Box office

The Night Side of Europe

Source: Karl Kingsley Kitchen, The Night Side of Europe, as seen by a Broadwayite abroad (Cleveland: The David Gibson company, 1914), pp. 191-196

Production: Arthur Wimperis (book) and Edmund Eysler (music), The Laughing Husband, The New Theatre, London, 2 October 1913

Text: By a quarter to eight St. Martin’s Lane is filled with carriages, limousines and taxis discharging their human freight at the New Theatre as rapidly as the giant doorman and three “bobbies” can keep the line moving. For at eight (sharp) the curtain is to ring up on a new musical comedy.

All the tickets have been sold five weeks before — and sold for real money. Sir Charles Wyndham, the New Theatre’s proprietor, does not believe in “complimentaries.” The only deadheads are the critics. Fortunately for six shillings I have been able to obtain a seat in the last row of the dress circle. The London theatrical manager who bought it has been called out of town. I happen at the box office as he is getting his money back. Can you imagine Abe Erlanger buying a theatre ticket in New York? Well, even Erlanger would have to buy his seat at any of Sir Charles Wyndham’s playhouses.

The “first night” audience that finds its way to the stalls, boxes and dress circle is far different than one sees in New York. In the first place every one is in evening dress — full evening dress, if that makes it clearer. I don’t believe there is a dinner coat in the theatre and I am sure if any one had arrived in a sack suit he would have been barred. And of course there are no women in shirtwaists or “tailor mades.” Lo and behold, gowns are the rule and the only woman who wears a hat is an American actress — who should have known better.

It is almost impossible to elbow one’s way through the crowd in the lobby — theatregoers in London have the New York habit of blocking the lobbies on first nights, with this difference — they are in their seats when the curtain goes up.

It costs sixpence (12 cents) to get to a seat. An usherine collects it for a programme — one sort of graft New Yorkers won’t tolerate. Stalls (orchestra chairs) are ten shillings sixpence ($2.52) at the box office, so theatregoing is more expensive in London than in New York. However, you even it up on the taxicabs. You can ride a mile for 16 cents and usually a shilling will take you to or from any theatre to your hotel.

The dress circle, where my seat is, is on the street level, for in the New Theatre, as well as in most London theatres, it is necessary to descend a flight of steps to reach what we call the orchestra chairs. London theatregoers are not prejudiced against balcony seats. Many of the smartest people prefer the dress circle to the stalls, and the seats behind the stalls, which sell for $2 in New York are the cheapest in the theatre.

In the right upper box are the Crown Prince of Greece, the Duke of Sparta and several ladies. Sir John Rolleston, M.P., occupies another box. Sir Charles Wyndham sits in the stage box with Miss Mary Moore. In the front stalls are Capt. Knollys, Lady Henry, Lady Wolesley and several other ladies of high degree — all bediamoned and bepearled — and all very homely.

London does not boast of “first-nighters” as New York knows them. There are some “old bloods” who take in all the George Edwardes first nights — musical comedies at the Gaiety, Adelphi and Daly’s — but as a rule each theatre has its own clientele. Of course the more famous actors and actresses who are “at liberty” attend premieres.

The only “regulars” are the dozen critics from the big London dailies. These critics, by the way, are so well dressed and so unostentatious that they cannot be distinguished from the “Johnnys” in the stalls. Nor do they leave before the play is half over to write their “stuff.” At least, I observed that they were all present when the final curtain fell.

As is the custom in New York, the male portion of the audience seeks the lobby and neighboring bars during the intermission. They light cigarettes and even pipes. The bar in the theatre does a rushing business for about fifteen minutes. Every one at it takes brandy and soda or Scotch and soda. When the bell rings there is a rush for the stalls and boxes, where those who had remained with the ladies are enjoying coffee.

At the intermission between the second and third acts I go behind the scenes where I see Lionel Montagu, Esq., R. Seligman, Esq., and Col. MacGeorge, three well known Londoners, come to congratulate Mr. Courtice Pounds, the star.

When the final curtain falls there are cheers and “bravos.” The play is a success and the audience remains until Philip Michael Faraday, the producer, comes on the stage and bows his thanks. Then Arthur Wimperis, who did the book, is dragged out to bow his thanks. After more handclapping and cheering the audience moves to the lobby and the street to watch the celebrities enter their cars. It must be admitted that Miss Marie Lohr the actress, who is in the audience with H.B. Irving, attracts more attention than the Crown Prince of Greece. It requires the combined efforts of ten “bobbies” to keep the crowds back and carriages in line. Although the play is over at eleven o’clock, it is a quarter to twelve before the lobby is cleared and the lights turned out.

The play? Oh, yes. It was called “The Laughing Husband” — a Viennese operetta with music by Edmund Eysler. There is no need to describe it. You have seen it half a dozen times and you will see it again if you go to musical shows.

Comments: Karl Kingsley Kitchen (1885-1935) was an American travel writer, newspaper columnist and bon viveur. The comic operetta The Laughing Husband, with book by Arthur Wimperis and music by Edmund Eysler, was based on a German original, Der lachende ebemann, by Julius Brammer and Alfred Grunwald. It starred Charles Courtice Pounds and opened at the New Theatre (now the Noël Coward Theatre) in London on 2 October 1913.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Just Like It Was

Source: Harry Blacker, Just Like it Was: Memoirs of the Mittel East (London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1974), pp. 174, 176

Text: One Saturday after lunch my mother said to me, ‘Enjoy yourself, but don’t come home late like last week. Daddy and me are going to Uncle Barnet’. This was my special outing to the West End. I had recently been apprenticed to a process-engraving establishment that made blocks for printers, and was now earning 17s. 6d. a week. This enabled me to indulge in the luxury of an occasional visit to the fleshpots of the metropolis where, for the expenditure of two shillings, I could see a show and indulge in coffee and chocolate eclairs at one of Lyons Corner Houses.

My friend Norman, who lived round the corner, would join me after tea and we would go into a lengthy argument as to which theatre we should patronise that night. This was usually decided by watching the buses go by on the main road. Shows were advertised on their sides. Having solved the problem to our mutual satisfaction, we would take a threepenny ride from the quarter to Piccadilly Circus and go to the gallery entrance of our particular theatre. With luck, we would be up front of the queue and settle down to a steady wait of an hour or so.

The time was passed pleasantly listening to the buskers who entertained the crowd. Songs, recitations (including Shakespeare), acrobatics, escapologists, barrel organs, and the inevitable blind beggar led by a pathetic helper, passed among us soliciting alms. With a jerk and a metallic clank the gallery door would be opened by a uniformed commissionaire, and we would pelt up the dozens of stone steps to the box-office like an avalanche in reverse. Here we paid our shillings and obtained tickets for the show. This was followed by yet another mad scramble up the remaining flights of stairs until, puffed and panting, we found ourselves at the back of the gallery barrier. Followed yet another sortie, but this time in a downward direction, in order to get a seat as near to the front as possible. We looked like a crack infantry regiment going into battle. Usually we managed to get into the centre of the first or second rows, being young, athletic and having a good head for heights. Here, on a hard unsympathetic seat, we made ourselves as comfortable as possible, knowing full well that as the gallery filled up, we would have to shift or close up in order to make room for other people. Unless you were fortunate enough to get into the very front row, leg room was at a premium. The seats were merely cloth-padded shelves with no arm-rests in between. The man in front of you sat on your feet; you in turn, sat on the feet of the people behind. This led to a lot of harsh words and occasional kicks up the rear.

After a twenty-minute wait, the orchestra would creep into position from under the apron and tune up. We could never afford a programme so the violinist might have been Yehudi Menhuin for all we knew. Two or three popular classics were normal pre-curtain fare, usually drowned in chatter and the rustle of sweet bags and chocolate paper. Finally, to thin applause, the leader would take a bow, the house lights dim, and in the sudden and expectant silence, the curtain would slowly rise.

I saw Fred Astaire dance at the old Empire and watched young Basil Rathbone act in light comedy. Noel Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, John Gielgud, Matheson Lang, Esme Percy, Edith Evans, Sybil Thorndike, Gladys Cooper, and a host of other luminaries filled the stages of my theatreland. Occasionally an instinctive need for culture took us to the Old Vic or Sadlers Wells (a new place this), where ‘early doors’ were Sixpence in the gallery. Charles Laughton, the Livesey brothers, Athene Seyler, and other actors of their calibre performed the works of the masters.

After the final curtain and the playing of the National Anthem, we would push our way out into the street, where the pavements were overflowing with the crowds leaving adjacent theatres. Private cars for the ‘dressed’ clientele and taxis for the suburbanites who panicked over the last trains to Wimbledon were waiting at the kerbside. Still excited by the show and trying to recall details of some of the highlights or a moving dramatic moment, Norman and I would push our way through the crowd like a couple of salmon swimming upstream, until we reached the Corner House facing Charing Cross Station. Here we rounded off the evening with a coffee and a plateful of creamy chocolate eclairs. Thus fortified, we would walk our way home to the Mittel East, our finances too meagre for the extra threepence fare, leaving the magic of the theatre and the bright lights of the West End behind us at the bottom of Ludgate Hill.

Comments: Harry Blacker (1910-1999) was a cartoonist and illustrator. His memoirs describe Jewish life in London’s East End in the 1910s and onwards, for which he defines his ‘Mittel East’ as being Bethnal Green, Hackney, Shoreditch, Whitechapel and Stepney.