|In that vaudeville now extends from ocean to ocean, and from border to border, in its growing activities; in that possession of a vaudeville theatre and place on one or the other of the great circuits is now admitted to be one of the first requisites for any town in seeking for "a place on the map"; in that there seems to be no end to the development of the best vaudeville talent in this country, vaudeville would certainly seem to be entitled to the definition, our most nationally representative theatrical institution.
Accepting' this as a fact, at least in its material and tangible aspect, and sharing with the many editors who have taken occasion to comment upon the future of Keith's Hippodrome as the permanent installation of our most characteristic style of theatrical amusement, I will attempt to examine some of the reasons why vaudeville deserves this now generally bestowed designation: "Our American national theatre."
" To say that vaudeville is our most nationally representative form of theatrical entertainment is not overstating a condition that has been in process of forming and becoming permanent for more than a third of a century. There are many reasons and causes for this attitude of the American public toward vaudeville on one hand, and of vaudeville toward the public on the other. To begin with, the diversified, contrasted and all-embracing character of a vaudeville program gives it in whole or part, an appeal to all classes of people and all kinds of tastes. For its patrons it draws upon all of the artistic resources of every branch of the theatre--grand opera, the drama, pantomime, choreography, concert, symphony, farce and all of the kindred fields of stage entertainment.
In addition to this wide diversity of its attractions, the personnel of its army of artists is as cosmopolitan as the population of the cities and towns of the United States. Not only are all the arts represented in vaudeville, but all of the nations and races of the civilized world are also represented by and through some characteristic form of expression.
Thus, in the arrangement of the ideal modern vaudeville program, there is one or more sources of complete satisfaction for everybody present, no matter how "mixed" the audience may be.
In vaudeville "there is always something for everybody," just as in every state and city, in every county and town in our democratic country, there is opportunity for everybody, a chance for all. In a broad sense, then, this cosmopolitan character of the population is largely responsible for the cosmopolitan and diversified character of vaudeville, qualities which inevitably have brought it forward to be our most nationally favored form of theatrical entertainment.
We who seek to please so many different kinds of people, so many divergent preferences, can never rest from the task of maintaining an endless supply of contrasted attractions, great singers and famous clowns, fine dramatic actors and wonderful musical instrumentalists, the funniest comedians, the best dancers, the greatest illusionists and the foremost artists in every department, no matter where we have to go to get them.
The steady and sequential growth of vaudeville as the favorite form of theatre amusement with the whole American public is fully demonstrated by its spread all over the nation, the ceaseless extension of the great circuits, the sustained and growing patronage everywhere, and the permanence which it has attained.
One of the chief causes for this almost universal approval which vaudeville has won and holds, is that its standards are the same everywhere, its artists are the same everywhere.
That is to say, vaudeville does not offer the smaller cities and towns any "substitutes" for its metropolitan list of attractions. It offers no "just as good" imitations of anything. The same great singer, comedian, dancer, tragedienne, magician or other headliner that has delighted Broadway, is presented in person and without substitution all over the circuit.
This uniformity, not possible in other branches of theatrical entertainment, is certainly one of the potent reasons for the universal popularity of vaudeville, for the public everywhere rightly holds to the thought that what is good enough for New York is none too good for them.
It makes no difference in what city or town on our circuit a vaudeville patron may reside, he is sure in time to see the headliner of which he has read as a great metropolitan success.
In a large measure this diversity of taste, this cosmopolitan character of our American public, this continual change in the ideas and demands of the majority of our population, is responsible for the unceasing search which vaudeville managers are making for novelties. It is part of their business, a vital part, to be ever on the lookout for new artists, new ideas, new attractions at home and abroad.
And the more widely contrasted, the more unusual, the more beautiful these novelties prove to be, the more certain they will be to win the approval and patronage of our cosmopolitan and always inquisitive vaudeville public.
The uniformity of plan and policy of vaudeville as an institution is another basic cause for its entrenchment as the representative American national form of theatring.
The managerial attitude toward both public and artists is a cohesive and co-operative one of courtesy, consideration and comfort for everybody, it is the same in every theatre of the great circuits and their allied houses.
The mutuality of effort, the complete understanding, the fraternal feelings which now exist between the artists of vaudeville, the managers and all of the attaches of vaudeville theatres, comprise further, if more subtle, reasons why vaudeville is a most nationally representative branch of the theatrical business.
Vaudeville artists were clever from the beginning of the musical hall in America. I cannot remember a time when there was a lack of great dancers, singers, comedians, acrobats and strikingly attractive personalities which have always counted for so much in the two-a-day. Many of the old-time favorites would have been Broadway stars had they been born a generationlater. They certainly had the entertainment goods. That they had the right idea is proven by the enormous expansion of vaudeville everywhere.
The improvement has come in the methods of presentation, in the matter of scenery, costumes, musical accompaniment, the playing order of programs, greater speed, and the adroit effects of producers. Artists are richly framed today in vaudeville; they have fully equipped stages to appear upon, large and excellent orchestras, big appreciative audiences, long tours, liberal salaries and fair-and-square contracts. Is it any wonder that they show to better advantage than in the old days? The best brains in show business are arranging acts for vaudeville and the crack producers of musical comedy or drama are glad to stage tabloid revues or playlets for our houses and, furthermore, the most distinguished artists are happy to appear in them.
In twenty years the art of costume and scenery has made striking advances. Today, fortunes are expended in artistic gowns and stage settings. The foremost artist-milliners and stage decorators design for vaudeville and an evening in one of our theatres is an education in the elegance and charm of deluxe presentation. Nothing is too rich for the vaudeville stage and the artists vie with one another in seeking strikingly beautiful effects. We, in our turn, spare no expense to equip our stages with a great variety of scenery and properties affording appropriate sets for every variety of feature. Never before has vaudeville had such a range of talent to choose its bills from. All the best in the amusement world is at our disposal for the life is pleasant, the pay splendid, and the public approbation loyally warm.
There has been a great and steady advance in the theatres themselves which season by season have grown in splendor, comfort and efficiency. Mr. Keith believed that nothing achievable was too good for his public and I agreed with him from the first, when we worked together on Keith's Boston Theatre which set the then record for magnificence. Our newest houses set the latest and highest standard for an amusement plant calculated to the minutest detail to cater to the comfort and well-being of both patrons and artists. The dressing rooms are like rooms in a high-class hotel, with completely equipped dressing tables, private baths, light, heat and ventilation, all modern, broad, carpeted halls and a roomy elevator. This is certainly an advance in vaudeville and one that numerous letters from artists convince me is appreciated.
In building a vaudeville theatre today, we go into every detail scientifically, artistically and psychologically. The color scheme is selected upon scientific, as well as artistic grounds, for it must be suave, cheerful and restful as well as beautiful. The acoustics must be a matter of mathematical certainty and the lighting must be according to the laws of optics as regards lines of sight, the concealment of all lamps in coves, and the control of color effects. According to the necessities of the human eye, we avoid strain, cross rays, glaring footlights and borders and any effects that tire the vision. The question of finding the most comfortable seats, the pitch of aisles, the height and angle of stairs, the most satisfactory arrangement of the balcony, the comfort of the retiring rooms, the vital questions of ventilation and heating-these and a hundred other points are gone into and precisely charted and planned when a new Keith vaudeville theatre is under way.
I am convinced that the beauty, comfort, and scientific efficiency of the Keith theatres have been a large factor in the consistent success in every community possessing one. Keith theatres will continue to be bettered. Eternal vigilance is necessary in successful catering to the American public and we do not relax our efforts a moment in the daily study of ways and means to improve theatres in construction and operation, to make our bills stronger and more interesting, and to make and maintain vaudeville one of the most important amusement forms in American theatricals.
To show how ceaseless and thorough our search for new material is, I may instance here that at the present time our experts are studying the concert and higher musical fields with a view to presenting great instrumentalists, choirs, symphonies and chamber music organizations in vaudeville. We have already booked a number of musical celebrities and they have found popularity without lowering their artistic standards. The concert stars are now interested in vaudeville and when they find that we not only can meet their demand in salaries but that we can give them long and certain booking and appreciative audiences, they begin to figure with us upon tours in the two-a-day.
In the business end of vaudeville the change for the better in twenty years has been epochal. The B. F. Keith Vaudeville Exchange, by establishing a general board of trade for vaudeville theatres, artists and their representatives, has proven of incalculable benefit to the profession. The services of the Exchange have grown to be so numerous and so valuable that the prosperity of vaudeville without its existence is unthinkable.
In twenty years there has gradually come about the present era of good feeling between artists and managers. The organization of the National Vaudeville Artists-an independent body of 15,000 men and women to represent the player as against the manager-organized in the Vaudeville Mangers' Protective Association, has resulted in eliminating many petty abuses, has placed the humblest artist in as strong a position for enforcing right and just treatment as the headliner, and has instituted and maintained a reign of justice and square dealing throughout vaudeville.
Vaudeville has decidedly changed for the better in twenty years. What makes me happiest is the new concept of mutual interdependence and responsibility between artists and managers. The artists have an equal voice with the managers in stating the terms and conditions of their employment and both sides realize that the square deal works out best for everybody. The arbitration board that takes up matters at issue in vaudeville is no longer busy, for disputes are growing fewer and fewer, the organization of the artists on one side and the managers on the other having almost automatically brought about harmony and contentment. Unfailing politeness and courtesy to the public is the first rule impressed upon all employees. Patrons are invited to criticize and make suggestions. We make the vaudeville theatre a part of community life.
There are other vaudeville circuits equally as large as Keith's. There are over five hundred individual vaudeville managers who have no interest whatever in each other's business; in fact, they are in keen competition with each other, but when they meet at an annual dinner or in conference at the Vaudeville Managers' Protective Association rooms all petty animosities are laid aside and the broad principle of running the vaudeville business on a high standard is the paramount subject.
They all subscribe to the new conditions of a square deal, of a play or pay contract, of an arbitration committee for disputes, of improving the conditions about the theatre for artists and anything and everything for the general good is subscribed to by all, without a dissenting voice. It is truly a new era which is bringing happiness and contentment and profit into the vaudeville business for both the artist and the manager.