BREAKING INTO THE VAUDEVILLE GAME
by David J. Lustig
(Knowledge and Inside Dope Which Will Aid the Amateur To Become a Vaudeville Artiste.)
I have received numerous letters from people in all walks of life asking me how one goes about it when they wish to adopt the vaudeville stage as a means of livelihood.
Many I have answered personally but not having the time to write all who I have received inquiries from, my publisher has requested me to write something that may prove of value to the clever amateur who has decided to “break into vaudeville” with an act.
No matter whether you wish to become a professional magical entertainer, ventriloquist or present a sketch, playlet or monologue on the vaudeville stage there are certain things you should know before you start out trying to get a vaudeville agent to handle (book) your act.
First . . . . . . it is advisable for you to have an act arranged by someone who makes a specialty of this sort of thing as he, with plenty of experience in back of him, knows about what a vaudeville manager, agent and audience wishes.
There are magic acts in vaudeville who struggle along from year to year and then again the same applies to many other variety acts now appearing on the vaudeville stage, some delighting, others tiring vaudeville audiences who as a general run are the most exacting audiences of today. This is due to the fact that patrons of vaudeville theatres see so many different acts a year that they soon learn to appreciate good work and have little, if any, sympathy with mediocre turns.
True . . . . in many theatres we see acts which are termed by “gallery gods” putrid. When you see an act you think is very bad look at things from their standpoint a bit and figure out whether it is the performers themselves, their vehicle or conditions under which the are working. The layman cannot appreciate the many difficulties under which at times vaudevillians work.
We have all seen acts with clever performers who have a worthless sketch or playlet and thus their efforts are completely “left in the shade.”
The first thing the amateur must consider when he wishes to become a vaudevillian is he must have the proper act . . . . no matter of what sort. . . . to enable himself to do that which you can do the best.
No matter what kind of an act you wish to offer. . . .be it a crystal gazing, magical, comedy or dramatic playlet, monologue or patter act. . . . consult someone who understands this sort of work. It will pay you better in the end to have an act prepared to suit your individual talent.
Some actors think they can write their own material and that it is far better than a script they may have written by a specialist in this line. This may be true at times but very seldom.
Actors sometimes think they know it all and the writer of stage material finds this type to be so charged with “temperament” that they sidetrack them whenever they can. And who can blame them? There is few ailments known to the human body that can be classed much worse than “artistic temperament” and “swellheaditis.”
Suppose you are convinced you have marked ability along certain lines of entertaining . . . . the first thing to do is to “frame” up an act that runs from say twelve to twenty minutes. Your act, specialty or turn, must be entertainment full of life and be able to hold the attention of a blasé vaudeville audience all the time you are on the stage. It is certain to bore an audience and slangly speaking “get their goats” if you insist on stalling or posing.
If you have twenty-two minutes of material cut out some of your stuff and leave only the “meat” of the act in. Should it be a magic act cut the “stalling” and posing of yourself or your assistants and work fast and aim to work every trick you do up to a climax which will leave them guessing and this will bring forth the applause.
Should you have ten tricks on your program, after you break in the act, watch closely and cut out two or three effects keeping in only the effects that seem to you, judging from the appreciation of the audiences, worth while.
Whatever you do, in a magic act, don’t try to convince an audience you are clever. I have seen a bungling magician, who was a clever comedian, go over far better than a clever sleight of hand artiste. Managers and agents will tell you the same thing.
An audience wants to be entertained and if the performer shows them he is an entertainer they are satisfied and vote the act, by their appreciative applause, a hit.
To become a success in the vaudeville field one must have an act that is just a little better than what audiences have always accepted as the best. Get it?
Unlimited rehearsing is necessary before an act is even tried out before an agent. Agents, at times, are a fussy lot and seldom, if ever, admit to a performer his act is good. Most agents are self-styled judges of acts. Some really are real judges . . . . others should be plumbers!
And the same thing, in a different light, applies to performers who appear in vaudeville. The vaudeville stage is infested and over-flooded by third rate, mediocre acts of every description. Careful managers try to book recognized turns or acts they have seen themselves for their theatres but recognized turns and really good new acts are kept busy and their salaries are, most times, far beyond the pocketbook of the average vaudeville theatre manager.
After you have your act well rehearsed and fitted up to please the eye (a “flash or sight act,” as well dressed acts are called . . . . that is acts with appropriate scenery and other paraphernalia) you will have to “try-out” the turn before an audience and several agents. The agents will pass judgment on the turn and will see if the act can be used by them. Many acts never go beyond the try-out stage.
Should your act receive a few weeks booking or routing over a circuit at a price . . . . consider yourself in luck and do all you can while playing to further improve your act so other time or bookings will be forthcoming.
Get all the agents, representing the different vaudeville booking agencies, you can to witness your act when trying out and in the larger cities where agencies are located, where you may be playing. Get your act known. Advertise a bit . . . . publicity will do you a lot of good . . . . never any harm.
Some agents will want you to go over their “time” at a small salary. Watch your step. It is all well and good to work your act for a couple of weeks to break in at a salary about covering expenses but after the “break-in” period don’t ask a million dollars for an act you know very well is worth a couple of hundred but make a reasonable price and hold out for that price. What has hurt the business is acts who needed money and work for almost anything so long as they keep working. This sort of thing may look fairly well on the face of the stories highly colored which are told by so-called performers but when a man’s pocketbook becomes strained his digestion and liver as well as disposition become badly out of tune.
If you meet a vaudevillian and he tells you he “knocks ’em dead” or “off their seats” wherever he plays and then tells you he has a four year route don’t hesitate but GIVE HIM THE AIR!!
To secure a try-out either call personally (which is best if you can be ushered into the presence of His Highness the Agent) on the man you think is best suited to handle your act or write him requesting an interview and if the interview is not forthcoming later follow up by requesting a chance to show him your act.
Your stationary (letterhead and circulars) must be attractive and well printed otherwise they will receive little, if any, consideration.
And don’t get the idea that the life of an actor is all roses.
Acting, in no matter what line you choose, is hard work and to get a real foothold on the ladder of success in any line you must be prepared to work hard, industriously and with the aim of becoming a real success, in view.
Don’t lose courage and don’t lay down at the first disappointment you receive. Up and at it will win the game. Rome wasn’t built overnight and our foremost vaudeville stars battled continually along the hard road to success which is not lined with roses but heartaches.
The game is worth while once you get a good foothold and to attain that foothold is all up to you.
To successfully present and “put across” a magic act you must be both a clever showman and a clever exponent of conjuring. To quote an old, very-much used saying: “It isn’t so much what you do as how you do it.” This holds true in any sort of entertaining. While on the stage you must be an actor at all times whether you are enacting the role of a “nutt” or a “straight” entertainer.
Develop your talent no matter what line of entertaining you chose. When you can do a few tricks and mystify the folks at home or the friends you may meet at a party don’t get the idea into your head you are ready to adopt the stage as a profession. Remember your friends ARE your friends and they will do or say nothing which will hurt your feelings but a vaudeville audience will not
spare your feelings any more than you in your chatter may have spared the feelings (could they have overheard you) of some of the acts you may have witnessed.
Acts carrying their own scenery usually get more money than those depending on “house stuff.” Dress your act up well. Proper hangings enhance the value of an act in the eyes of an audience. Of course the way you dress your act is all up to you and your pocketbook. Use judgment and horse sense in everything.
No matter what folks may say an actor will tell you it requires far more ability to walk out in “one” (before a house drop) and put over an entertaining act than it does to have a full stage setting with all necessary props and other paraphernalia. By this I do not mean you don’t need talent to put a richly fitted-up act across. You need ability at all times and the more ability and business knowledge you have in show business the more chance of success you will have.
Don’t copy the other fellow’s chatter or his tricks. If you work a sketch don’t plagiarize the other fellow’s lines or bits of business. What he may put over to big returns you may fall down hard on.
It isn’t what the other fellow “pulls” in his patter but the manner in which he says it. What is one man’s bread is the other fellow’s poison.
Avoid being a “hammer artist” (knocker). If you think the other fellow isn’t any good and his efforts are nil forget it. You may not think he is good and a thousand others may vote him the cleverest ever.
In a magic turn for vaudeville rapid fire stuff is what the public demands. They want something doing every minute. A vaudeville audience loses interest when a performer walks off to “load” up for another trick. If you must make an exit after an effect to obtain a “load” rehearse your act so your assistant can arrange tables or something of this sort to kill the wait. The best magical entertainers remain on the stage from the rise to the fall of the curtain.
After your act is ready to show an agent . . . . . . go to some reliable photographer and have some photographs taken of your complete act (if you have a stage setting) and some of yourself and your assistants. While in vaudeville I used only photographs of my hands doing various stunts. Whatever you do don’t have photos taken of your hands exposing a palmed coin or billiard ball. The public as a general run have become too familiar with “palms” and “passes” thanks to the mediocre so-called magician who bungles his sleights so frequently that his efforts may fool himself but not his audience.
Dress well on and off the stage and act the part of a gentleman at all times. Two-thirds of the stories told of the profession are of the cock-and-bull variety and you will find just as many ladies and gentlemen behind the footlights as before them.
Say you have all the scenery and properties needed in your act your assistants properly rehearsed, and your own end to your satisfaction . . . . . . obtain a number of engagements to get yourself and your people used to an audience as well as in this way getting things to run a bit smoother. Do this before you attempt to secure a professional try-out. You will be glad you heeded this advice when the try-out night takes place. Familiarize yourself to working before an audience and if you become used to large gatherings and at all times endeavor to practice and further perfect yourself in your work you
will enjoy performing. Keep your wits about you at all times and should something unforeseen occur don’t mar the effect by quitting cold but finish it in some way you think best. Many things happen to the best of us when before an audience and when something does happen it usually is something you have never thought would take place.
Nerve isn’t the main standby of the vaudevillian. Many acts have unlimited nerve and “crust” and little else. This is the sort who usually end their professional engagements at the end of a season (if they last that long) owing themselves money.
Use the brains God gave you at all times. Plug hard and boost yourself to the very best of your ability along the hard road of success.
David Lustig was born on September 4th, 1893. He launched his vaudeville career in 1910 at the age of 17 as a magician using the stage name “La Vellma.” In the 1920s he performed in vaudeville as a magician, mentalist, and ventriloquist. He worked as a theater manager, and as a newspaper theater critic. He wrote and directed silent films. From the late ’20s he was a technical adviser to mentalist Joseph Dunninger, devising many of the “tests” that Dunninger used on radio and TV shows.
Later in his life Lustig worked as a publicity specialist for Columbia Pictures, setting up tours and interviews for their movie stars.
He was elected by the Society of American Magicians National Council to the SAM Hall of Fame.
Lustig was a member of the Society of American Magicians, the National Conjuror’s Association, and the National Vaudeville Artist’s Club.
He died on September 30th, 1977, at the age of 84.
To “sidetrack” something is a term that comes from railroading. This refers to switching a lower priority train onto a piece of track alongside the main tracks, there to wait while the express thunders down the main line, bypassing it.
To give someone “the air” is to reject, to brush off; to break off relations.
A “nutt” is a comic or zany.
A “turn” is the act presented on stage, generally from seven to twenty minutes, most frequently ten to fifteen minutes.
“Time” is performing in a theater or on a circuit. Thus, someone appearing on the Orpheum circuit would be “keeping Orpheum time.” Someone booked by the Theater Owners Booking Association would be “keeping Toby time.”
“In one” means performing on the apron in front of the house curtain. Vaudeville featured continuous entertainment. While the curtains were closed for scenery changes, a performer would come out to take their turn “in one” and deliver a monologue, juggle, do card tricks, or otherwise keep the show going. “In two” meant a half stage. “In three” was a three-quarter stage, while “in four” meant the full stage.
The same applies to writing: Write, finish what you started, re-write, polish. Cut out what doesn’t work. Cut out the padding. Then show your work to trusted beta-readers. After you get their input, rewrite again. Then, and only then, show it to agents. No one promises you success and fame; it’s hard work. But don’t undersell yourself either. Remember, first and always, you’re an entertainer.