- Historic Sites
Or, How to Write a Smash Hit the First Time You Try
April 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 3
He was followed by the Mayor, the Honorable William G. Austin, who spoke, not without pride, of the civic achievements that had attended his administration: “New public schools, a fine new Congregational church edifice, the completion of the new Stamford Hospital, the initiation of a plan for proper sewage disposal, the change of the post office to a more desirable location, a new home for our principal men’s club, the Suburban Club, two new bank buildings, a new clubhouse for the Stamford Yacht Club, a new hotel and a new theatre.” He introduced Mrs. Emily Wakeman Hartley, who had been mainly responsible for the erection of the theatre and who was to manage it. She was greeted enthusiastically.
To those of us who were concerned with the fate of the play, it all seemed to take quite a long time. From my seat in a stage box, I could see Cohan, Harris, and Hopkins pacing the rear of the auditorium. But at last the speeches came to an end and the audience settled down for the secondary business of the evening.
When the curtain rose, the crowded courtroom and the opening maneuvers of the murder trial quickly engaged the attention of the audience. But as the first witness, in widow’s weeds, finished saying: “As I entered my home, the telephone in the library rang,” the lights went out and the curtain came down. There were murmurs of disappointment; it was evident that something backstage had gone wrong: a cue missed, a switch accidentally pulled. Thirty seconds later the curtain rose upon the library scene, with the telephone ringing and the witness, now in an evening gown, entering to answer it. Amazement, excitement, prolonged applause! Hopkins’ jackknife stage had scored a triumphant success. From that point on the play was “in.” The audience not only eagerly followed the twists of the melodramatic story, but awaited the rapid alternation of the scenes.
During the second intermission, I went into the lobby. There was no danger of my being recognized, for no one knew of my existence. My producers were there, looking pleased. When Cohan saw me, he came over to me, put his hand on my shoulder, and said: “Kid, if you want to sell your rights in the play, I’ll give you thirty thousand dollars for them.” I looked at him in astonishment and disbelief, then hastily concluded that he could not be serious. I did not believe that anyone possessed thirty thousand dollars, or having it, would offer it for a beginning author’s rights in an untried play. At my law office salary, it would have taken me forty years to earn thirty thousand dollars. I was sure that Cohan was having me on, hoping that my gullible acceptance would give him a good story with which to regale his cronies at the Friars Club. So, with a smile that must have been sickly, I said that I would take my chances. Cohan nodded and walked away.
Next day, the Stamford Morning News (“The price of the Morning News is One Cent everywhere. Pay no more”) did full justice to the opening, under a page one, seven-column banner head that read: “Atlantic Street Turned into a Broadway.” Several subheads were followed by four solid columns of copy:
The Stamford Theatre was “On Trial” last night, before a jury composed of the Stamford public, and to say that the jury was unanimous in agreeing that the city of Stamford had a theatre of which they have abundant reason to be proud would be putting the case mildly … If there was a list of those present, it would include the business, professional and social directory of Stamford’s citizenship. Everybody was there. Doctors, lawyers, merchants, artisans, mechanics, businessmen, in fact every representative that could be thought of. And the play was such that they enjoyed every minute of it. . . . The town looked like Broadway when the show was over. There was the lineup of automobiles, the dress suits of the men providing the background for the stunning dresses of the Stamford women.
The speeches of Mr. Whitaker, Mayor Austin, and Mrs. Hartley were quoted at considerable length. Nor was the play ignored: an entire laudatory paragraph was devoted to it. There were large and responsive audiences at the Saturday performances. All in all, it was an opening that gave satisfaction to everyone.
We were opening a new theatre in New York too. The Candler was owned by Cohan & Harris. (It later became the Sam H. Harris, and has long been one of the wretched “grind” movie houses defacing Forty-second Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues.)
August 19, 1914, was a sweltering night. For some reason, I thought it necessary to dress for the occasion. I had, of course, no dress suit of my own. But an uncle gave me one that he had outgrown, and I had it cut down to fit my skinny figure. Again I was in a stage box, crowded in with my parents, grandfather, two uncles, and an aunt. Air-conditioning was unknown; the theatre was stifling. In my heavy suit and boiled shirt, with no room for elbows or knees, I was more aware of my discomfort than of the evening’s proceedings.
This time the theatre was opened without ceremonies. If the mayor was there he had the decency to keep the news about sewage disposal to himself. The performance closely followed the Stamford pattern. The audience was obviously interested in the courtroom scene. But the first blackout evoked groans of annoyance and of commiseration. Such a mishap at a New York opening could well be fatal. Half a minute later, the rising curtain and the new scene brought applause and exclamations of surprise and delight.