Vanity Fair, January 1917
TWO SPECTACULAR MUSICAL REVIEWS
“The Show of Wonders” at the Winter Garden; and “The Century Girl” at the Century
By P. G. Wodehouse
AH, well! The years slip by, and little by little Civilization extends her frontiers. The terra incognita of the ancients has well-nigh ceased to be. Peary reached the North Pole, Amundsen the South, and now Dillingham and Ziegfeld have opened the Century Theatre. The Century Theatre! How many years ago it seems when we first began to hear tales from traveled men of a strange, vast, permanently empty building somewhere amidst the ice-fields of Central Park West. Men claimed to have seen it with their own eyes, to have passed through its doors, to have met and talked with the little band of wealthy Esquimaux who had built the place. One heard stories of weird musical rites that went on inside the building, of high-brow operas chanted to an auditorium sparsely scattered with millionaires already beginning to suffer badly from cold feet. And then one day Dillingham and Ziegfeld, the explorers, announced their intention of going in search of the place and, if possible, putting it on the map.
WHEN one remembers the intense rivalry that exists among explorers and recalls the unpleasant Peary-Cook wrangle about the North Pole, it is particularly delightful to be able to record the perfect amity that has existed from the very start between Dillingham and Ziegfeld. There have been no violent accusations of false claims, no newspaper controversy, no bitter feelings. If you ask Ziegfeld whether it was Dillingham or himself who first really discovered the Century Theatre, he will smile modestly and reply that it was a dead heat: that he was burying a brass tube containing the Stars and Stripes at the Central Park West entrance just as Dillingham deposited his case of instruments on the other side of the building: and that they met on the side-street, shook hands, and agreed to share the glory and profits. How much pleasanter then calling each other impostors and producing Esquimaux and making the King of Denmark look a chump.
But I am digressing. This article was intended to be a review of “The Century Girl.” Come! Put on your snow-shoes and your fur-lined over-coat, pack the Thermos bottle and the pemmican, and come with me to the wilds above Columbus Circle, the land of the Midnight Star!
NOBODY could call “The Century Girl” a cheap or parsimonious entertainment. Dillingham and Ziegfeld have lavished money on it in a manner which would seem absolutely reckless, were it not for the fact that it is other people’s money that they are lavishing. It is one of the drawbacks to extreme wealth that its possessors soon weary of the simpler pleasures and begin to demand weird and exotic sensations to stimulate their jaded pulses. The multimillionaire proprietors of the Century Theatre felt that, at whatever cost, they wanted to experience the bizarre emotion of seeing the playhouse really full. It was pointed out to them that in order to put on a show at the Century which would drag the populace so far up-town, they must be prepared to hock the ancestral stick-pin; but they did not care. They had the craving, and they had to satisfy it. So Dillingham, a simple, straightforward man, just sat down in the old swivel-chair and made out a list of all the stars on the market whose salaries exceeded one thousand dollars a week, while Ziegfeld sat at his elbow, naming the ones Dillingham forgot. The result is that “The Century Girl” started its career with a cast so congested with stars that they were fighting and jostling in the wings for a chance to appear before the audience for a couple of minutes. Since the opening night, however, popular and expensive artists have been dropping off the salary list like exhausted bivalves, until now, with the exception of Frank Tinney, Elsie Janis, Leon Errol, Hazel Dawn, Sam Bernard, Doyle and Dixon, Maurice and Walton, Harry Kelly and a few others, there are practically none left, and the theatre can make a profit if it plays to five thousand dollars a night.
TO a refined and sensitive mind like my own there is something a little too gruesome to be pleasant about these hideous struggles between the members of all-star casts. Dazzling as the show may be, I cannot fight down the shudder that rises at the thought of the awful scenes that must have taken place at rehearsals. And these all-star battle-royals always end in the same way. Men may fight and women may weep, but by about the twentieth performance Elsie Janis is the only survivor. It is like one of those dog-fights that spring up in the street between a dozen or so resolute canines, which end with one small dog standing alone on the sidewalk, barking triumph. If you put on a revue containing Shakespeare, Garrick, Napoleon, Alexander the Great, Homer, Tamerlane, Jess Willard, Catherine of Russia, Cleopatra, and Elsie Janis, the rest of the cast would be waiting in the wings after the second week, watching Elsie Janis do her imitation of Ethel Barrymore.
THE only thing in “The Century Girl” that Elsie Janis does not eclipse is the scenery and costumes. These are the last word in gorgeousness. What they must have cost, only Heaven and the management know, but I shall be greatly surprised if I do not see Otto Kahn and some of his fellow-owners of the theatre in the bread-line this winter. As a spectacle, the revue—it is not even that, really; it is a vaudeville entertainment—is colossal, astounding, unparalleled, and unsurpassable. If only the management had had the forethought to inject one good musical number and just a dash of humor into the melange, “The Century Girl” would have been the supreme show of all time. But, with the exception of a burlesque of the Russian Ballet, which is as funny as it has been in every other revue, and a speech by Sam Bernard, and a few Tinneyisms, there is little that makes for mirth: and Victor Herbert and Irving Berlin have done nothing whatever to earn their probably vast salaries.
TO go from the Century to the Winter Garden is like going from the New Amsterdam to the Bandbox. In ordinary times “The Show of Wonders” would have seemed a massive sort of production, but by comparison it appears quite small and intimate. There are two sorts of Winter Garden shows, and they come in as regular rotation as summer and winter. One sort contains Al Jolson, the other George Monroe and the Howards. “The Show of Wonders” is of the Monroe-Howard variety. The only important newcomer is Grace Fisher, a very pretty girl with a good voice and a gift for putting a song over. She has the best number in the piece—the Naughty, Naughty, Naughty song, a near relation of the late “Pretty Baby.”
WHETHER by inadvertence or with the scientific design of working up to a crescendo, the parties responsible for “The Show of Wonders” have made the first half hour of it the dreariest chunk of laughless wet dough ever presented to the public. Then McIntyre and Heath come on and lift it to success. They do much the same sort of thing that they were doing during the War of Independence, and some of their lines are the same that used to make Benjamin Franklin laugh so much, but there is no resisting them. They are the hit of the evening, and put the audience in a suitable frame of mind to enjoy the rest of the performance, some of which is really good. Tom Lewis, with very little to do, is a great help all through, and George Monroe and Willie Howard, though there are moments when one feels that one has spent one’s whole life watching them do exactly the same thing, score in some funny scenes. There is this about Monroe and Howard, that, even if you do not think them as comic as they would like to be thought, they have the compelling manner. A comedian’s asset, after all, consists mainly of self-confidence, especially in a large house like the Winter Garden. A strong and penetrating voice is almost more effective than humor and, whether Willie Howard amuses you or not, you have to listen to him.