A command of the art of balancing a show is a part of the genius of a great showman. It is a gift. It cannot be analyzed. A born showman lays out his bill, not by rule, but by feeling.
The following is an excerpt from Brett Page's 1915 book 'Writing Vaudeville.' It deals with the complexities of putting together a showbill or running order. Some of the advice seems a little peculiar and tells of peculiarities of the times. Like how he suggests haveing a final act that does not get too disturbed by people leaving to get to their "after-theatre supper and dance."
But perhaps it could give a few ideas to ponder for those who are struggling to put together a full show.
The excerpt is from chapter one, "the Why of the Vaudeville Act."
"We usually select a 'dumb act' for the first act on the bill. It may be a dancing act, some good animal act, or any act that makes a good impression and will not be spoiled by the late arrivals seeking their seats. Therefore it sometimes happens that we make use of a song-and-dance turn, or any other little act that does not depend on its words being heard.
"For number two position we select an interesting act of the sort recognized as a typical 'vaudeville act.' It may be almost anything at all, though it should be more entertaining than the first act. For this reason it often happens that a good man-and-woman singing act is placed here. This position on the bill is to 'settle' the audience and to prepare it for the show.
"With number three position we count on waking up the audience. The show has been properly started and from now on it must build right up to the finish. So we offer a comedy dramatic sketch--a play let that wakens the interest and holds the audience every minute with a culminative effect that comes to its laughter-climax at the 'curtain,' or any other kind of act that is not of the same order as the preceding turn, so that, having laid the foundations, we may have the audience wondering what is to come next.
"For number four position we must have a 'corker' of an act--and a 'name.' It must be the sort of act that willrouse the audience to expect still better things, based on the fine performance of the past numbers. Maybe thisact is the first big punch of the show; anyway, it must strike home and build up the interest for the act thatfollows."
And here for number five position, a big act, and at the same time another big name, must be presented. Or it might be a big dancing act--one of those delightful novelties vaudeville likes so well. In any event this act must be as big a 'hit' as any on the bill. It is next to intermission and the audience must have something reallyworth while to talk over. And so we select one of the best acts on the bill to crown the first half of the show."
The first act after intermission, number six on the bill, is a difficult position to fill, because the act must not let down the carefully built-up tension of interest and yet it must not be stronger than the acts that are to follow. Very likely there is chosen a strong vaudeville specialty, with comedy well to the fore. Perhaps a famous comedy dumb act is selected, with the intention of getting the audience back in its seats without too many conspicuous interruptions of what is going on on the stage. Any sort of act that makes a splendid start-off is chosen, for there has been a fine first half and the second half must be built up again--of course the process is infinitely swifter in the second half of the show--and the audience brought once more into a delighted-expectant attitude.
"Therefore the second act after intermission--number seven--must be stronger than the first. It is usually a full-stage act and again must be another big name. Very likely it is a big play let, if another sketch has not been presented earlier on the bill. It may be a comedy play let or even a serious dramatic play let, if the star is a fine actor or actress and the name is well known. Or it may be anything at all that builds up the interest and appreciation of the audience to welcome the 'big' act that follows.
"For here in number eight position--next to closing, on a nine-act bill--the comedy hit of the show is usually placed. It is one of the acts for which the audience has been waiting. Usually it is one of the famous 'single' man or 'single' women acts that vaudeville has made such favorites.
"And now we have come to the act that closes the show. We count on the fact that some of the audience will be going out. Many have only waited to see the chief attraction of the evening, before hurrying off to their after-theatre supper and dance. So we spring a big 'flash.' It must be an act that does not depend for its success upon being heard perfectly. Therefore a 'sight' act is chosen, an animal act maybe, to please the children, or a Japanese troupe with their gorgeous kimonos and vividly harmonizing stage draperies, or a troupe of white-clad trapeze artists flying against a background of black. Whatever the act is, it must be a showy act, for it closes the performance and sends the audience home pleased with the program to the very last minute.
"Now all the time a booking-manager is laying out his show, he has not only had these many artistic problem son his mind, but also the mechanical working of the show. For instance, he must consider the actual physical demands of his stage and not place next each other two full-stage acts. If he did, how would the stage hands change the scenery without causing a long and tedious wait? In vaudeville there must be no waits. Everything must run with unbroken stride. One act must follow another as though it were especially made for the position. And the entire show must be dovetailed to the split seconds of a stop-watch.
"Therefore it is customary to follow an 'act in One' (See below) with an act requiring Full Stage. Then after the curtain has fallen on this act, an act comes on to play in One again. A show can, of course, start with a full-stage act, and the alternation process remains the same. Or there may be an act that can open in One and then go into Full Stage--after having given the stage hands time to set their scenery--or vice versa, close in One. Briefly, the whole problem is simply this--acts must be arranged not only in the order of their interest value, but also according to their physical demands.
"But there is still another problem the manager must solve. 'Variety' is vaudeville's paternal name—vaudeville must present a varied bill and a show consisting of names that will tend to have a box-office appeal. No two acts in a show should be alike. No two can be permitted to conflict. 'Conflict' is a word that falls with ominous meaning on a vaudeville performer's or manager's ears, because it means death to one of the acts and injury to the show as a whole. If two famous singing 'single' women were placed on the same bill, very likely there would be odious comparisons--even though they did not use songs that were alike. And however interesting each might be, both would lose in interest. And yet, sometimes we do just this thing--violating a minor rule towin a great big box-office appeal.
"Part of the many sides of this delicate problem may be seen when you consider that no two 'single' singing acts should be placed next each other--although they may not conflict if they are placed far apart on the bill. And no two 'quiet' acts may be placed together. The tempo of the show must be maintained--and because tragic playlets, and even serious playlets, are suspected of 'slowing up a show,' they are not booked unlessvery exceptional.
"These are but a few of the many sides of the problem of what is called "laying out a show." A command of the art of balancing a show is a part of the genius of a great showman. It is a gift. It cannot be analyzed. A born showman lays out his bill, not by rule, but by feeling.