- Historic Sites
Or, How to Write a Smash Hit the First Time You Try
April 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 3
It was not hard for him to persuade me to rewrite the play. I had no allegiance to Kentucky and no interest in its feuds. As long as the device was kept intact, I did not care what went into it. I had high ideals about the theatre, and high aspirations, but this play did not represent them. I never thought of it as anything but a technical tour de force. So I set to work inventing new plot material. I wrote and rewrote, always in close consultation with Hopkins. In the course of a month or so, I must have written the equivalent of half a dozen plays. At length there emerged a script that satisfied us both. Except for the mechanics of the story’s development, it contained no vestige of my original play. Locale, characters, situations, dialogue—all were wholly new.
Shortly afterward, Hopkins told me that Cohan & Harris was interested in coproducing the play. He asked me to consent to an assignment of the production contract. It was only much later that I learned that his attempt to interest them in the original script had failed. I had no objection to the assignment, for Cohan & Harris ranked with Charles Frohman, A. H. Woods, William A. Brady, and David Belasco as Broadway’s most active and successful producers. When the papers were signed, Hopkins gave me his check for $150, the final installment of my advance royalty. I deposited it immediately, but it came back. I redeposited it, for I had seen Hopkins receive a check for the advance from Cohan & Harris. Now his check to me cleared. But it was a bit of an eye opener to me to learn that a well-known producer had not had $150 in his bank account.
Cohan & Harris not only undertook to finance the play but assumed all the details of production and management, for the firm had a large staff and owned two theatres besides, in one of which, the Candler in West Forty-second Street, my play, rechristened On Trial, was to open. George M. Cohan, the Yankee-Doodle Boy, was probably the most celebrated figure that the Broadway theatre has ever known. Actor, composer, lyric writer, playwright, stage director, producer, theatre owner, he was the Noel Coward of his day. At one time, too, he was the most beloved figure. But when, in 1919, he bitterly opposed the formation of the Actors’ Equity Association and refused to join it, the actors who had idolized him turned against him, and he never recaptured their love. His philosophy, his mentality, and the secret of his success may be discerned in two of his aphorisms: “Always leave them laughing when you say goodbye,” and “The American flag has saved many a bum show.” At the time I met him he was about thirty-five, at the top of his form and at the height of his success. His hit plays are, I suppose, no longer performed (except perhaps Seven Keys to Baldpate), but his performances in Ah, Wilderness and I’d Rather Be Right will be remembered by anyone who saw them. Some twenty-five years after I became acquainted with him, I persuaded him to appear in the Playwrights Company production of Sidney Howard’s posthumous play, Madam, Will You Walk? But his old Broadway cronies, who came down to see the Washington tryout, talked him out of opening in New York. I think it was his last stage appearance.
With Cohan & Harris in the picture and rehearsals scheduled for October, I began to feel that the play might be produced after all. I had two job offers now: a night-school teaching assignment, and a post as proofreader in the State Hospital for the Insane in Albany, at twenty-five dollars a week. The teaching job did not begin until September, so I did not have to decide immediately about that. But the Albany post had to be accepted or rejected at once. I did not hesitate long. The pay was attractive but, on the other hand, my expenses in Albany would have been greater than they were at home. Besides, I did not want to live in Albany. So I turned it down. I have never regretted that decision, though I must admit that I have never ceased to puzzle over the nature of a proofreader’s duties in an insane asylum.
Things had been moving fast; but again the pace was accelerated. Word reached Cohan & Harris that A. H. Woods had in preparation a play called Innocent, which employed the flashback device that was the mainstay of On Trial. My producers felt that it was imperative to beat Woods to the gun. It was decided to put my play into rehearsal in mid-July, two months ahead of the planned date. Hardly six months had elapsed since I had quixotically abandoned a safe career, with no prospects and no visible asset except, stubborn determination to become a writer. Yet here I was with a play on the way to Broadway. It was all so bewildering that my only reaction was one of numb incredulity.