Martin Beck: The Man Who Built the Orpheum Circuit


Once upon a time, a young Czech performer named Martin Beck had been touring the Americas with a German singing and juggling troupe. Stranded by his company in Chicago, he took a job as a waiter in music halls, working his way up to bartender, and finally to booker. (Because of this trajectory he was sometimes referred derogatorily as “Two Beers” Beck.) By the late 90s, Beck was managing Schiller’s Vaudeville, a touring company, which brought him out to San Francisco, where he next began to manage the Orpheum theatre for Morris Meyerfeld, playing Albee to his Keith. (This same Orpheum is immortalized in the 1899 Frank Norris novel McTeague. It, and every other San Francisco theatre, would be destroyed in the great 1906 earthquake). Under the Orpheum rubric, Beck and Meyerfeld  began snatching up theatres throughout the west at a rate that rivaled F.F.  Proctor.

Beck’s technique was to partner with local businessmen in theatres for each market. These collaborators would have important inside knowledge about the best local contractors, how to go about getting necessary permits, and what palms would need to be greased to move the enterprise forward.

Beck was an unusual character among the vaudeville managers. In a field dominated by predictable men of reserve, Beck managed to become one of the most successful despite an erratic, volatile personality. He was simultaneously known for being insulting and cruel to those under him, and for his openness and generosity. The perfect example merging those two traits was an occasion when he learned an acrobatic trio booked for his circuit had accepted the low sum of $175 for a week at one of his theatres. Beck proceeded to publicly deride the act, insisting that they ought to be ashamed of themselves and not take less than $350. No act on his circuit was going to go around like a bunch of bums.

Beck’s other major eccentricity was that he had highbrow pretensions. One of the best bookers in the business, the owl-like, multilingual Beck also stubbornly insisted on booking opera singers, classical musicians, and ballet dancers, even if sometimes he was the only one in the audience who appreciated them. He considered it his responsibility to educate the audience.

He also had a fine instinct for crowd-pleasing, however, as evidenced by two of his early major discoveries: Harry Houdini and W.C. Fields. In 1899, Houdini and his wife Bess were just barely eking out a living in circuses and dime museums when Beck booked him for the Orpheum circuit. Under Beck’s management, Houdini went from being a fairly run-of-the-mill magician to the Handcuff King, vaudeville’s premier escape artist, loved by audiences for his uncanny ability to work his way out of handcuffs, shackles, knotted ropes, straight-jackets, locked trunks, bank vaults, and jail cells. In a matter of months, Houdini’s weekly salary went from $25 to $250 (and ere long would be ten times that).

The following year, a young W.C. Fields was still bumbling around small time vaudeville and burlesque. In 1900, Fields was one of any number of “tramp jugglers”, silent clownish entertainers in hobo garb who worked the circuits, keeping as many household objects aloft as they knew how. One of the best in the business, Fields would juggle hats, cigar boxes – anything he could get his hands on. Beck took him onto the Orpheum at almost twice his current salary and shipped him out to San Francisco, where he performed on a bill with the magician Howard Thurston and Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew. Fields’ Orpheum travels brought him also to Denver, Omaha and Kansas City – evidence of Beck’s reach even at that early stage.

When the big time vaudeville managers formed a combine (the Vaudeville Managers Association, or VMA, Beck would end up running the entire western half of the country for something like a dozen years, from his office in Chicago.  But long about 1912, he took a mind to expand. He worked up plans for a grand new Chicago theatre called the Palace, that would act as an anchor for the Orpheum circuit, but Beck also decided to build an entire new circuit in the East. His flagship for that circuit, also to be called the Palace, could only be located in one place. Exploiting a loophole in the VMA agreement with Hammerstein to keep out of Times Square (Beck was only part of the Western Vaudeville Managers Association), he set about building a grand new vaudeville temple right up the street from Hammerstein’s Victoria.

E.F. Albee was beside himself with rage at this threat to his own hegemony. The audaciousness of this incursion was akin to Proctor’s pre-emptive actions in the 1890s. But just as he had with Proctor, Albee kept enough wits about him to definitively brake (and break) Beck. He let Beck’s hubris get the best of him. The highfalutin Beck (who reportedly spoke 6 or 7 languages) would travel to Europe frequently to personally book high level acts. While he was away in France negotiating with Sarah Bernhardt for his new Palace, Albee took the opportunity to buy up every other house Beck had intended to comprise his Eastern wheel, including certain Percy Williams properties in Florida. Beck returned to find himself over a barrel. For reasons that an accountant would probably understand best, he preferred to own the Williams theatres, which Albee sold to him, on the condition that the Keith organization would now have a majority stake in the Palace. Beck would still be a major shareholder, and would be in charge of all the booking. Beck took the deal.

Beck went on to become an important producer of Broadway shows, and even had his own theatre, the Martin Beck, which was renamed the Al Hirschfeld in 2003. He died in 1940.

To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleand managers like Martin Beck, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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