Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar. Part 327- The Frohman Brothers as Modern Theatrical Managers


Part 327: Modern Theatrical Managers

The Inter Ocean published an article on “Modern Theatrical Managers” (4 Aug. 1895, page 33). I am posting the article in its entirety, as it really gives wonderful insight into a shift that occurred in the American theatrical industry during the 1890s:

Illustration of Gustave Frohman from the New York Times (9 Aug 1908 page 37). Frohman took over the direction of the Schiller Theatre in 1895. Ira La Motte was the manager for the venue.

“The fact that the Schiller Theater, the newest house in Chicago, has again changed hands may give reason to pause and consider the drift of the day in theatrical management. There was a time not very remote when the manager of the theater was not a mere figurehead, or landlord, but an important factor in molding the drama as an artistic ideal. But this is the age in which money is playing a leading role, and the businessman is forging to the front in no uncertain fashion and dominating the destinies of the drama. The demands of a nervous and exhausting public idolizing the genius of change is primarily responsible for the new departure, which calls for business shrewdness rather than artistic acumen or studied experience in the old school, which led the manager to rely upon his own resources and his accurate knowledge of plays and stage-craft.

Theatrical management has simply developed on new lines to meet current conditions. The fact that there are perhaps not three managers in this city who understand the technic of the stage from “the vampire trap” to “grid-iron clamps,” from “ground rows” and “set raking pieces” to “cut borders, or can nominate the distinguishing features of the dramas from Moliere to Sundermann, does not argue any particular discredit, for he is engaged in speculative and not creative capacity. With one theater paying an annual ground rental of $25,000, another $35,000 (including heat), and the so-called “out-lying theaters” paying $10,000 to $15,000 per annum on long leases, the manager has other things to consider than technical details. The stock company that is his most solicitous care is one that erected the theater; in other words, his chief aim, according to the nature of the case, is to secure paying attractions, rather than to make artistic productions. With this end in view he becomes a spirited bidder in the market of amusement attractions, where the highest percentage knocks the choicest popular “persimmon.” Of course shrewdness and sagacity enter the competition, and this is why one of our younger managers has succeeded in sustaining the inherited prestige of his house in retaining attractions that have been claimed in the prospectus of new theaters as the basis for calculating prospective profits on stock.”

Why Chicago needs more new theaters is problematical in the practical sense, but it continues to be popular dissipation on paper. All managers will admit it is difficult to secure a clientele with the number now in the field. The multiplication of the so-called continuous theaters has a significance in the direction that appears to have passed comment. While their aim might appear to be merely to gratify transient trade, their stronghold is really the regular clientele. Their evident intent is to keep an even grade of entertainment, which is popular in the public eye. Many of our more pretentious theaters are apparently unable to do this owning to a lack of high-grade attractions. One week may see their stages occupied by the highest stars of the theatrical firmament, the next the most blatant display of farcical mediocrity, and there is no change in price indicative of the distinction as far as the theater is concerned. Of course there will some day be disastrous reaction in this drift in the clearing-house of popularity, and a fixed policy will necessarily prevail, all of which appears to indicate that Chicago must renew her prestige as a producing center is her theaters are to remain independent factors in the field of art.

New York claims five stock companies of the first rank. An insight into the workings of one of these organizations may be interesting in t his connection, and that of Augustin Daly may be cited as the first having “the traditions” and experiences of nearly thirty years incorporated in its warp. A New York exchange says: “He has a Broadway theater in a central location at a moderate rental. First of all, he must lay by for the landlord; then the insurance, whose rates are higher on theatrical than other property. These expenses provided for, the manager plunges into deep water. His productions are costly. On certain of his Shakesperean revivals, Mr. Daly has spent $10,000. It cost at least that amount to put on ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘The Merry Wives’ and Tennyson’s ‘The Foresters,” and almost as much to stage ‘As You Like It.’ Then the salary list. Mr. Daly does not pay high salaries. With the exception of Miss Rehan the organization contains no high-priced member. Yet the Daly company is composed of many actors, and the aggregate sum paid for their services is heavy. It is rather below than above the exact figures to state the Daly’s Theater must take into its treasury $3,000 every week throughout the year in order to meet expenses. That means summer as well as winter. The season ends in May, and this year it will begin in September, much earlier than usual. The doors are closed, the investment is absolutely non-productive for four months; yet the rent must be paid, the insurance and repairs kept up. During the summer season the Daly company goes on the road, and a considerable part of the profits of the tour is used to defray expenses of idle property in New York. Of course Chicago is paying its share of these expenses, and will continue to do so willingly so ling as Mr. Daly continues to sustain the standard he has established.

Augustin Daly

Now Mr. Daly avoids an item of large expense that many of his brother managers incur in the payment of royalties, for he produces his own plays or revives classical comedies, the rights of which are not restricted. He prefers direct art investment rather than the hazard of spectacular fortune, sustaining ethics of tradition. But it is not the payment of direct royalties that the manger loses, for, generally speaking, the more he gives the author the more he earns for himself. The questions of advance payments to the authors of repute constitutes quite a serious question with speculative management. For he may advance $5,000 or double that amount with absolutely no guarantee of its return. Some statistician has computed 30,000 plays are written in this country every years. We take this to be a very theatrical estimate; at any rate, out of a vast number “Trilby” has been the only great moneymaker this season. Mr. Palmer, who has spent thirty years of studying the managerial business, pays 10 per cent royalties on this profitable property and is glad of it. Daniel Frohman annually pays out a great deal on royalties, and Charles Frohman is the most dashing and daring manager in the business in advancing on unwritten plays or buying them outright.

To return briefly to the Schiller Theatre. This house was created for a distinct art purpose as the home of the German drama is concerned. This may be a matter of keen regret for the projectors, but the property may possibly be advantageously developed in another direction. Gustave Frohman, who comes into possession of the beautiful house, is a manger of experience, and his business alliance with his brothers, the largest factors in the productive field, may succeed in building up the falling fortunes of this theater and make it conspicuous in another sense than merely being topped by the highest tower of any other theater in America. The nature of existing contracts will necessarily not permit of any immediate new departure, but the Schiller Theater may in time come to fill the higher sphere of dramatic production for which it was erected.                                    C.E.N.

Illustration of Gustave Frohman’s office published in the New York Times (9 Aug 1908 page 37).

To be continued…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *