General Articles

GABBER CIRCUIT

Find a platform, clear your throat and start talking. There’s millions in it — not to mention invisible tigers

JAMES DUGAN March 1 1948
General Articles

GABBER CIRCUIT

Find a platform, clear your throat and start talking. There’s millions in it — not to mention invisible tigers

JAMES DUGAN March 1 1948

GABBER CIRCUIT

Find a platform, clear your throat and start talking. There’s millions in it — not to mention invisible tigers

JAMES DUGAN

ABOUT THE time you are reading this, Robert St. John, the bearded foreign correspondent and author of “The Silent People Speak,” will be sitting in a day coach of the Illinois Central train No. 27, bound from Chicago to Rockford, 111., where he is to address the Rockford Women’s Club on the subject, “Is There An Iron Curtain?” Mr. St. John is a tired man. Every night for two months now he has been propounding his riddle of the Iron Curtain. Along with his portable Iron Curtain, Mr. St. John has been seeing a lot of Pullman curtains and many, many hard train and bus seats. He is on the homestretch, headed east along a crazy course which takes him back and forth like an aimless water skipper. Before Mr. St. John tries a cat nap he consults an evil shea of papera grubby timetable of his itinerary, which has been scrupulously prepared by Mr. W. Colston Leigh of New York, his lecture manager.

Tues.

Ar. Rockford (coaches only) 10.55 a.m.

Lecture Rockford Women's Club 2.00 p.m.

(business suit)

Lv. Rockford Overland Greyhound

Bus 7.45 p.m.

Ar. Dixon, Iowa 9.05 p.m.

(Please purchase own transportation, advise cost)

Lv. Dixon Chicago & Northwestern

R. R. No. 23 10.23 p.m.

Wed.

Ar. Des Moines, Iowa

(sleeper open until 8 a.m.)

Luncheon 12 noon Lecture Des Moines Women's Club

Lv. Des Moines Wabash R. R. No. 14

Ar. St. Louis, Mo. (Union Sta.)

(Use Belleville-St. Louis Coach Co. to Belleville, 111.

Hotel Belleville)

Thurs.

Lecture Belleville Community Forum (Dinner Tuxedo)

8.50 a.m.

1.30 p.m.

10.00 p.m. 7.55 a.m.

8.00 p.m.

The logistical details have been drawn up, the rail tickets bought, the hotel rooms reserved, by the Leigh agency, the biggest purveyor of platform talent in North America. All Mr. St. John has to do is follow them. For following the schedule correctly for two months, showing himself in the agreeable flesh to the audiences and speaking his piece on the Iron Curtain, Mr. St. John can bring his case of cultural fatigue back to New York with a gross of perhaps $20,000. W. Colston Leigh will take half of the money for arranging and financially underwriting the lecture tour.

W. Colston “Bill” Leigh and his hundred elves scattered around the U. S. have given similar timetables to perhaps 200 other culture vendors from the Leigh stable who will be hatching and crosshatching their trails across the U. S.—with an occasional side trip into Canada — at the peak of the U. S. culture season.

This is the biggest lecture season in the memory of most platform artists. The estimated 3,000 professional lecturers, bell ringers, traveloguers, eagle tamers, singers, one-woman theatres, joke tellers, drama critics, psychiatrists, foreign correspondents, pianists, Washington reporters, choir members and Lincoln impersonators who are carrying out the giant cultural task to about 25 million people will sign off for the summer with $10 millionsin box-office receipts. Almost half of the gross will be handled by a half dozen leading lecture agencies. “Bill” Leigh as the biggest of all will handle over a million dollars’ worth of the business.

Although the top is many times that, and the bottom only a fraction, the average lecture fee in the United States is $150 — less the booking agency’s $75 to cover commissions and expense tabs. According to gossip on the gabber circuit, one of the best-paid and most-listened-to performers this year will be Beverley Baxter, M.P., London correspondent of Maclean’s, now on a U. S. tour under the aegis of Clark H. Getts, a Leigh rival who specializes in political personalities.

The King of Lecture Impresarios, the Veritable P. T. Barnum of this effete age, W. Colston Leigh, operates from a skyscraper suite in mid-town Manhattan, which is furnished with American colonial antiques. Leigh is 46, built like a fullback and is full of schemes and enthusiasms, much like an early American empire builder. He is so far ahead of his competitors in the business that his varied list of attractions seldom includes any lecturer who isn’t the leading operator in his own field. The rating is not necessarily according to the fame of the speaker, but is based on his ability to make more money than his rivals. Leigh handles Louis Adamic, H. R. Knickerbocker, Raymond Swing, Prince Peter & Princess Irene of Greece, Cecil Brown, John Gunther, John W. Vandercook, Maurice Hindus and Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt—big names and successful speakers. He hands out his precise timetables to Margaret Bourke-White, Will Durant, Stuart Chase, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Ralph Ingersoll (subject: “The World Today”), Vincent

Sheean, Ted Malone (“Adventures in Poetry”) and the Westminster Choir.

He Almost Had Wilkie

But Leigh also handles some stars you have never heard of, unless you are a lecture fan. He has the best deep-sea diver in the business. He has the leading lecturer on psychiatry, Douglas M. Kelley; the most popular lecturer on India, Kumar Goshal; the leading popular science lecturer, Gerald Wendt; and the one and only Capt. C. W. R. Knight, who has a domesticated eagle named Mr. Ramshaw, which is a wow with lecture fans. One of Leigh’s biggest grossers is a genial grey-haired chap named Tom Ormsbee, who gives lectures with color slides on “Know Your Heirlooms” and “Early American Glass.” Leigh figured the ladies’ clubs would like to hear about antiques. He was right. Ormsbee, the antique man, is the glamour boy of the season.

The slackness of the competition leaves Leigh time for his favorite daydreams, in which he ranges back into history, sizing up people who would have made great lecture attractions. “I could have done plenty with Ty Cobb,” he says regretfully. “And that old actor, the one with the beautiful daughters —Maurice something.” “Costello?” he was offered. “That’s the one. He would have been good. I’d’ve made a barrel of money on him.” Leigh wishes he’d had Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the late baseball commissioner. He almost had the late Wendell Willkie. “Boy, how near I came to getting Willkie!” he muses. “I had everything but that little old signature.”

Leigh has a carefully balanced menu of platform attractions, a smorgasbord of edification for all known tastes. He is, however, light in one standard dish of the culture circuit—a drama critic. Since

Alexander Woollcott and John Mason Brown made this specialty a must on the town lecture series, all leading agencies must have a drama critic. John Mason Brown is the greatest living exponent of the field. But Leigh doesn’t have him. Mr. Brown works for Lee Keedick’s bureau. True to his motto, Leigh won’t have the second best. The closest buy to a drama critic you can get from Leigh is the veteran anthologist and poet, Louis Untermeyer, who was Bill Leigh’s second client 25 years ago and is one of The great popular veterans of the platform.

Continued on page 53

Gabber Circuit

Continued from page 12

Men like Untermeyer and Gerald Wendt, the science man, are hardy perennials. Wendt will gross $35,000 this season with his lucid exposition of scientific marvels. He is the natural successor to one of Chautauqua’s great attractions of 40 years ago, Montra ville Wood, who unravelled the atomic secrets of that day, to wit the gyroscope, the ultra-violet ray and the monorail car.

Ever since the Lincoln-Douglas debates, a standard of the platform art has been to pit two celebrities in debate. Leigh has no fewer than three of these disputes for program chairmen this year, all of them on a single subject — Soviet-American relations. The first team consists of Walter Duranty vs. H. R. Knickerbocker. They have been throwing each other before Rotary clubs and women’s institutes for the past three seasons, like a pair of professional wrestlers enacting a dramatic masque in town after town. Before the snows melt, after their third season, Knickerbocker and Duranty promise to frame their 100,000th dollar. If there weren’t any Russia the lecture business would have to invent one.

Where’s Private Hargrove?

One of the hazards of the lecture manager is the speaker who doesn’t appear on time. Leigh likes reliable artists who will follow the schedule to a T. He has had some flaming failures in his stable, notably the late Heywood Broun and Marion Hargrove. The latter young man wrote the all-time best-selling book about Army recruits. At a time when Leigh believed Hargrove to be addressing the Mastermind Series audience in Salt Lake City, Utah, on the subject of what a former Army recruit thinks of the postwar world, the impresario was distressed to be handed a telegram signed by Hargrove from his home in a New York suburb. “Tell your customers I will be sick on the following dates,” it said, and carefully listed the days.

Heywood Broun had a somewhat tidier approach to his defections in culture bearing. “Heywood always used to get up from his poker game and put in a call to Harrisburg or wherever he was speaking that night and courteously tell the committee that he couldn’t make it,” Leigh observed. The highest fee Broun failed to appear to collect was $500 at the Wisconsin Union in Madison.

In normal procedure, when one of Leigh’s artists has a gross personal lapse and stands up an audience, Leigh merely invokes a contractual clause which provides that the lecturer shall pay his manager a double fee for failure to show. This works out to 100% of the price of a lecture. One of Leigh’s steadiest lecturers, Nicol Smith (“Secrets of Vichy,” “Valley of the Clouds,” “Intrigue & Espionage”), recently encountered a worse obstacle than fireside and poker. He was snowed-in and unable to make his train. Smith chartered a foolhardy tramp pilot to fly him to his engagement. He reported this achievement with modest pride to the Leigh office and enclosed the bill for transportation. Leigh’s reaction was mixed. The flight cost twice as much as the lecture fee.

Long ago a wise Chautauqua manager coined the axiom of the lecture business: The professionals are better

than the celebrities. The celebrities come and go, perhaps for one fitful season. At their best, like Mrs. Roosevelt, they can give only sporadic dates, or concentrated bookings of two or three weeks. The schedule has to be made with the professionals who are always available. The celebrities have to be fitted in on top of them. A lecture bureau has to have the product available and temper it to the tastes and dates of the local program committee —or it doesn’t stay in business.

The impresarios are always looking for novelty attractions, which the trade calls specialties. These are people with a unique stunt, usually impossible to imitate or duplicate. Capt. Knight and his reformed eagle, Mr. Ramshaw, who accompanies the intrepid Captain to the rostrum and obliges with simple routines unworthy of a trained seal, but exceptional in an eagle, is perhaps the top specialty on the boards this season.

Talking and Sculpting

The sculptor Lorado Taft, now deceased, picked up and modernized an old-time Chautauqua feature, that of the lecture-demonstration. Taft was a serious sculptor, not a platform freak, who took to the high-school auditoriums to make a living he deserved from his studio alone. He put up a sculptor’s stand on stage, plastered it with modelling clay and thumbed out a portrait bust before the marvelling eyes of the crowd inside of two hours. During his performance, Taft gave out a disarming anti-arty patter which put the small-town folks at ease. He used to make his first appearance in a tuxedo. The crowd saw his raiment and hated him. Then he said, “1 only wear this thing to let you see that I own one.” He donned a smock and went to work, with all spectators won over.

Suzanne Silvercruys Stevenson also produces a two-hour bust on stage and for her return lecture offers a singular package deal. While she models a half life-size figure of clay on an armature she speaks on “How to Win the Peace.”

A man named Bertrand Shurtleff, whose features have been altered by proximity to the rosined mat, gives a lecture - demonstration called “Wrestling Revelations.” He gets men out of the audience to come up and have painless but horrifying holds applied to their persons to illustrate the chicanery of professional wrestling. Shurtleff has a startling reprise: if the committee likes him he is prepared to return with a lecture on how to be a writer.

Emil E. Liers, billed as “The Otter Man,” is possibly the only lecture attraction who carries a school of tame otters with him on the lecture circuit. Sasha Siemel, who hunts South American tigers with a spear, has evolved a platform demonstration so effective that he has been able to dispense with the tiger. Program, trade organ of the gabber business, says, “Sasha makes your spine tingle with his vividly acted-out, account of his hunting tigers with nothing more than a spear. You see the ‘tiger’ charge him, you see him draw back to lure on the huge cat and then, quick as a flash, you see man triumph over the wild beast of the jungle.” Sasha’s technique of taming tigers without employing tigers is scorned by Ross Allen, who milks poisonous snakes right before your eyes.

Other operators restrict themselves to inanimate “props.” Sidney Montague, until he retired recently, was billed for years in U. S. lecture halls as “The Former Canadian Mountie.” He filled his engagements in RCMP uniform, carrying and expertly cracking a dog whip. In this category there is also found the Archduke Otto Hapsburg and Mrs. Owen Kildare, who gives a demonstration-lecture on “The Romance and History of Famous Fans,” fanning herself while she lectures.

80,000 Women

A comely young man named Russell Curry has invented a specialty act which may well carry him off to the movies. Russell lectures on “How to Dance” before feminine audiences. He is a great demonstrator. He has his elderly mother with him. When Russell has theoretically explained the cryptic negotiations of the rumba or samba he grabs up his maternal accomplice and starts doing it. It turns out that his mother can follow him real good. A fine point is put over because the audience’s average age is almost that of Russell’s mummy.

The biggest hen party in the lecture business is the St. Paul Women’s Institute, to which come almost 80,000 Minnesota women in a season to catch culture. The Institute is a commercial promotion conceived by newspaper publisher Victor Ridder in the interest of winning women shoppers away from Minneapolis, the city’s sister metropolis. The 13,000 women who storm the doors of the St. Paul Auditorium six times a year to sit through an afternoon and evening of lectures and music have become a major civic force in the Gopher State. They have scrubbed up the town, encouraged the local emporiums to stock enough goods to sate them and endowed prizes for beauty and scholarship. The St. Paul Women’s Institute is the biggest single prize for the culture bookers.

In the electronic age a cultural medium as frail as the human voice must fight to be heard and accept some indignities to boot. The lecture impresarios have furnished an appropriate Gehenna, a new streamlined sales plan for lecturers which resembles the slave block and the police line-up.

Each merry month of May the ladies from the local lecture committees fly to New York to select their talent for next season. They gather in hotel salons for a preview of the lecture booker’s offerings for next season. The lecturers come out., one by one, and give the ladies a 10-minute sample of the speech they might like to hear in full in Ottawa or Altoona the next fall. The ladies weigh these human movie trailers against each other, select their menu and go off shopping on Fifth Avenue.

At the moment Canada is trivially represented on the U. S. hustings. As a lecture subject the Dominion is confined to platform travelogeurs who show color films. Winifred Walker used movies of French Canada and the Maritimes. Laura Bolton pleases U. S. small-town audiences with a lecture and film called “Canadians All,” which displays the variety of nationalities in the Canadian human cocktail. Miss Bolton has also made recordings of provincial songs and dialects in Canada, which she will include if desired. But Leigh, himself, has only one man in his stable who even peripherally mentions Canada, Herbert Lanks, in his color-film lecture, “Highway to Alaska.” Leigh thinks this isn’t enough. He is speculating on the feasibility of doing a big color film, which will deal with more than the quaint natives and picturesque scenery, an ambitious production to be shot all over the Dominion and presented by a big Canadian speaker. Leigh figures to do it right would cost as much as a Hollywood horse opera, rather big money to invest in a lecture.

Canadian taste in platform entertainment leans more heavily toward musical offerings than in the States. The Canadian representative of a lecture bureau says that many Canadian lecture committees seem to feel that platform talent loves to talk and that the audience is doing the speaker a big favor to hear him out. Sometimes payment doesn’t cross the mind of the committee which has invited a speaker.

For instance, the Dominion’s most active rostrum, its network of about 100 Canadian clubs, seldom talks money above a polite whisper. The larger clubs, such as those in Montreal and Toronto, use their private contacts to prevail on such visiting notables as Anthony Eden, Viscount Addison, Viscount Alexander and Sir Alexander Clutterbuck, without any fee at all. Additionally, every club pays fifty cents per member into a joint fund from which the Ottawa office finances speaking jaunts by Canadian notables who can be prevailed on to take a month or two off and make the rounds for travelling expenses and a nominal honorarium of $10 per speech. Member clubs can take as many of these speakers as they like, or substitute bigger game they have snared on their own. Such tactics tend to scare off regular Stateside lecture talent who, after all, have to earn a living.

Most profitable pitch for the professional gabbers in Canada is probably the Toronto Town Hall series, recently revived after its wartime suspension under the direction of Mrs. John Clark Ruse, Jr., daughter of Harold R. Peat, one of Leigh’s leading New York rivals. This season Toronto Town Hall was able to offer sufficient inducement to attract Lowell Thomas Jr., and Julien Bryan, who shares with the perennial Burton Holmes the leadership in the field of film travelogues.

But despite such widely scattered oases, most lecture bookers agree with the colleague who recently quit trying to send his gabbers across the border. “Lecturing, as a business, does not exist in Canada,” he said. ★