The Muses in the Back Street
WHEN “ those old-maid tabbies, the Muses,” took residence in East Gissing Street, there was doubtless much laughter among the gods. For while that thoroughfare begins grandly, with rows of stately, bow-windowed lodging-houses, and here and there a basement restaurant displaying the legend, “ Twentyone-Meal Tickets, Gents $4, Ladies $3.50,” it soon shades off into tenements, ancient beyond the ken of building inspectors, though each tenement-house has a smart new front of variegated brick, with decorative fire-escapes, and an ultra-modern date, done in sheet-iron painted to look like stone.
There was laughter, too, among the old-maid tabbies. Some fairly uproarious humors developed as they set about acquainting East Gissing Street with the pleasures of intellect and taste. But Muses, when they laugh, keep a genial spirit, — here especially, since it was no prankish impulse that sent them hither. Rather was it a prompting not unnatural to the spinsterly heart, — the temptation to turn social settler. However amusing their experiment, they yearned, every tabby of them, to deserve from each bitterly deprived human soul in the vicinage a response which albeit in phrases more suited to Chimmie Fadden than to Ovid, should say, — or strive to say, — “Thanks, Muse, to thee! Thou art a respite from care, thou art a medicine for woe! ”
Now, single ladies from Pieria are set in their ways, and high praise is due the Sisters Nine for remodeling their programme so that certain refined activities not accredited to Muses in the Classical Dictionary should receive attention. With most obliging adaptability, they now preside over Mr. Aaron Silverman’s bookshop, the metaphysical exploits of the Princess Fatima, the waxen effigies in the Chamber of Horrors, young Terence McSweeney’s recitals on the mouthorgan, and the caperings and carolings of “ amatuers ” at the “ home of burlesque.” In a word, they assume a gracious tutelage over literature, philosophy, art, music, and the stage. When pressed to tell which Muse attends to which, it is my custom to lead the inquirer through the quarter, show him how the work is faring, and bid him decide for himself. I begin by turning his steps toward Mr. Silverman’s.
Before that temple of belles-lettres stand several representatives of our reading public, consuming literature through glass. In Mr. Silverman’s window, amid monuments of chewing-tobacco, ink-botles, apples, fortune-telling cards, clay pipes, and exceedingly durable confectionery, you detect three outspread periodicals. One of those charming weeklies exists to reduce swollen fortunes by negotiating loans in return for “pleasant paragraphs,” or for the surcease of “ unpleasant paragraphs.” It affords the humble those glimpses of aristocratic imperfections which make socialists of some and contented — even enthusiastic— pariahs of others. The next depicts the delicate eccentricities of our stage, particularly its abhorrence of propriety in dress. The third, on rose-tinted paper, has a full-length portrait of Mr. Kid Muldoon, nude to the belt, and doubling up both fists in a most deterrent and alarming manner, while the opposite page bears a tasteful woodcut, in which six Vassar undergraduates are slaughtering a policeman. So this, one might fancy, explains what has become of our banished wood-engravers. Rosy as was their past, their present seems still more so. However, I had once the sorrow of meeting an artist who served that pinky journal, and from him I learned of countless aged woodcuts corded up in its cellar, and fetched out seriatim to scare a quaking world.
Conspicuous there in the window are these pearls of contemporary journalism. Are they equally conspicuous in the intellectual life of East Gissing Street ? By no means! At ten cents the copy, they find devotees, not in the tenements, but in the barber shops of our happy country, — which informs you why Puritans shave themselves, martyring their chins in cure of their souls.
In quest of the literature dear, unutterably dear, to the hearts of the people, step within and present yourself to Mr. Aaron Silverman, poet and scholar. To curry favor, confess that many a time have you seen his Yiddish verses belauded in the press, — as is true, since reporters not learned in linguistic lore have prepared numerous Sunday “ specials ” by interviewing “ the sweet singer of East Gissing Street,” and plagiarizing his opinion of his epics. Rely, too, upon his disdain for the books he purveys. A reader of Tolstoi, Zola, and Tourgenieff, and regarding his present establishment as a stepping-slone toward eminence, — a stage in the progress between peddling shoestrings on the curb and writing Silverman & Company in gigantic gold letters over a warehouse twelve stories high, — his point of view is sufficiently akin to your own. With infinite merriment, he will show you that finely typical example of literature for the lowly. the “ Diamond Series of Popular Novels.”
You have heard, I dare say, of a certain modesty to be noticed in publishers. Rarely does that virtue find more dignified expression than in the announcement, “ A purchase of two or three of these books will make you a firm believer that no line of fiction can touch the Diamond Series. It is plainly the line most desired by the American public. As regards literary reputation, its authors are the leading men and women of our time.” Obviously; for the “line” includes, among other incontestable masterpieces, Kidnapped on her Wedding-Journey, by Eppie Angeline Roden; Should She Have Shot Him? by Dorothy Clay Perkins; Death before Dishonor, by Captain E. Sawyer Smith; Queenie Delmar’s Love-Test, by Mrs. Georgie Brown ; and For His Sister’s Honor, by Thomasina Q. Bangs.
Perusing these exquisite romances, one at first marvels why Mr. Marion Crawford has escaped enrollment among “ the leading men and women of our time.” Later, the mystery clears. It is because of his frugality. Whereas a single mistaken identity, a single dark secret, and a single awful suspense, followed by a single hair’s-breadth escape, will suffice for a Crawford thriller, “the leading men of our time ” will have got that far by the end of their first chapter. Besides, consider the economic problem. Why expend fifteen dollars for ten mollified melodramas by Mr. Marion Crawford, when a like total of jumps and shudders comes at ten cents in the Diamond Series, and complete in one volume?
Moreover, Mr. Crawford is distressingly deficient in the arts of mise-enscène. How refreshing, after his subdued coloring and overscrupulous attention to values, to open a Diamond “ liner ” and read: “ For in truth the young girl was so surrounded with obsequious hand-maidens, tremulous attendants, and bowing pages, who anticipated her every whim, foresaw her every lightest wish, and sprang to offer her homage as to an empress, that it was natural that her army of adoring servitors should believe that this workaday world of ours was created for her boudoir and tiring-room!”
Or again: “ For months before the grand garden-party, Faunwold seethed with excited preparations. A superb marquee was erected upon the lawn, — not the ordinary marquee. which is at best but a flimsy and unsubstantial affair, but a veritable palace, within whose marble recesses glowed all the gorgeous colors of the Orient, with a rich profusion of rare and fragrant exotics; with a hundred plashing fountains, each dropping its purling waters upon groups of costly statuary in bronze and porphyry and glistening silver; with priceless rugs strewn at random upon mosaics gleaming with jewels and gold; and with innumerable palms that even now nodded as if in anticipation of the voluptuous strains of music to be furnished by an orchestra that was to comprise the most expensive virtuosos of Europe and America. Seven additional stables had been erected in the rear of the Sigismund residence. At the neighboring fashionable hotel, Clarice had bought up all the rooms in advance, that she might dispense royal, even imperial, hospitality to those of her guests who would be obliged to remain after the brief evening’s princely delights.”
There’s romance for you! Little Nora Burke, reading those enchanting pages in her tenement bedroom, has eyes like saucers, and chews furiously at her spearmint. Poor child! well might she cry, “Thanks, Muse, to thee; thou art a respite from care, thou art a medicine for woe.”
Happily, the Diamond Series and its many collateral “ lines ” represent so inexhaustible a treasury that Mr. Silverman might spare Kipling and Stevenson the indignity of paper covers, worn types, and unblushing misprints. Indeed, I count it a sin to proffer them thus, especially when the neighborhood infinitely prefers Bertha M. Clay, Charles Garvice, and Mrs. Georgie Sheldon. And as for the translated romances at that modest bookshop, — Sapho, The Clemenceau Case, or Twenty Years After, — they bear a taint unknown in works by “ the leading men and women of our time.” Who read them ? Not honest young folk, mainly. Mainly they are purchased by those woeful outcasts who, though the toys of the prosperous, are quartered among the poor, till to the burden of want is added the undeserved burden of shame.
Hard by Mr. Silverman’s one finds the East Gissing Street branch of our municipal library. A beneficent institution, whether viewed from the military standpoint, or the prophylactic, or the domiciliary, or the educational. It serves primarily as a court of arbitration, preventing bloodshed. Hostilities open, let us say, between Tom and Jerry at McSorley’s saloon across the way, the question at issue being, “ What was Queen Victoria’s last name ? ” “ Consort,” shouts Jerry; “ did n’t she marry Prince Consort ? ” Tom demurs, adding frightful aspersions upon Jerry’s intelligence. Jerry seizes a bottle by the neck, and is for slaying Tom outright. Then rises up McSorley, who takes pride in “ keeping a respectable place,” and moreover, numbers Jerry among the least dispensable of his adherents. “ Hold on, gents! ” cries he. “ Step over to the library, and look it up! ” This they do, coming forth both wiser and sadder, since Tom, vaguely remembering a name on a vaudeville poster, erred as widely as his comrade, having called her late Majesty “ Victoria Vesta.”
Prophylactically, the library constitutes a bulwark against pneumonia, bronchitis, laryngitis, and the chills. Rain and cold send thither the umbrellaless, the overcoatless, and them that have holes in their boots. And even on fine warm days it offers an agreeable idlingplace for veterans of the Civil War. The ingratitude of our republic sadly limits those scarred and withered warriors, giving pensions just big enough to provide lodging and sustenance without providing space wherein to stretch one’s legs, and take one’s ease. The city does better. In fact, by thus combining the courtesies extended by the national and municipal governments, one makes out a quite tolerable existence, — which accounts for that modern phenomenon, the growth of creative memory. Whereas all the branch library’s old soldiers read Civil War literature exclusively, one finds among them those who thereby seek to offset the deprivation of retaining no first-hand impressions of the affair.
Educationally the institution is perhaps not all that one might wish. Mr. Alonzo Graves, of number 18 East Gissing Street, has consumed The Ring and the Book, In Memoriam Sartor Resartus, and nine plays of Shakespeare; he has devoured Tyndall, Huxley, and Spencer; hearing that Blackstone was good for the brain, he left not a crumb of him; yet he remains an elevator boy, though now above forty. Mr. Edward Sykes, of number 36, has traversed the entire Encyclopœdia Britannica, and half of it the second time. “ Would you believe it ? ” he exclaimed the other day, “ actually I keep striking facts I don’t at all remember from the first reading! ” Mr. Sidney Dill, of number 67, is still more severe in his tastes; for three years he has confined his studies to the city Directory. Nevertheless, when you pass Derby Place and come to the stately, bow-windowed lodging-houses, you encounter readers of some grasp and insight, who carry home books that not only extend their culture, but hasten their professional advancement. For instance, Miss Katharine Dyer. The dawn of the present century found Miss Dyer barely capable of transcribing, “ Yrs recd. In reply wd say, have shipped goods.” To-day, thanks to the branch library, she takes dictation at double the salary from a distinguished novelist, whose vocabulary is the despair of type-setters, and the anguish of readers.
But what were a branch library without its daily newspapers ? Certain of its patrons come solely to search the press, with eyes keen for their own names. It is the clipping-bureau instinct the other end to. Whereas vanity yearns to see its deeds reported in extenso, these modest souls hope to see theirs beneficently omitted. If you ever tapped a till, you can sympathize.
A various homage, then, is that paid to letters by East Gissing Street, — a various, yet ever a sincere; so we need experience no shock when informed that the neighborhood writes. Ah, yes! At least nine of its younger set have contributed, to the People’s Column of the Sunday Star, little essays discussing postagestamp flirtation, the ethics of spanking, the good-night kiss, the propriety of receiving the attentions of a married man, the comparative constancy of blondes and brunettes, and the folly of measuring a man’s worth by the height of his collar, with now and then a valiant paragraph in defense of poesy, arguing the merits of “ The Maniac’s Tear,” “ The Gypsy’s Warning,” and “ He Carved His Mother’s Name upon the Tree.” Sometimes writing takes a graver tone, in “ Editorials by the People.” Mr. Harvey Dempsey, of number 33, will sit by his gas-stove in his hall-bedroom and dauntlessly attack the proudest empires. His onslaughts upon Great Britain have been especially daring, and the more alarming because signed always with an impenetrable (and therefore awesome and creepy) pseudonym. Further to baffle the foe, Mr. Dempsey keeps changing his nom-de-guerre. One day he is “ Veritas; ” the next, “ Q. E. D; ” the third, “ Semper Vigilans.” An empire never knows which way to shoot.
But to reading and writing the vicinage prefers the oral method. In winter it crowds the People’s Forum on Sunday afternoon, joining eagerly in the dissection of a free lecturer. Once, when a noted scholar had discoursed of “ Evolution and Socialism,” feeling ran high. A little Cockney leaped upon a bench and shrieked, “ ’E says as ’ow the weakest must go to the wall. ’E says the strongest must rule. ’E’s not a ’uman man at all! ” In summer, the rest-day wranglers seek a neighboring Grove of Academus, where, even as the Peripatetics, they pace about while philosophizing. There, beneath the overarching elms, you may see a dozen open-air meetings raging simultaneously, with six policemen to keep order among the throng that surges restlessly from conclave to conclave, applauding truth and combatting error. Strange things have I learned beneath those ancient trees: — that America is the Garden of Eden; that it is Atlantis; that the world is flat; that it has a hole on top and is inhabited inside; that the Indians are Chinamen; that they are the Lost Tribes of Israel; and that one hundred and forty-four thousand of the elect of earth will eventually marry one hundred and forty-four thousand of the elect of heaven, from whom shall spring a new race — information so surprising that one recalls Mr. Dooley’s remark, “ A philosopher, Hinnessy, is a man that is thryin’ to make a livin’ be thinkin’ iv things that no man can think of without th’ top iv his head blowin’ off.” Sometimes you wonder that there’s a top of a head left in East Gissing Street.
About the philosophy of the schools there clings a certain timidity, a certain willingness to admit limitations, a certain broken-winged weakness which, when beaten, owns up to it. Here, however, you have a philosophy that leaps all obstacles, even invading the undiscerned and undiscernible, as when the Princess Fatima punctures the dimmest and least perspicuous futurities. Seated in a retired street-car next the lunch-cart at the corner of Golden Alley, this pythoness will “ enter your aura,” and behold things wondrous and true. Be careful, though, to phrase your queries in elegant verbiage. Young Connie Morley committed a sad indiscretion when he said to her “ Say, me sister’s got a steady. Will dey go de limit ? ” Princess Fatima hesitated, for ears so royal are not attuned to slang. Connie repeated the question in louder tones. “ Will dey go de limit? ” he shouted. As if addressing a foreigner, he cherished a hope that augmented din would make up for rhetorical obscurity. Still no answer. At last he cried, “Say, will dey go de limit? Will dey get married? See?” whereupon Fatima’s “ control ” instigated a tempest of giggles, and the séance adjourned in some confusion.
But the bird of prophecy has become a sort of domesticated fowl in East Gissing Street; scarce a tenement fails to boast its half-dozen metaphysicians, who, possessing Napoleon’s Oraculum, cease their journeys to the retired street-car. According to the preface, this necromantic vade mecum was obtained from Bonaparte’s Cabinet of Curiosities during the uproar that prevailed at Leipsic after the defeat of the French army. The Corsican, one reads, was wont to consult it in all emergencies, while it has been pronounced useful by “persons of reliable literary character.” You propound a question and derive a response by exploring certain tables of numerals, whose resemblance to railway time-tables induces the requisite mystical distress.
Personally, I set more store by the appended Gypsy Dream-Book, since experience so frequently justifies its exegesis.
“ AUTHOR. To see one or more is a bad sign; you will lose money. To dream you are an author, signifies misery and disappointed hope.”— “ COMEDY. To dream that you act in a comedy, you should prepare to hear bad news.”—“LAWYER. To dream of meeting a lawyer brings bad tidings; if you speak to him you will lose some property.” — “ PSALM. To be singing psalms, indicates trouble in business.”
A shrewd satirist is the Gypsy, and clever at prophecy, for she composed her Dream-Book long, long before attorneys-general acquired their passion for pouncing upon psalm-singing “ captains of industry.”
Turn we now to art. On Sunday afternoon the great Museum of Fine Arts in Sargent Square flings wide its portals to the people. All East Gissing Street flocks thither, till the place has an atmosphere exceedingly “ peuple.” To what profit ? Thousands pour in (“ Gee, ain’t it elegant ? ”) and equal thousands pour as swiftly out. With loud tramping and much jostling and hurrying, they course through the noble galleries, getting snapshot impressions of plate-glass showcases, gilded picture-frames, sumptuous halls, and grand staircases. Like chaingang tourists, they retain but one valuable memory — namely, that art is long there are miles of it. Few there be that linger, and those few come, not from East Gissing Street, but from Little Italy — homesick expatriates casting wistful, heart-hungry glances upon Pompeiian bronzes and Florentine mosaics.
If you grieve that the humble respond so languidly to æsthetic appeal, seek cheer in the Chamber of Horrors at the Eden Musée. “ As a means of education and artistic perfection,” declares its prospectus, “ nothing can equal the lifesize wax model. It is the nearest possible approach to reality. All the exhibits are refined, and we display nothing that can offend the most sensitive.”
One readily discerns the critical canons whereby these back-street Taines and Ruskins establish judgment. Art should treat a great theme, and should treat it with convincing fidelity. And what theme more interesting, more captivating, more important and altogether worthy, than that of bloody murder ? Is it not the endearing motif of yellow journalism, the all-engrossing topic of proletarian conversation, the central magnet of attention? Meanwhile one approaches it with a mind prepared, whereas myth and legend and ancient story, having never entered the people’s ken, leave Fragonard and Puvis de Chavannes mere shadows of dismal and deterrent incomprehensibilities.
Besides, our painters and sculptors have passed realities through the alembic of fancy. They ask you to see with your imagination, and to color imagination with sentiment, whereas East Gissing Street sees only with its eyes. And such eyes! They can’t guess your age within ten years. They can’t penetrate the detective’s most lucid disguises. Their owners dye their hair, reasoning from within out, and confident that nobody will know. Connie Morley, beholding a colored photograph of the Doge’s Palace, said to Alonzo Graves, “ Gee! What’s that?” — “The Union Station,” replied Alonzo, and Connie agreed. So, given life-size dummies, with real clothes, even to cuff-buttons and shirt-studs, these slack-eyed critics will exclaim, “ Ain’t them figgers natch’ral ? Just like they was alive! ” So be it; that is the way you and I look — to them!
The social settlement, a square or two south of East Gissing Street, has filched an ideal from the London Kyrle Society and set about “ bringing beauty home to the poor.” Many a tenement household now has “ a Bottijelly over de sink ” — a loaned “ Bottijelly,” to be returned in five weeks and replaced with another. Wiser, methinks, were a policy inspired more by the Musée than by the Museum. Color-prints reproducing Meissonier’s battle-pieces, Wagner’s “ Chariot-Race in the Circus Maximus,” and the theatric, sensational works of those immortal masters of painting who held themselves not above telling a story and telling it molto con fuoco — these, I conjecture, would afford sufficient thrill while instilling some deference for splendor.
And may one not hope that here, despite the tawdriness of these sordid purlieus, a daring soul may now and then aspire not only to revere loveliness but to create it ? Promptings are by no means wanting, and I hold the Muses responsible for advertisements inserted in the cheapest of Mr. Silverman’s magazines by the Cedarville Correspondence Institute of Graphic Art. Some nibble. By return mail comes a dazzling prospectus.
Through the courtesy of Mr. Angus McDuff, of 19 East Gissing Street, I have access to the correspondence that led to his enrollment. It begins thus : —
DEAR MR. MCDUFF:—I am convinced that you have talent for art. Why delay coming into your birthright ? Perhaps the years are long ahead of you; but at best, life is a little day. “Do it Now” is a mighty good motto, especially for artists. The artistic temperament is prone to procrastination — that is why artists are so few. Will you not take up the work this very hour ? I hope that your reply will be the two kingliest words ever uttered from the human heart — the matchless words, “I WILL.” This is the sunrise of the artist’s day. A century ago we were a pioneer people. To-day there are not half enough trained artists — artists educated as our courses educate them — to supply the clamorous demand. The cost ? What is the cost ?
YOU CANNOT AFFORD NOT TO AFFORD IT.
Yours for a bright future,
T. ELLIS WARNER.
Mr. McDuff followed the correspondence course with gratifying success, and is now one of the foremost painters of safes in America. Mr. Davie Penrose, of number 72, followed it, and to-day designs comic valentines. Both have increased their incomes — for which, in good faith, “ thanks, Muse, to thee! ”
Now, since correspondence institutes teach practically everything, from arithmetic to lion-taming, seeking ultimately to substitute the little red postage-stamp for the little red school-house, we shall hardly gasp when the postman brings to East Gissing Street circulars from the Metropolitan Correspondence Conservatory of Music. Renting a back-office in a twenty-six-story building, the Conservatory displays a picture of that architectural improbability, and writes beneath it, “ The Home of the School.” In the picture, immense letters, superimposed in Chinese white upon the photograph, cause the institute’s name to extend itself over half the façade. Thus it tests credulity. Only appetites avid of humbug will get beyond the frontispiece, and read, “ Music is best inculcated by mail. Whereas the teacher who comes to your house gives his instruction and goes away, leaving you to forget, our printed lessons remain. They can be learned by heart.” The results ? Meagre, mainly, though Sam Byam, of number 127, mastered the banjo thus, and played it with great venom in “ the home of burlesque; ” and while the audience eventually wearied of Sam, he had by that time married Concha Selby, whose trained dog, Pluribus, supports the pair in opulence.
So eager and so joyous is the welcome East Gissing Street extends to Music, Heavenly Maid, that little harm can come if a mere onlooker pokes ridicule. “ The funny thing about classical music,” said Bill Nye, “ is that it is really so much better than it sounds; ” and I cannot but observe that the funny thing about proletarian music is that it is really so much worse than it sounds. Its saccharine or effervescent melodies do but very unsuccessfully mask the tomtom Max O’Rell once described the drum as “ the basis of all British music.” So here, when composing tone-poetry for the hurdy-gurdy, the brass band, the Dime Museum orchestra, or the colossal and highly architectural enginery of harmony inside the merry-go-round (“ remplacant 85 musiciens,” as the catalogue says), write always an obligato for the drum. For while the hand-organ sets melody marching, stiffly and with uncompromising regularity (as is proper), those vaster machines make it stamp its feet as it marches. Cymbals and tomtoms nobly accentuate the rhythm, which is ever the principal thing.
The neighborhood of East Gissing Street vocalizes with rare freedom, commanding a repertoire of really stupendous scope and variety. Having studied with the graphophone, it sings, “ She Could n’t Keep Away from the Ten-Cent Store,” ” When Zaza Sits on the Piazza,”“ Seven Lumps of Sugar, Sweetie,” “ Not Because Your Hair is Curly,” “ All the World Looks Brighter Now the Windows Have Been Washed,” and a thousand other lyrics, to which it adds selections memorized at the motion-picture show, where “ descriptive ” soloists appear during entr’-actes separating the biograph’s little celluloid dramas, and where the stereopticon flashes the text of the chorus upon the muslin, inviting the audience to join in.
Now while such ballads lack the charm of folk-songs, — being, indeed, far inferior to those of old-world peasants, — they at least escape irreverence; which is more than could be said of their predecessors. Fifteen years ago a Japanese traveler remarked to me, “ In America, Gospel Hymns are national singing-book.” Those pious ditties, shouted for sport at picnics, became inseparably associated with hard-boiled eggs and deviled ham; and the circumstance has contributed not a little to the decay of religious sentiment. Accordingly, I rejoice when " Harrigan ” or “ Bedelia ” rings out in the woodland. Inwardly I cry, “ For this relief, much thanks, Muse, to thee! Thou art a remedy for woe.”
To music, East Gissing Street appends the art saltatory. Beneath the streetlamps you may see Connie Morley “ work out ” a few steps of stage-dancing — buck-and-wing, perhaps, or a Kerry jig; at the “ social,” half the dances plagiarize musical comedy; and here and there an enthusiast essays the “ eccentric ” and acrobatic. Thus Terpsichore conspires with Melpomene and Thalia, and I know not what other old-maid tabbies to inflame ambition toward careers theatrical. Miss Annie Doyle is even now debating whether to introduce herself to fame as Nancy DePrancey or as Diamond Dizzidale. My influence, such as it is, I have cast in favor of Nancy DePrancey. Kittie Stuart, fleeing her soda-fountain by reason of “ ammonia of the lungs,” became a blue-bird in the ornithological contingent of the ” Whoop-de-Doodum ” company; returning, however, when the manager absconded with the profits. A dozen others have trod the boards, if only in the ignominious estate of centurions, dryads, gondoliers, or Roman senators. They recount their experience, fanning the already white-hot aspiration of their kind.
A compelling incentive arrives in print. At Mr. Silverman’s, a dime will purchase the Billboard, the New York Clipper, or the Show World, whose advertisements glow with promise. “ Wanted: Rough Soubrette. Amateurs considered.” — “ Wanted Refined Amateurs. State lowest salary in first letter, as it is sure.” — “ Wanted: Heavy villain to double with snare-drum. No objection to amateurs.”
To be sure, the eye may encounter an occasional deterrent, since now and then an insertion concludes: “ Knockers, boozers, would-be managers, and graduates of amateurs’ nights save stamps.” But never was rose without a thorn, and brave hearts turn from this cruel intimation to the infinitely more agreeable advertisement of the American Correspondence Institute of Histrionic Inculcation, whose prospectus, loaned me by the future Nancy DePrancey, makes bold to ask, “ Have you ever noticed that one’s occupation in life fixes one’s social standing ? As a graduate of the A. C. I. H. I., you will be welcomed gladly into the best circles of society. Heretofore, one did not know which way to turn if they knew in their heart that the stage was their life-work. Professional engagements are assured to all pupils who complete the course.” Or again: “ What other profession or calling offers such an opportunity for one to see the world ? Traveling companies not only extend their tour from the frozen North to the sunny South, but also encircle the globe. As all expenses are paid by the manager, the actor en-tour may view the marvels of foreign travel with as much pleasure as the millionaire, and at the same time receive a salary.” Think of that salary! “ New York property is the most valuable property in the world, and who are the owners of it ? Actors and actresses! ” To prove how effectual are its methods, the Institute adds a testimonial from T. Percy Wing, of Skowhegan, Maine: “ I am now a changed man. I can control my voice and all organs of my body any way whatever. You have learned me to gain a complete foundation that will bear all weights on earth.”
To the best of my knowledge, the A. C. I. H. I. has won no recruits in East Gissing Street, probably because “ speaking parts ” in theatricals at the settlement have involved a degree of intellectual perspiration very disillusioning. Keenly as the neighborhood envies the stars at the Central Square, it “ forsakes the sterner Muses,” aspiring instead to come on between the celebrated pugilist and the educated pig in “ advanced vaudeville.”
Thither how straight and how inviting the path! At “ the home of burlesque,” any Friday evening, genius may commit its onslaught on fame — with the certainty of a dollar by way of honorarium, to say nothing of a possible prize and a jingle of coins from the galleries.
Twenty stage-struck youths and maidens wait behind the scenes, till the “ FortyFlirts ” have pranced their last. The curtain, falling, cuts an atmosphere blue with tobacco-smoke. It is half-past ten.
A stage-hand removes the placard that has announced the above charming artists, replacing it with one blazoned, “ AMATUERS.” As the stage-manager, programme in hand, steps out before the foot-lights, a mad burst of howling, whistling, and hand-clapping rocks the house. The bull is about to enter the ring, and every spectator has the heart of a toreador.
“ Dan Levinsky, singer,” shouts the stage-manager. Mr. Levinsky — in private life, Arnold Gildersleeve, of 13 East Gissing Street — slouches sheepishly before the curtain. With one voice, the audience thunders, “ Hook! Hook! Hook! ” Dan cowers, yet makes out to sing. A clacque of his own recruiting inaugurates a counter-revolution. “Go it, Dan! ” shriek his minions. “ Stick it out! You’re all right! ” Schism sets in among Dan’s detractors. Some yell, “ Give him a show! ” But see! The spotlight has flung its glare upon the victim; it turns red, then green. An usher passes behind him with a huge placard inscribed, “ Kill it! Don’t let it suffer! ” The curtain, rising a few inches, discloses an immense shepherd’s crook — the dire, the dreaded “ hook.” Howls, cat-calls, and whistling unite to translate the “ Pollice verso ” of the Roman arena. Up goes the curtain now in grim earnest, and two stage-hands seize the singer about the waist with their hooks, drag him violently backward, and fling him sprawling and kicking upon a sofa. Here endeth the first “ amatuer.”
How does it feel to “get the hook?” Mr. Terry Morgan, sixteen times hooked, tells me “ it’s over before you know it ” — a report which, as is reasonable, duplicates the recital I once obtained from the survivors of an Iowa cyclone.
Nevertheless, the longer you watch this oft-repeated ceremony, the more you are convinced of the extreme distaste with which a hook is regarded by aspirants for fame. Some repel its advances. “ Michael Carnegie — comedian ” actually breaks from his captors, leaps over the piano-player, and darts down the aisle. Him the avengers pursue. They fling him across the foot-lights, and haul him to oblivion by one leg. Even then he escapes, and is down the aisle again in a twinkling, necessitating a repetition of the solemnity. Others, relying on wit and agility rather than sheer muscle, note the executioners’ position before they come on, and keep a hand against the curtain while performing. At its first symptom of restlessness, they skip nimbly aside, so that the hook grasps naught but air. Now and then an artist resents even the premonitory usher Miss Kitty Davis, when approached with a placard bidding her, “ Take a car and go home,” defends her virtuosity by terribly mauling that usher and leaving him for dead.
But while the many succumb, a remnant survives, upon whom descend joyous tributes. From her very entrance there are admirers who salute Miss Effie Saunders with yells of, “Go it, bricktop; you’re all right! ” They join in the chorus. They fling coppers, dimes, even quarters. Miss Effie, still singing, gathers up their favors, with the spot-light obligingly following to facilitate the search. She trips away at last amid a perfect pandemonium of enthusiasm.
For a full hour the “ amatuers ” display their gifts — dancing, joking, singing, or tumbling — till all have tempted the arbitrament of fate. Then the stagemanager announces that we, the audience, shall determine by the degree of our vociferocity the award of prizes.
Up sails the curtain, discovering two rows of youngsters — the hooked goats to the left, the unhooked sheep to the right. Holding aloft a five-dollar bill, the official marches slowly behind his sheep, and, as he passes each of them, notes the uproar we, the audience, produce. The Académie Française confers immortality by the suffrages of the Illustrious Company itself; here it shall be conferred by the suffrages of the people, viva voce. And thus, with a hurricane of whoops, howls, cheers, and handclapping, the prize falls to Effie Saunders — of number 62 East Gissing Street. Alas! it is her apotheosis —here in this foul, reeking show-house, and before a stag audience, save for the presence of four women, mothers of amateurs, among them Mrs. Saunders, who all but bursts with pride!
Only through crudity, puerility, and quaint, amusing gaucherie, do mortals arrive at culture. And we shall not find ourselves wholly without consolation if East Gissing Street never grows up; its intellectual and æsthetic frolics still serve as “ a respite from care, a medicine for woe.” On the whole, the street takes them none too seriously; it regards them as forms of play. Moreover, its callousness and dullness make for contentment in surroundings that would be a horror to more delicate sensibilities. This the Muses appreciate. It partly explains why they hasten slowly. For the remaining explanation consult necessity. Many are they who go to and fro among the people, dosing them with Browning, hanging Pre-Raphaelite incomprehensibilities upon tenement walls, and prating of Bach and Beethoven. They have their reward, a subjective one — except as they make “ copy ” of their beneficence and market it at space rates. Single ladies from Pieria know better. If they will pardon the discourtesy, I desire to point out that they enjoy a historic perspective of at least twenty-five centuries. It has taught them patience; also to grasp the principle enunciated in our day by Mr. George Ade: “ When uplifting, get underneath.”