It's Not "The Road"-It's Detours
by Tallulah Bankhead


For fifty-three record weeks I paraded up and down our Democracy in Noel Coward's Private Lives. I started in Westport, Connecticut, cultural haven for the like of Theresa Helburn, Artie Shaw, and Clifton Fadiman, and I wound up in Los Angeles, a Hollywood suburb made famous by Aimee Semple McPherson, Cecil B. DeMille, and other seismic disturbances. In between I played Joplin, Pueblo, Sacramento, Tulsa, and a lot of other towns known to Rand McNally, the census taker, and the booking office.


I spent six months in Chicago, four weeks in San Francisco, and a night in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. As a salaried gypsy I traipsed about the country in thunder, lightning, and rain, through snow, sleet, and sirocco. For all this activity I received plenty of folding money. Why, I almost had enough left over to pay the last installment of my 1947 income tax.


As a result of my extensive travels-a good ten thousand miles as no crow ever flew-I'm prepared to defy those ghoulish prophets of doom who are forever wailing that the road, in its theatrical sense, is as dead as the dodo. The road isn't dead. It's merely been shamming death in an attempt to escape the assault and battery which it has suffered at the hands of the New York producers.


The theatre west of the Harlem has well-nigh perished through abuse and neglect. It's been taunted with frowsy carbon copies of New York successes, with mildewed operettas whose scenery dates back to Warren G. Harding, with acting companies which would embarrass an Elk's club revival of Shore Acres. Rarely is it visited by a New York hit with its original cast. Asked to tour, New York actors of competence generally break out in a rash of excuses.


They get dizzy riding on trains. They've heard that the Comanches are off the reservation. They can't be parted for so long from their psychiatrists. They don't want to flee their apartments and their gin-rummy game. Besides they'd have to give up three radio programs a week and miss the chance to get in on the video kill. They'd like to change their occupational vow from "the show must go on" to "the show must go on in New York."


The truth is that out-of-town theatre-goers are the hardiest of the species and the most loyal. For all the humiliations they have suffered, for all the swindles they have sat through, let a good play with a top-drawer cast come along and they'll crawl over broken bottles on their hands and knees to see it. In the interest of a balanced diet they could do with a few of the stage's round actors instead of the screen's flat ones. They'll portage their canoe around rapids, get the last cough out of their '41 sedan, miss the last suburban train, and sleep on a bench in the depot to spend an evening under the same roof with live players.


Another thing about road audiences. They get to the theatre on time and behave with a civilized consideration for their brethren once they get inside it. Unlike a considerable fraction of their Manhattan opposites, they don't think it fashionable to arrive in the middle of the first act, awash with daiquiris and brandy, babbling audible inanities, lurching around in the aisles like locoed buffalo. Your Des Moines, your Columbus, your Pittsburgh theatregoer is here to see the play, not to provide a counter attraction. Nor is his attention challenged by the presence of Hollywood witches, columnar show-offs, and other eccentrics fugitive from their keepers. And he doesn't start to fumble for his hat ten minutes before the final curtain. He stays put until it falls.


The touring actor rejoices in one great blessing. He never collides with a benefit audience. Benefit audiences are the paralyzing product of an organization which buys out a performance at box-office price, then jacks up the prices of tickets to members in a fund-raising operation.


In New York these audiences are the curse of an actor's life. They arrive at the theatre sullen, frozen, and defiant. They've been blackjacked into buying tickets at three times their normal price and they indicate their resentment by watching the play with mute and stolid indifference. I faced five of these outfits in succession while playing in Foolish Notion in New York and was a candidate for the looney bin. I'd rather play to a tribe of Eskimos in an igloo heated with burning walrus fat than tussle with another one.


Speaking of Eskimos, it was twenty-five below zero when we played Minneapolis and the checkroom was full of snowshoes. I seem to encourage excessive snowfall in Minneapolis. When I played there in The Little Foxes the drifts concealed all but the trolleys of the street cars. Coddled New York theatregoers who squawk about the annoyances of cross-town traffic should be disciplined by spending a January in the Twin Cities. They'd learn something of the rigors of theatregoing.


I'm not overcharged with the spirit of Lewis and Clark, but I must say that I didn't find touring half as tough as some of my more fragile brethren have made it out. It's true that I had to sit up until five in the morning in the railroad station in LaCrosse, waiting for the delayed flyer to Davenport, but I've stayed up later than that in New York for less reason, and felt worse in the morning.


Aside from having to suspend operations for two weeks in Chicago when I was flattened by neuritis, most of my traveling troubles were due to a pale blue parakeet which I picked up in the same city. You'd be surprised at the prejudices some hotel managers have about birds-particularly talking birds. I called him Gaylord and he only knew three words when he escaped in the rotunda of the Brown Palace hotel in Denver. The rotunda was three stories high and Gaylord got capricious and resisted all overtures to return to the lobby floor. An acrobat finally bagged him on a cornice just before the hook-and-ladder company arrived.


It was in St. Louis that I mounted my first elephant. A famous surgeon invited me to a preview of a zoo. He thought that it would add to the gaiety of the occasion did I scale a pachyderm. You know Tallulah. Always eager to oblige. But I was never cut out to be a mahout.


Aside from animals, there are other hazards of the road that don't always pan out. There used to be a gag in the theatre that the two worst weeks in the year, from a box-office standpoint, were Holy Week and Cleveland. So we played Cleveland in Holy Week and defied the lightning. Well, Cleveland has been slandered. Bill Veeck's parish romped to our theatre in droves. You'd have thought we were playing night games indoors with Satchel Paige pitching.


May I, however, register one complaint? In half the towns we played, room service in the hotels goes underground after midnight. Often before. Trying to get an after-performance snack is a rugged assignment. People go to bed earlier in Madison and Rockford. But there are always those all-night diners, full of characters out of Hemingway and Saroyan.


Now let's all stand and sing, "There's no business like show business," with credit to the copyright owner, Irving Berlin, Ethel Merman, and Mary Martin.


[appeared in The Passionate Playgoer, edited by George Oppenheimer, Viking Press, 1958, pp 210-214.]


INDEX