. If the nation’s amusements were not conducted with a view to obtaining nothing save the Almighty Dollar it would be only a million-dollar smile—and a very weak smile at that. Take the amusement parks as an example of the system and the long, hard thinking which is behind every American laugh. The greatest amusement park in existence—there are seven hundred in the United States alone—is Luna Park, correctly described as the Heart of Coney Island. It cost $2,500,000 to build Luna Park and the weekly expense of running it amounts ordinarily to twenty-six thousand dollars. When the last summer commenced and the time arrived to throw open the gate of the big inclosure Frederic Thompson, who designed, built, and controls it, decided that, because of the recent period of financial unrest which had affected most the working folk of the country’s metropolis, there would be less summer spending money than ever before during his career as a showman. Acting on this decision he sliced his weekly expenses to eighteen thousand dollars. Other less astute managers did not foresee the inevitable and lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Thompson didn’t. He contributed monumentally to the smile and made money which permitted him to join in the national chortle; but he would not have been able to do so had he not learned lessons while amusing the public.