I suppose you know all about the stage and stage people. You’ve been touched with and by actors, and you read the newspaper criticisms and the jokes in the weeklies about the Rialto and the chorus girls and the long-haired tragedians. And I suppose that a condensed list of your ideas about the mysterious stageland would boil down to something like this:
Leading ladies have five husbands, paste diamonds, and figures no better than your own (madam) if they weren’t padded. Chorus girls are inseparable from peroxide, Panhards and Pittsburg. All shows walk back to New York on tan oxford and railroad ties. Irreproachable actresses reserve the comic-landlady part for their mothers on Broadway and their step-aunts on the road. Kyrle Bellew’s real name is Boyle O’Kelley. The ravings of John McCullough in the phonograph were stolen from the first sale of the Ellen Terry memoirs. Joe Weber is funnier than E. H. Sothern; but Henry Miller is getting older than he was.
All theatrical people on leaving the theatre at night drink champagne and eat lobsters until noon the next day. After all, the moving pictures have got the whole bunch pounded to a pulp.
Now, few of us know the real life of the stage people. If we did, the profession might be more overcrowded than it is. We look askance at the players with an eye full of patronizing superiority — and we go home and practise all sorts of elocution and gestures in front of our looking glasses.
Latterly there has been much talk of the actor people in a new light. It seems to have been divulged that instead of being motoring bacchanalians and diamond-hungry loreleis they are businesslike folk, students and ascetics with childer and homes and libraries, owning real estate, and conducting their private affairs in as orderly and unsensational a manner as any of us good citizens who are bound to the chariot wheels of the gas, rent, coal, ice, and wardmen.
Whether the old or the new report of the sock-and-buskiners be the true one is a surmise that has no place here. I offer you merely this little story of two strollers; and for proof of its truth I can show you only the dark patch above the cast-iron of the stage-entrance door of Keetor’s old vaudeville theatre made there by the petulant push of gloved hands too impatient to finger the clumsy thumb-latch — and where I last saw Cherry whisking through like a swallow into her nest, on time to the minute, as usual, to dress for her act.
The vaudeville team of Hart & Cherry was an inspiration. Bob Hart had been roaming through the Eastern and Western circuits for four years with a mixed-up act comprising a monologue, three lightning changes with songs, a couple of imitations of celebrated imitators, and a buck-and-wing dance that had drawn a glance of approval from the bass-viol player in more than one house — than which no performer ever received more satisfactory evidence of good work.
The greatest treat an actor can have is to witness the pitiful performance with which all other actors desecrate the stage. In order to give himself this pleasure he will often forsake the sunniest Broadway corner between Thirty-fourth and Forty-fourth to attend a matinée offering by his less gifted brothers. Once during the lifetime of a minstrel joke one comes to scoff and remains to go through with that most difficult exercise of Thespian muscles — the audible contact of the palm of one hand against the palm of the other.
One afternoon Bob Hart presented his solvent, serious, well-known vaudevillian face at the box-office window of a rival attraction and got his d. h. coupon for an orchestra seat.
A, B, C, and D glowed successively on the announcement spaces and passed into oblivion, each plunging Mr. Hart deeper into gloom. Others of the audience shrieked, squirmed, whistled, and applauded; but Bob Hart, “All the Mustard and a Whole Show in Himself,” sat with his face as long and his hands as far apart as a boy holding a hank of yarn for his grandmother to wind into a ball.
But when H came on, “The Mustard” suddenly sat up straight. H was the happy alphabetical prognosticator of Winona Cherry, in Character Songs and Impersonations. There were scarcely more than two bites to Cherry; but she delivered the merchandise tied with a pink cord and charged to the old man’s account.
She first showed you a deliciously dewy and ginghamy country girl with a basket of property daisies who informed you ingenuously that there were other things to be learned at the old log school-house besides cipherin’ and nouns, especially “When the Teach-er Kept Me in.” Vanishing, with a quick flirt of gingham apron-strings, she reappeared in considerably less than a “trice” as a fluffy “Parisienne” — so near does Art bring the old red mill to the Moulin Rouge. And then —
But you know the rest. And so did Bob Hart; but he saw somebody else. He thought he saw that Cherry was the only professional on the short order stage that he had seen who seemed exactly to fit the part of “Helen Grimes” in the sketch he had written and kept tucked away in the tray of his trunk. Of course Bob Hart, as well as every other normal actor, grocer, newspaper man, professor, curb broker, and farmer, has a play tucked away somewhere. They tuck ’em in trays of trunks, trunks of trees, desks, haymows, pigeonholes, inside pockets, safe-deposit vaults, handboxes, and coal cellars, waiting for Mr. Frohman to call. They belong among the fifty-seven different kinds.
But Bob Hart’s sketch was not destined to end in a pickle jar. He called it “Mice Will Play.” He had kept it quiet and hidden away ever since he wrote it, waiting to find a partner who fitted his conception of “Helen Grimes.” And here was “Helen” herself, with all the innocent abandon, the youth, the sprightliness, and the flawless stage art that his critical taste demanded.
After the act was over Hart found the manager in the box office, and got Cherry’s address. At five the next afternoon he called at the musty old house in the West Forties and sent up his professional card.