René Gasnier’s bald pate loomed suddenly over the rail of the orchestra pit. M. Gasnier smiled to a few complete strangers in the stalls, opened his score, pulled down his cuff tapped on his desk with the tip of his baton, reminded his first violins that the double pianissimo sign called for some slight restraint in their playing, and launched his orchestra out on the overture and introduction to Act One.
Blue Music, as a glance at the programme will have told you, was a Douglas B. Douglas production. Not that it was at all necessary to pay sixpence for a programme to learn that bit of news. London, and, indeed, the whole country, knew it pretty well off by heart by this time. Mr. Douglas was a master of publicity.
Not the loud, blatant kind of publicity that hits you in the eye, yells at you, knocks you over, and ruins green fields that once were beautiful. The other kind: the softer, subtler variety. The kind that had London rumouring, long before Blue Music was ever written, that D.B.D.’s latest show was a hundred-per-cent knockout. The kind of publicity that got people really interested. That made them talk about Mr. Douglas’s show, write to their cousins in Canada about Mr. Douglas’s show, discuss Mr. Douglas’s show at company annual general meetings and Dorcas Society outings. The kind, in fact, that made everyone become publicity agents themselves for and on behalf of Mr. Douglas without actually knowing it.
Mr. Douglas always believed in a preliminary canter at Manchester. A very good idea, that. Not only did it provide an added dollop of publicity (for most of the London papers sent down their critics to Manchester for a provincial skirmish), but it saved a lot of money.
Mr. Douglas thought a man several varieties of idiots if he went to all the trouble and expense of having endless rehearsals in an empty theatre if the good people of Manchester could be persuaded to come and witness those rehearsals at eight shillings and sixpence a stall. And, afraid of being thought unappreciative of something that was obviously going to be a success in London, Manchester paid its eight-and-sixpence like a man and applauded vigorously.
And London, equally afraid of being thought behind a place like Manchester in the way of appreciating a good thing, paid its two-pounds-ten on the opening night in town and applauded rather more vigorously. Everyone was pleased. Manchester was pleased at getting its rehearsal before anyone else—although, of course, it was billed not as a rehearsal but as a “world première”. London was pleased at getting a Douglas B. Douglas production that had been licked into shape and had the few blemishes removed in its little sojourn in the provinces.
And Mr. Douglas B. Douglas was very pleased indeed. The only fly in a very satisfying brand of ointment was that he had to turn away two thousand and fifty-eight applications for first-night seats at two-pounds-ten. That was unfortunate. But Mr. Douglas bore up wonderfully well over it, and kept his stall prices for the opening fortnight of the show up to thirty shillings—and that for a seat which any normal-minded person would have recognized immediately as the third or fourth row in the pit.
Tuesday, June 18th, you will have noticed, was the great day. On Sunday, June 16th, when most of the Blue Music company were still in Manchester and finding out the truth of all those jests about the provincial Sabbath, seven grim females parked seven rickety camp-stools outside the gallery entrance of the Grosvenor Theatre.
They were joined a little later in the evening by four more females and a lone male. They unpacked sandwiches and munched. They uncorked thermos flasks and drank hot coffee out of the aluminium tops of the flasks. They discussed with one another Mr. Douglas, Miss Astle, Mr. Baker, Mr. Douglas’s past successes, Miss Astle’s last divorce, Mr. Baker’s profile—both the port and the starboard view. They half slept. They suffered endless agonies on their stupid, unreliable camp-stools; they each contracted stiff necks and shooting pains in the lower reaches of the spine; they were photographed for their pains by a man in a dirty waterproof and appeared on the back page of the Daily Post under the title “Gallery Enthusiasts’ Three-Day Wait for New Douglas Show”. They were still there on Tuesday morning, proudly in the van of a fair-sized queue. The lone man who had arrived late on the Sunday night felt his chin and decided to go and have a shave, leaving his precious site guarded by a street entertainer for the sum of threepence.
At seven-thirty, when the gallery early doors were opened by a massive royal-blue and yellow-braided commissionaire, they staggered inside the theatre, past the box-office, up the Everest of stairs, and flopped wearily on to the unsympathetic seats of the Grosvenor gods. Bleary, dirty, sore, and ill- tempered. Nitwits, you say. And you are perfectly right. But you forget that this was a Douglas B. Douglas production.
What is there, you wonder, about a Douglas B. Douglas show that makes normally intelligent and sober individuals behave in this extraordinary way—some of them paying a working-man’s weekly wage for a bad seat in row M to witness the first night, and others—if they cannot afford this—leaving their homes and husbands and children for three days so that they may end up in the front, instead of the second front, row of the gallery?
Well, first there is the fact that nobody is quite sane on a first night. The players themselves alternately shower one another with passionate kisses and then instigate libel proceedings against one another. The audience, on their side of the heavy red curtain, are equally affected. Their sense of what is a long period of time, or of what is a large sum of money, is, as we have seen, warped and twisted by the importance of the occasion. So is their sense of what is good and what is rotten.
The god of the gods, the hero of the show, opens with a wrong entrance and is wildly cheered for five minutes. The leading lady sings her big number on a key quite unconnected with that in which the orchestra is playing the accompaniment, and the house rises to demand seven encores. The low comedian, realizing that his material is definitely on the thin side, introduces most of the old gags he put over when he made his first big success at the Gaiety in 1909, and the audience collapses under its seats, helpless with mirth.
So it is that very often those wise men, the dramatic critics, end their notices the following morning with the remark: “It is only fair to add that, in spite of the above remarks, the entertainment appeared to meet with the approval of the first-night audience.”
There is that, then, about a Douglas B. Douglas first night—or about any first night, for that matter. There is also Mr. Douglas B. Douglas himself. They say that nothing succeeds like success, and certainly nothing succeeded like Mr. Douglas’s successes. Even his failures—he had had quite a few—were brilliant failures. Mr. Douglas was a short, squat man with a total absence of hair and a flair for picking legs, spotting personality, and persuading the public that something merely mediocre was something simply sensational.
In his day he had been most things. Bell-boy at nine, porter in a railway station at fifteen, steward on an Atlantic liner at twenty. At twenty-one Mr. Douglas had found his true vocation, joining the Henry Phillips West End Repertory Players when that company were on their beam-ends in the not exactly cheering town of Gateshead. Mr. Douglas had made a notable success of his first part on the following Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, serving the sherry as the butler in Interference as if he had been on the boards for years instead of hours. On the Thursday, Friday and Saturday of the same week (Gateshead demanding a bi-weekly change of repertoire) Mr. Douglas had scored an even greater success as a monk in The Rosary. On the Sunday after The Rosary Mr. Douglas had drawn the company around him, explained in a few well-chosen phrases exactly what was wrong with them, had offered his services as producer and general manager at a salary of three pounds ten per week, and had launched the West End Repertory Players out on their first stretch of calm water. From that date, Mr. Douglas had rarely looked back. When he did, it was always with a pleasing sense of satisfaction.
There was also Mr. Brandon Baker. Brandon Baker was an idol of the gods, a household god of the orchestra stalls. He had been so now for nearly thirty years, but no one bothered to think that kind of thing out, for Mr. Baker kept himself very Juvenile Leadish with the aid of massage, mud-packs, Turkish baths, and a resetting of his permanent wave at least twice a month. It was his profile that did the trick. It used to be the profile and the waist combined, but now—massage or no massage—it was the profile alone. There was no getting away from the fact that Mr. Baker’s was an uncommonly good profile. Particularly the west side, which Mr. Baker was always very careful to place towards the footlights. (There had been quite a number of occasions in his career when Brandon Baker had thrown up an otherwise good part because some inconsiderate fool of a producer had demanded that the east side be shown to the audience all through a long love-scene.)
If you had bothered to take a census of those seven determined females who parked their camp-stools outside the gallery entrance on the Sunday night, it is almost a certainty that you would find all of them to be members of the Brandon Baker Gallery Club. Membership—slightly over two hundred thousand, scattered all over the world. Mr. Baker employed three secretaries to sign the autograph books of the two hundred thousand. They met—the two hundred thousand, not the secretaries—at various festivals in the year, such as Mr. Baker’s birthday or the anniversary of Mr. Baker’s first success or the night of Mr. Baker’s five hundredth performance in Hotter Than Hell, and went through quite a complicated system of devotional rites. A valuable asset, a profile.
And then there was Miss Gwen Astle. Another curious sidelight on the psychology of the theatre. If any other young woman had behaved as Miss Astle behaved—had married six times, twice into the peerage, had been divorced six times, twice out of the peerage and much to the relief of the dowager countesses concerned—the world would merely have screwed up its nose in an end-of-a-drain sort of way, and expressed its feelings by spitting out the word “Bisom!” sharply and spitefully.
But then, you see, Miss Astle was On The Stage, and you had to make allowances. Also she was really rather a dear. And so the more Miss Astle Carried On, and the harder it was rumoured that last week-end at the Savoy…or that the reason why the Rumanian Ambassador had been recalled so suddenly was that…the more that sort of thing went on, the higher Miss Astle soared in the public’s affections. Respectable middle-aged spinsters, reading their Morning Posts in the shadow of Bournemouth aspidistras, dropped a silent tear at the dreadful things Miss Astle was made to confess in the witness-box, and muttered sympathetically, “The poor lamb!” as though they themselves had been through it all and knew all about it. Spectacled school-ma’ams, learning that Miss Astle had announced her engagement to young Mr. Johnson P. Lambert, son of the well-known American multi-millionaire, of Lambert’s Self-Supporting Brassières and Corselets fame, on the same day as her decree from Lord Keverne became absolute, thrilled at the thought and said, “How romantic!” Hard-boiled business men, hearing over the wireless that Miss Astle’s jewels and famous pearl necklace had been stolen from her Park Lane hotel by her publicity agent for the third time in four weeks, picked their teeth and said, “Poor kid! Damned shame, isn’t it? Nice bit of stuff, too.” Miss Astle, you see, for all that people said, was Rather a Dear. Mr. Douglas, in a moment of inspiration, had billed her in Blue Music as The Girl Mae West Came Up and Saw.
Douglas B. Douglas, Brandon Baker, and Gwen Astle, then. As cast-iron a recipe for a success as ever landed in the West End, even without Manchester’s preliminary okay. Not that that was all about Blue Music. There was Ivor Watcyns (book and music), and Carl Carlsson (lyrics and additional numbers). Mr. Watcyns was another of the public’s darlings. He was young, naughty, witty, spicy, terribly, terribly brilliant. And he had hair almost as wavy as Mr. Baker’s, which of course clinched the matter. Mr. Carlsson had, unfortunately, straight hair, but he had a most attractive foreign accent to make up for this regrettable omission. True, the accent went astray at times and had been described as more Cockney than Continental when Mr. Carlsson lost his temper, but the public knew none of that. There, then, you have the team.
Oh…George Fuller (very low comedian) in the part of Hiram P. Whittaker, Miss Astle’s millionaire poppa (there were going to be some rather risqué jests on the subject of Miss Astle’s latest engagements)—and Mr. Douglas B. Douglas’s One Hundred and Ten Ladies and Gentlemen of the Chorus. Revolving stage. Scenery designed by Karismajinsky. Dance Ensembles by Boy Batterly, specially imported from Hollywood for the occasion—the occasion being an all-British musical comedy. Gowns by Clair of Paris. Shoes by Phillipsons. Aeroplane in Act One, Scene Twelve, kindly supplied by International Aero-Routes, Ltd., Miss Astle’s evening gown in Act Three, Scene Four, designed and executed by Norman du Parque. Augmented orchestra under the direction of René Gasnier. Entire Production under the Personal Supervision of Mr. Douglas B. Douglas. Right….
The seven grim females and the rest of the gallery queue revived in time to applaud each distinguished arrival in the stalls below. Many of the arrivals were a little surprised at being applauded, having, in their own opinion, no claim to such fame; on the other hand, several unemployed West End actresses who came in unrecognized were extremely put about, and flashed their teeth gallerywards in an effort to catch the eye of the public.
Most of the Cabinet was sprinkled over the stalls, there being nothing more important on at the House than a vote of censure on the Government’s unemployment programme. Mr. James Amethyst, dramatic critic of the Morning Herald, filed his usual protest regarding the seat he was invited to occupy, and whiled away the time until the rise of the curtain by engaging a complete stranger on his left in a one-sided discussion on the Mentality of the Cinema-Going Public. Mr. Watcyns arrived in a stage box—alone as was his custom. He smiled sadly at the reception given to him, and patted the corrugation of his hair with his thumb and forefinger. Mr. Douglas B. Douglas ushered in a distinguished party to the box opposite—Mrs. Douglas, a younger member of the Royal Family, two well-known screen stars, and an American cabaret singer. Mr. Watcyns smiled weakly across at Mr. Douglas.
Mr. Douglas was to blow his nose loudly on a red silk handkerchief at the end of the show; that was to be the signal for Mr. Watcyns to go on the stage and say that this was the happiest, proudest moment of his life and thank you all terribly for your marvellously kind reception. The house lights dimmed at eight-fifty, exactly twenty minutes late. M. Gasnier brought his overture to a snappy close, and the curtain rolled up smoothly.
Just in case you didn’t see Blue Music, perhaps a sentence reminding you of its plot—such as it was—might not be out of place. A sentence will do, because Mr. Watcyns had written the entire book between the grapefruit of one breakfast and the tomato juice of the lunch immediately following that breakfast. Even so, it had suffered a good deal of cutting and mauling and general malformation to bring it into line with Douglas B. Douglas’s own requirements. The story of a string of pearls, then, belonging to the daughter of a wealthy American, stolen by a charming and quite impossible brigand, restolen by a rival and a very unpleasant gentleman named Phillipo Consuelo, recovered by the charming brigand (who wasn’t a brigand really, of course) and returned in Act Three, Scene Eight, to the beautiful daughter to the tune of the big hit “Say My Heart is in Your Hands”. Not strikingly original, and well below Mr. Watcyns’ real capabilities.
But the important thing about it was that it was strung together so loosely and so elastically that it allowed Mr. Douglas, the scenic-artists, the One Hundred and Ten Ladies and Gentlemen of the Chorus, and the revolving stage all to have a real good night out. Mr. Douglas’s recipe was, roughly, to stage the biggest spectacle possible, show it for approximately two minutes, draw along the tab curtains and send out the second comedian or the soubrette to fill up the necessary minute or two while the scene was being changed, and then provide another spectacle that made the one that had gone before look like a rough, unfurnished interior in a Russian drama.
He did this to some effect in Blue Music. Act One, Scene One (The Swimming Pool of the Whittaker’s Country House in Florida), made even the jaded Mr. Amethyst forget his bad seat at the end of row R, and was followed (after two minutes’ back-chat in front of a drop-curtain representing A Street in Paris) by another colossal scene, this time The Ballroom of the Blue Music Café in Budapest…a scene that made the seven grim females perched high in the gallery quite thankful for their stiff necks and spinal aches. And so on, through the Palm Beach Lounge of the Grand Hotel, London, to the Promenade Deck of the S.S. Emperor of India, via an Andalusian Cabaret, a Mosque in Algiers, and the Garden of Jack Waters’ House at Maidenhead.
Musical comedy skips about the atlas in a delightfully easy manner, and Blue Music outskipped all its predecessors. At a quarter to ten it arrived at its finale to Act One (Abdul Achmallah’s Palace at Algiers), the entire company massed itself and was duly revolved by the mechanics, Mr. Baker and Miss Astle obliged with a reprise of their number “Two Eyes, Two Hearts, One Love”, and the curtain fell triumphantly. To rise again several times, as it happened; for the Gallery Club were there in full force, determined to see as much of Mr. Baker as was possible for their two-and-fourpence.
Mr. Amethyst muttered, “Excuse me,” all along row R, and edged himself out of the auditorium and into the orchestra stalls bar. He had written his notice several weeks before, and was in two minds about going back to see the rest of the show. He had had a good deal of experience of Douglas B. Douglas productions, and he knew that this was very much the mixture as before, prescribed, perhaps, in slightly more lavish quantities.
“Good show, James,” said Mr. Duncan, a literary colleague of Mr. Amethyst, and the pen behind “The Play’s The Thing” column in the Daily Observer. “Old man Douglas done it again, methinks.”
“It will please the masses,” said Mr. Amethyst. “And as Douglas apparently exists for the masses, I’ve no doubt that it will please Douglas. Thank you, a large whisky-and-soda.”
“It’s well put on, anyway,” said Mr. Duncan. “You can’t deny that. D. B. D. certainly knows how to stage a big show like this. Credit where credit is due, James.”
“My dear Duncan,” said Mr. Amethyst, “one cannot, so far as I am aware, exist permanently on credit. Was that the bell?—summoning us to Heaven, or much more probably to Hell? Hear it not, Duncan. There’s time for another one.”
Mr. Amethyst and the rest of the drinking males made their difficult way back to their seats. The long-suffering females of the audience garnered in their ermine wraps, opera glasses, chocolates, and programmes, and allowed their feet to be trodden on and their gowns to be crumpled in the return of the prodigals from the various bars. M. Gasnier’s bald head appeared again, looking a little less worried than at the beginning of Act One. Act One on a first night is always rather a trying experience for a conductor. M. Gasnier smiled again to a few more strangers in the stalls, pulled down his cuffs once more, and invoked his percussion. The house lights dimmed smoothly. The curtain rose again.
Act Two, Scene One, of Blue Music was described in the programme as The Rebel’s Stronghold in the Moroccan Hills. You probably picture at that a sort of Maid of the Mountains scene, composed largely of bright magenta mountains and large canvas rocks. Again you’re forgetting that this was a Douglas B. Douglas production. There were mountains, certainly: tier upon tier, stretching away for what seemed several miles until they met at last a sky backcloth of unbelievable blue. But there was also a great deal more, the full effect of which was not obtained by the audience until the stage had been rid of the presence of the One Hundred and Ten Ladies and Gentlemen of the Chorus, who opened the second act in a breezy fashion by singing and dancing the hot number “Rough Riff Ruffian Rag”…fifty-five of them clad sparingly as Harem Girls, and the other fifty-five as members of the Foreign Legion. (Mr. Amethyst in the end seat of row R wondered what so many of the Foreign Legion were doing inside a Rebel’s Stronghold, and put it down as merely another little idiosyncrasy of the musical-comedy world.)
The last gyration of the “Riff Ruffian Rag” over, the Ladies and Gentlemen of the Chorus exited smartly into the O.P. corner, and the full splendour of the scene dawned upon the audience. Mountains, yes; but also a massive stone turreted affair on one side of the stage, also a real live waterfall on the other, also a small forest of gently waving palms in the centre, also (a typical Douglas B. Douglas touch, this) a trio of real live camels sleeping and smelling contentedly in the prompt corner of the stage—borrowed specially from Whipsnade, to lend verisimilitude to the Rebel’s Stronghold. And also, most important of all, Mr. Brandon Baker centre, enjoying a slight lapse from virtue with Coletta, the Native Dancer. At this part of the play, Mr. Watcyns’ original script went something like this:
COLETTA: And now, white man,
we are alone, no?
JACK: Alone!…At last!…
COLETTA: You kees me, please, yes?
JACK: What would Phillipo, your lover,
do if he found you in my arms like this?
COLETTA: Phillipo no my lover.
Phillipo peegswine. But he keel, yes,
if he find you kees me. So…kees me.…
JACK: To be killed for a kiss!
There’s no sting in a death like that, Coletta.
(They embrace passionately. Cue for Jack’s song
“Say My Heart is in Your Hands”. At end of song,
Jack and Coletta embrace again. Phillipo enters
unseen by them at top of mountains extreme Right.
He watches them for a moment, and then
pulls out his revolver and aims at Jack.)
A fairly gripping situation, you see, especially for the opening scene of a second act, where nothing very much ever happens except a dance ensemble by the chorus or a song by the second lead. There were, of course, some slight deviations from the script as Mr. Watcyns wrote it: Phillipo had to enter on the extreme Left ridge of the mountains instead of the extreme Right, owing to something to do with the revolving stage. And Mr. Baker had to sing “Tell Me Something with Those Eyes” instead of “Say My Heart is in Your Hands”, because Miss Astle had a bout of temperament at the dress rehearsal and said that she wasn’t going to have the best number of the show wasted on a walking-on part, and unless “Say My Heart” was sung to her she was walking out of the whole lousy business and going on a Mediterranean cruise. But otherwise the scene was played pretty much as it was written. Mr. Baker and Miss Eve Turner (the young lady playing Coletta) embraced passionately, disentangled themselves neatly, and Mr. Baker took his cue smartly and launched himself out of verse one of “Tell Me Something with Those Eyes”. M. Gasnier finished the number rather more than two beats ahead of Mr. Baker, owing to the latter’s habit of hanging on to a good note when he found one. Phillipo, the Rebel Leader, entered along the mountain-top Left according to schedule. Unfortunately the Gallery Club demanded an encore from Mr. Baker, and the Rebel Leader had to retire once more into the wings. The encore was given, Mr. Baker and Coletta embraced rather more passionately than before, and Phillipo reappeared on the mountains and said tersely, “So!…You make love to my woman, eh!” It was the only line of more than four words that he had to deliver in the entire show.
Mr. Amethyst sat up, interested. He could not bring himself to believe that Mr. Watcyns would have the courage to bump his hero off before the show was half over, especially when the hero happened to be played by Brandon Baker. There would certainly be hell to pay from the Gallery Club if he did. Mr. Amethyst turned to his neighbour in the adjoining stall and bet him ten shillings that if a shot was fired it would only result in a slight flesh wound, that Mr. Baker would appear in the next scene swathed in beautiful bandages, and would have recovered sufficiently to do a song-and-dance reprise of “Say My Heart is in Your Hands” before the end of Act Two. The man in the next seat, being also an inveterate theatre-goer, refused Mr. Amethyst’s bet politely.
Mr. Amethyst sighed and returned to the goings-on on the stage. He heard Mr. Baker’s spirited rejoinder to the Rebel Leader: “You say she is your woman, yet you treat her like a dog!” He saw the bold, bad Phillipo draw his revolver slowly from his belt. He heard Coletta’s feverish, “No, no, not that!” and saw her nobly attempt to put herself in the way of the bullet, and Mr. Baker equally nobly pushing her aside and behind his manly protective chest. He heard the lady in the seat in front of him squeak at the report of the revolver being fired, and smiled as she muttered, “I wish they wouldn’t do that. I was quite sick after Journey’s End.” And he saw Mr. Baker fall efficiently on the stage with two spotlights marking the spot. Mr. Amethyst made an inward vow that if Phillipo had really done in the handsome hero, he would rewrite his notice for the Morning Herald and call the play “an original and commendably unconventional musical production”.
Miss Turner (Coletta) shrieked. Mr. Douglas had had a lot of trouble with the girl about her shrieking. She put no feeling into it, no emotion. Just a sort of high-pitched dither, like some of the sopranos you heard on the wireless. But he had managed to lick her into shape during the three weeks’ try-out at Manchester. That to-night had been a very good shriek. Very good indeed. Rather to Mr. Douglas’s surprise, Miss Turner shrieked again.
There was something quite different about the second shriek. Mr. Douglas thought it not quite so genuine—a little too theatrical, if anything. Mr. Amethyst, on the other hand, thought it extremely well done, and decided to rewrite his notice in any case and give Miss Turner a special line all to herself.
This talented young actress can put over horror
and genuine fright in a way which compares
favourably with many of the famous tragediennes.
The expression on her face at this moment for instance: an admirable bit of acting.
Mr. Douglas B. Douglas was also rather interested in Miss Turner’s acting at the moment. He didn’t think the girl had it in her. Mr. Douglas snatched his opera-glasses rudely from his wife’s lap and focused them from her short-sighted eyes to his own long-sighted ones. He swept the two lenses of the glasses across the stretches of purple mountains until at last he found Miss Turner and the prostrate Mr. Baker in their twin spotlights. He did not like the look on Miss Turner’s face at all. Nor did he like the peculiar dark mark on the stage, just where Mr. Baker had fallen. Mr. Douglas gave another twist to the swivel of his opera-glasses to bring them exactly into focus. He fixed them again on the dark mark. It was blood.