In this chapter from Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles David Belasco, an eccentric producer who towered over Broadway in the early part of the twentieth century.
“THE GREAT WIZARD OF 1888”
David Belasco is America’s oldest producer. He was born July 25, 1853, in Howard Street, San Francisco. Eight hours after his mother had arrived from London.
His parents were of Portuguese-Jewish descent. Centuries ago the name was “Valasco.”
Claims he feels as spry today as he did at the age of twenty-one. If you doubt it, he’ll race up and down the corridor to prove it to you. His one great wish is to die in harness.
He is five foot three. His shoulders droop inward. His eyesight is good, but he rambles a bit when talking. In conversation each succeeding word grows fainter and the last half of his sentences is inddistinguishable. Yet the listener understands every word by watching his hands and eyes.
It is his custom to open all his plays on a Tuesday night.
When he is greatly pleased with someone, he quickly digs into his pocket and rewards the party with a nickel or a dime.
Has been at different times in his career a messenger boy, a chore boy in a cigar factory, a clerk in a bookstore, a free-lance reporter, a bareback rider in a circus, a declaimer and a necktie saleman. Somewhere among these various occupations he managed to write his first play. He was only twelve at the time and the opus was called Jim Black or The Regulator’s Revenge.
The now famous clerical collar can be traced back to his youth, when his idol was Father McGuire. It was hero worship that first led him to imitate the Father in the manner of dress. Later he probably realized that a saint in the theatrical profession would be a novelty.
His collars and ties are made especially for him. Generally wears blue shirts. His shoes are long, pointed, black and buttoned. His hat, a square derby, is also made to order.
He once played Uncle Tom in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Never smokes and seldom drinks. Three sips are enough to make him feel gay.
Actors will work for him cheaper than for any other producer, because they believe he will bring out their hidden talent. He so impressed his feminine office help that they work for him for twenty-five dollars a week in preference to working elsewhere for fifty dollars weekly. At the office they call him “The Governor.” He refers to himself as “D. B.” His mother’s pet name for him was “Wandering Feet.”
One of his most famous statements is: “Introduce me to a girl and I’m positively bashful. Bring me an actress and I’m her master.”
Blanche Bates laid the cornerstone for the present Belasco Theatre, December 15, 1906. It was first called the Stuyvesant Theatre. He renamed it because he wanted a monument.
He enters his office from the stage door. Ascends to it by means of a private elevator. The office is a studio room on the third floor of the Belasco Theatre. There is another entrance on the third floor—an unnoticed door protected by a burglar alarm. Entering this door, you walk through a room filled entirely with glassware. Then comes the Napoleonic Room. Then the Gothic Room. Then a library. Then an indoor garden with a spraying fountain. And then the office proper. His desk is merely a table given to him thirty-three years ago by his mother. It is held together by strings. He also has a sunken Roman bath in the building and spends a great deal of time in it every day.
He is a firm believer in the supernatural. The idea for The Return of Peter Grimm, so he states, was given to him in a dream by his mother after her death.
Lives in a hotel in the East Fifties. His home is similar to his office and contains many curios. In one of the clothes closets he has built a miniature cathedral. Many antique clocks decorate the living room. No two of them telling the same time.
He has produced more plays than any other person in the world. Not counting his amateur productions, the figure is three hundred seventy-two. Has never had a penny of outside money in any of his shows. The investment is his own, as are the profits and losses.
Is much interested in electrical effects. In one play, The Darling of the Gods, a lighting effect alone occupied the stage for seven minutes. One of his most important contributions to the theater is the hidden footlights.
His favorite color is baby blue. He hates shiny objects. He never has his shoes shined.
When he puts a new play into rehearsal, the first week is spent in the green room of the theater. Here the play is read to the cast by the author or “D. B.” personally. Actual rehearsal is never started until the exact settings to be used have been delivered. Every play is rehearsed on the stage of the theater where it is to open.
Rarely sets his plays on paper with his own pen. Two secretaries take care of the mechanical part. He declaims passage after passage, acting out each character in detail, even going through the stage business. It is the duty of one secretary to take down the dialogue. The duty of the other is to record the action. He may work for months, even for years, on one play. Whenever he gets an idea, he makes a note of it and hangs it on the wall in his office. Later these notes are filed and indexed and cross-indexed. When he thinks he has collected enough material, he takes out the notes and starts reciting—that is, writing his new play.
He was once mascot of the local fire department of Vancouver, B. C.
The keynote of his success, he believes, is his great power of concentration. While working on a play his mind is so occupied with it that his secretary has to help him cross the street to protect him.
He carries a brief case on which is inscribed in gold letters: “The Play I am now Writing”
Has in his office a bell which was once the property of George Washington. When he rings, everybody in the building who hears it rushes to him immediately. Rings it an average of three times a year.
He used to suffer from indigestion. Because whenever he saw anyone eating anything that looked good, without knowing what it was, he would order it. These days he is under a doctor’s care and is faithful to his prescribed diet.
When directing Jack Dempsey in The Big Fight, he not only instructed Dempsey how to fight but also showed him to make love to Estelle Taylor.
He was shot at once. The bullet grazed his forehead. The scar is still there. He was trying to protect a woman’s honor.