Open main menu

Levenson - Butterfly Man - Chapter left.pngXILevenson - Butterfly Man - Chapter right.png

 

HENRY COLMAN was a theatrical producer of the old school. His theatre was his church and his club. He was devoted to it passionately. If he had been a sentimentalist, he would have loved every inch of it—but Henry was too dull for sentiment. At sixty he was, as always, a realist to the core.

Henry had been a poor boy. The man who now dressed so impeccably once had sold candy in the aisles of the old Union Square Theatre and tickets in the box office of Daly's. He had admired and willingly slaved for his own lordly producer bosses of that day, including the noted international operatic impresario, Fritz Ungeld.

Henry's pride, his Commodore Theatre, now worth three quarters of a million dollars, had been erected on the spot where, for sixty years, four brownstone houses stood. It had cost thirty thousand in cash. Henry had come into possession of his pot of gold in a curious way. Ike Forman, who had operated Mendelssohn Hall back in the nineties, had died, leaving a most unbeautiful widow. Mrs. Forman had inherited her defunct husband's moderately large fortune. Henry Colman wooed and won her and thus was able to erect a new temple to Thespis on a side street off Broadway.

A gem of a theatre, the Commodore, a hat box, a unique playhouse, an intimate showplace. In the beginning it was a financial failure. Henry could savor a woodcock or tripe for breakfast. He could play a mean game of stud poker. But he knew nothing about plays or players.

Immediately after the war, Henry had permitted George Drury to produce a musical show for him. Not an elaborate musical show, just a sprightly, tuneful little entertainment, with twelve chorus girls, two full-stage sets and a cyclorama.

"Yvonne" had been a million and a half dollar success. For ninety-seven weeks "Yvonne" played on, establishing a record for musical shows. Its success had freed the Commodore from debt. Mortgages were lifted; Henry Colman was rich.

He urged Drury to repeat the success of "Yvonne." Year after year "Lulus," "Fifis" and "Mimis" came to Broadway and passed quietly away because they were too much like "Yvonne." Dollar by dollar the stock of dollars earned by "Yvonne" diminished.

Henry worried. Worry to Henry meant lengthy spells of drinking. He got and stayed drunk.

During one such spree, an old friend and creditor, Mike Vee, costumer extraordinary to Broadway, met Henry in the Lambs' Club. Mike took him home and sobered him up. During the process of restoring Henry to his senses, Howard Vee, Mike's son, came home from Europe.

As Henry regained consciousness he learned that he had leased the Commodore for one year to Howard Vee for fifty thousand dollars. To his rueful amazement, Henry discovered that all he retained in the theatre during the period of the lease was his private office, done elegantly in Victorian red plush and leather; his private bar; his dressing cabinet and the rear stairs.

"The show sounds impossible, Howard," Henry was saying. Two points of red showed darkly beside his cheek bones. Howard Vee was a college man. Therefore, Henry tried to broad-a him, mixing blends of Americanism and Oxford "o's" with careless grammar.

"I come from Philadelphia, Kansas," Henry tolerantly explained. "My taste is plain. I'm the average American theatre-goer. And what's more, I'm a member of the theatrical G.A.R. I don't like your libretto. I don't like your score. In my forty years on Broadway I've never liked a show I couldn't understand.

"Mind you," he continued, clipping the end of his cigar with his teeth and dropping it into his silver-plated spittoon—gift of the fourth road-show company of "Yvonne." "Mind you, I believe you are clever. But you are doing too much. No one man—except George M. Cohan—can write an entire musical show himself.

"Let me be a father to you."

"I don't need a father, Mr. Colman," said Howard. "I have one."

"Mike Vee knows costumes. He is the greatest costumer on Broadway. He adores you and I love him. But I'll be damned, pardon the language—if you are going to put a rank amateur show, a wild burlesquey entertainment, in the Commodore, because your father has bags full of mazuma."

Howard was very young. He seemed mild and inoffensive sitting there in the red plush settee. His dark eyes revealed his puzzled embarrassment, his finely drawn mouth trembled in an attempt to find words with which to reply to the older man.

"I respect your judgment, Mr. Colman," he said, "but—" He smiled quizzically. "I have gone to Harvard and to Oxford. I have tried to surround myself with modern young men and women, and to think theatre in terms of modern theory. I am of the new school."

He rose. He was dressed in inconspicuous gray, yet well-dressed. His hair was shiningly black.

"I don't belong to your theatre, Mr. Colman," he said. "I want to originate, not copy. In London, Nigel Playfair has done exactly what I plan to do right here in your Commodore."

"It won't work on Broadway. Even Hammersmith is not the Strand," said Henry.

"We'll find out. I have leased your theatre. You have already received three thousand dollars in advance payment."

"I'll give you back your money if you'll get out."

"No," said Howard Vee.


The Commodore, Henry Colman would have told you, had no bad seats. Its stage was compact; its orchestra pit brought audiences within whispering distance of its actors. The home-like little offices, three in number, were on the balcony floor. Howard sat in one of them surrounded by mementoes of the Colman past. On the wall hung an old photograph of Fritz Ungeld, next to the first night program of "Yvonne." In the corner was the ancient upright piano on which Riley and Doty had composed a score for "Yvonne," aided somewhat by Franz Schubert, Tchaikowsky, and the immortal Chopin. George Drury, in summer flannels, smiled benignly from an enlarged snapshot above the piano, happy in the thought that he had borrowed the idea of "Yvonne" from a Budapest operetta called "Maxine." Framed and hung in a row above the dormer windows, so near the ceiling that they could be seen with difficulty, were portraits of Evelyn (pronounced Eevelyn) Gray, Fawn Rochelle and Ann Nightingale, soubrettes of the 'oo's, lovely ladies of the London stage. Once they had been objects of Henry Colman's silent and devoted admiration. Later, grown mature, they had married Lords or Earls. Subsequently and discreetly all had been divorced therefrom.

In this office, Howard Vee was chatting with Leon Shaw. The agent peered across the veil of his myopia. He waved his plump, bediamonded finger in Howard's face. "I understand your ideas exactly," he said. "Wit, charm, good music and youth. You can't miss. Your cast is already notable. Rosemary Rose is perfect for the lead."

"Thanks for the bouquet," Howard replied. "Is your dance team here?"

"Due any minute. I'll wait downstairs for you."


The yellow taxicab stopped at the Commodore marquee. Ken paid the driver and hurried into the stage door alley where an aging, hollow-voiced doorman halted him.

"Audition?"

"Yes. Is Miss Nasmuth here?"

"I don't reckon I know the lady," the doorman said.

"How come, Colonel?" Ken walked toward the stage door.

"You're just another one of Howard Vee's fresh youngsters, aren't you?"

"I'm fresh and young but I'm not Howard Vee's, Colonel."

"Why do you call me, Colonel?"

"Intuition, Colonel. If you aren't a Kentucky Colonel by birth, you should have been."

"I am, suh. I was weaned on bourbon whiskey and asses' milk. Come on in."

The backstage throbbed with life. Eager, alert boys and girls crowded the corridors. A chorus call was taking place.

"I'll fix you up with a dressing-room. So you're a dancer."

"How'd you know?"

"I can tell by the shape of your nose—flat, acrobatic; long, soft shoe; narrow—like yours—a trick waltz team; light comedy with drawing room flavor?"

"Right you are, Colonel."

"You from Mr. Shaw?"

"I don't exactly issue from his … loins."

"Eh?"

"Yes."

"Go upstairs to dressing-room number four."

Ken bounded up the narrow stairs, as the doorman switched on the lights.

"Tiny house," Ken remarked as the Colonel wheezingly appeared.

"Intimate theatre, son," the old man corrected him. "We call this the home of intimate musical comedy. Mr. Colman built it. George Drury nearly ruined it. Now young Mr. Vee has it and if I remember my English accent, 'e looks to be a bit of all right."

Ken laughed. "Actor?"

The doorman winked. "Was." Then he asked. "Adagio team?"

Ken shook his head. "No muscles. Here's a quarter for you, Colonel."

The door closed upon the old man. Ken faced a worn mirror. He stared at himself, regarded his features carefully. He was heavier, older, with frank, clear eyes. He opened the window, breathed deeply, then began to undress.


"New York," Nellie Nasmuth had said, "is what you make of it—though I suppose you can say that of any crossroads jerkwater town. If you're hollow-chested and hungry, you'll either be inspired to aspire or you'll expire. If you're flabby and self-satisfied—beware.

"Look at me. I'm just another Irish brat. Look at the nose—it's got a knob on it; the eyes don't speak to each other and the mouth lies at the foot of a triangle that's Irisher than County Clare. I can't sing. I can't dance. I'm the world's worst actress. I make eight-fifty a week—eight hundred and fifty smackers—and I stay pure!"

What a girl this Nellie was! Cheerier than cheery. The old lady, too, was hot stuff; Norah nice, really an excellent dancer.

"You're the cleanest looking couple of hoofers I've seen in years," Leon Shaw had said. "No use putting you in a Follies or a Scandals. No pop vaudeville either. You go into a cute little musical like 'Chasing Rainbows!' That's where you belong."

A few weeks later Norah mentioned Howard Vee.

"Typical rich young man," Leon told her. "Though he's got a nice theatre. If he only wouldn't try to pull a Noel Coward. He wants to do everything himself—except act."

Personalities, Ken concluded as he slipped into dancing shorts, collide in New York. Out west you drift. Plenty of space. No one cares. Here, he was becoming sensitive to new contacts. After all, life was really beginning. Wild oats sown—mysteries explored—calmness attained—fourteen months of unforgettable peace. He hung up his trousers, removing some money from the pockets. He counted three bills and some coins. He was worth three dollars and seventy-four cents. He laughed. He recalled San Diego, his march into the back country, hitch-hiking, laboring in the fields, earning meals by working as a bus boy in a Coffee Pot, hitch-hiking again, riding the rails, nights in flop joints, police stations and even a hobo colony near St. Louis.

Those were hard, gay times. No uncertainty—no hesitancy. Nothing to lose. He realized now that he had been fleeing from an old hateful weak self and therefore was not to be cheered as a courageous hero.

Happily, he believed this weakness was gone. His body once more was a temple unto himself. He belonged to himself. He was free.

Fate, he concluded, had had something to do with it. Fate had pre-arranged that Norah Nasmuth should come to Tia Juana as he was about to leave, that she should need a partner, that she should see him dance that parting gesture of contempt for all that Tia Juana symbolized. Fate had provided Norah with a sister whose simple word would open all theatrical doors.

He had visited Nellie Nasmuth in the Chicago playhouse where she was rehearsing. He had arrived late one autumn day. He had worn no overcoat. She had listened to his story. She had seemed to understand at once, for she had lent him money.

During those early days in Chicago, he knew at last how low Anita had carried him. He knew how close to eternal degradation he had fallen. A flaw existed in his character, a dull complacency, a lack of moral strength.

What inner change had transformed him into a determined, ambitious young man, he did not know. Inexplicably the Nasmuths, three wise women, had lifted him to his feet. They had guided him through the nerve-wracking experience of a vaudeville break-in, then into his first musical show rôle in the "turkey," which Nellie Nasmuth had produced.

"Ready?" he now heard Norah call.

"Hi, Norrie—sure I'm ready. Didn't know you were here," he replied.

"Let's go, then," he heard her say.


"I detest these chorus calls." Ray Leech gazed at his features in a hand mirror. "I don't see why the Mother Superior does it. She knows us. She could pick us out in the dark."

Ray leaned against the back wall of the stage. "Frankie," he said, "do you really think Julie has a free hand?"

"Julie sometimes has a very free hand," Frankie smirked. "I'm for him though. I mean, he's really poison if you cross him. He never forgets. He's a snake, a veritable adder, the dear thing."

"I'm glad I'm not one of those trollops over there," another boy pointed to the girls in line downstage.

"You are not, you know you aren't," Frankie winked. "You just wish you could get along without bosom pads on Saturday nights."

Into the circle came Harry Waldron, dark haired, square jawed, his face blue with a heavy beard. He spoke with a pleasing, soft unmasculine voice.

"I hear you dug a wristwatch at Emerson's last month, Frankie," he said.

"Nothing doing." Frankie made a move, "Ernie gave me a slave bracelet. I turned it down. When I begin collecting trinkets, put me in the old ladies' home. Cash on delivery is my house rule."

"Boys up!" called the assistant stage manager. The group fell into line as the chorus girls filed off stage, where those chosen buzzed with excitement.

"Less noise!" someone shouted.

"Julie looks a little relieved," Frankie said. He was chubby, Irish, pink-cheeked, a typical Tenth Avenue lad.

"Where is he?" asked Ray. "I never could see over these foots. I feel perfectly awful. Julie knows who I am, what I am and what I can do!"

"What can't you do, dearie?" Harry whispered.

"Nice mans, go 'way and let babykins sleep," Frankie replied. He did a brisk tap break on the ground cloth.

"Quiet!" roared the assistant stage manager.

In the second row sat Jules Monroe, the dance director. He leaned forward on a long bamboo walking stick, his bald head shining in the reflection of the flood lights, his lean tense face and cold dark eyes conveying the impression of fire within a hard exterior. His lips lighted with a contemptuous smile as he recognized old-timers in the line of boys.

"Frankie Regan, is that the best suit of clothes you own?" he asked in a low pitched voice.

"Not at all, Mr. Monroe," said Frankie.

"Bags under your eyes and over your knees," Jules barked. The other boys giggled.

Without changing expression, Frankie replied: "Just an old bag to you."

Laughter spread. "Silence!" Jules snapped, as he banged his stick against the seat. "I and only I have the last word."

"You mean I have," he heard a voice at his elbow. Howard Vee slipped into the seat beside him. "How're they coming?" he asked.

"It'll be a typical Monroe chorus," Jules quickly replied.

On the stage, Frankie pursed his mouth so that he could whisper out of a corner. "That's the boss. Isn't he cute?"

"That?" asked Ray. "I don't care for him."

"I'm bringing in a dance team," Howard Vee was telling the director. "I want you to look them over. They might do for a couple of spots."

"Where are they?" Monroe asked.

"Waiting backstage."

"What's their names, Howard?"

"The girl's Nellie Nasmuth's sister. I don't know the boy."