The Mixed Quartette
THE MIXED QUARTETTE
BY OCTAVUS ROY COHEN
Two comedians team up with two girls and put on an act billed as "The Operatic Quartette." At best, however, it is only about fifty per cent operatic, as one-half is rather weak when it comes to uplifting vaudeville. Nor is that the only respect in which the quartette is mixed.
YOU'VE sure done it now," I says to Johnny when we got to our room an' was safe behind long, black cigars.
"Done what?" he asks, real innocent, even though he knew perfectly well what I meant
"Played hell," I says.
"That," he answers, in Johnny's grand way, "is a matter upon which one is entitled to his personal opinion. An' I'm satisfied!"
I waved my hand airily. "You're the czar," I says, "an' since it's your funeral I should worry seven days an' be a little week. Go to it, Johnny," I says, "but I've seen better men than you make mistakes on account of a crown of golden hair, a peaches-an'-cream complexion an' a Venus de Gorgonzola form."
Johnny's eyes twinkled at that. "She is a stunner, ain't she, Dan?"
"An' then some."
"An' she's got a swell soprano."
"Can't you just see her an' I singing The Sweetest Maiden, from La Boheme? It'll knock 'em dead."
"Yes, Johnny, it'll knock 'em dead all right They'd have a chancst, though, if you'd cut this grand opera stuff an' stick to Irving Berlin."
"Dan, the trouble with you is you ain't got a soul. Why do you think I got these two dames in the act, anyway?"
"Because Mae Morrison looked good to you, that's why, Johnny. You just quit kiddin' yourself. Get me now; I ain't blamin' you none, but you roped in Morrison an' this Linette Larue kid because they was partners an' you liked the blondeness of aforesaid Mae."
"I got 'em in the act, Dan," he says, real sedate, "because vaudeville is being uplifted an' if I stuck to my act I'd be in the discard in another five years. Vaudeville audiences are asking for class now. Look at the way they supported Nazimova an' Annette Kellerman an' Gertrude Hoff- man an' Orville Harrold an' them artists. Class is the word, Dan, an' I'm the one to give 'em class. You got me all wrong, Dan. I did like Mae Morrison's looks, but principally I like her soprano singing— an' Linette Larue's contralto. She has a swell contralto, Dan; perfectly swell. Why, say,—we'll eat that Rigoletto Quartette alive,—just eat it alive."
"Ye-es. Maybe so. Just about that I guess when a man's got a bug the best way to do is to let him chase it. You're a good vaudeville man, Johnny—a corking good one—when you stick to your sort of work. But when you butt in on the Caruso stuff you're way off. Think it over, Johnny," I says, "think it over."
"I'll have plenty of time," he says, "seeing that the contracts are signed an' we're booked for twenty weeks."
Of course that was the way the land lay an' there wasn't any use having an argument about it. Besides, I'd rather argue with a lop-eared Maud-mule than try to convince Johnny Devine of anything. Success has went to that Jasper's head an' he's sort of got the idea that he's infallible.
For instance, take his act, that is, before he got these two dames in on it It wasn't any sort of an act. Him an' me sang a few songs together, ranging from the latest rag-time parody to Love or Fancy, from act one of Madame Butterfly, me being quite some shakes as a baritone if I do say it myself. An' between songs Johnny would pull his musical specialties—playing on the one-stringed fiddle, tinkling a ukalele, tooting as ocarina, harmonizing on the mouthorgan, pumping a trombone eighteen inches long, tickling a banjo with the usual head-waving variations an' a dozen other little oddities that always made a hit. An' that's what Johnny Devine never could get through his head—his act was a headliner because of his little musical sidelines an' not because of his voice. If he'd cut the highbrow stuff altogether an' stuck to comedy with his little instruments, he'd have been a riot.
It was natural—of course. I never yet seen a man with a pretty good voice that didn't think if he offered he could team up with Geraldine Farrar an' make Caruso mad. Johnny 'most ruined his voice getting it cultivated, an' after he learned to pronounce a few grand opera names in the native tongue he wouldn't have nothing more to do with Tin Pan Alley stuff an' all that went to me. Of course I used the parodies—an' parodies will last as long in vaudeville as buck-and-wing dancing, which is forever an' then a few days. Of course I got a bunch of the laughs an' an extra hand all 'round, which Johnny couldn't understand, seeing as the act was booked "Johnny Devine and Company,"—Yours Truly being the company.
When I cornered him one day an' told him the answer was that he was letting the rough stuff slip, he says, real sorrowful, "It's art, Dan, it's art. Vaudeville is being uplifted an' I cannot prostitute my talent by ragtime any more. When the public gets educated to the highbrow stuff they will be able to appreciate me better. My ambition, Dan," he says, serious as a judge, "is to be able, some day, to forsake those foolish little musical instruments of mine. They are lowering to one with an artistic temperament." Johnny don't always talk that grand—only when he's thinking about art—in a foreign language an' high C.
An' it was while Johnny Devine was in that unfortunate mood that we happened to work on the bill with Morrison an' Lame at Proctor's in Newark. They was two girls: Mae Morrison, who Johnny fell for right from the jump,—one of these real models with a haughty expression an' real blonde hair and a corking good soprano voice. Linette Larue was just the opposite,—dainty, vivacious, brunette, an' a contralto. My Gawd! she had a good contralto. They had a straight singing act way up on the bill,—you know the stuff,—Whispering Hope, Barcarolle, from Tales of Hoffman, Abide With Me, Oh! That We Two Were Maying, an' the rest of that repertoire, the same stuff that's pulled every time a contralto an' soprano run foul of each other.
That finished Johnny Devine. An' as our bookings expired two weeks later an' theirs in three weeks, nothing would do for him but to make them a team-up proposition, act to be billed as "The Operatic Quartette with Johnny Devine." At first he wanted to make it "John Devine," saying that the Johnny was too undignified for such an act, but he finally listened to reason.
Of course they took him up. Johnny, you see, was worth almost as much single as the quartette would be getting an', besides, I always had a sneaking idea that both of them girls was laying for him. Johnny was a good catch—an awful good catch. Teamed with a good woman singer, an' having the grand opera foolishness knocked but of his noddle, he'd have been one of the biggest winners in the country.
Somehow, those two girls pursued different tactics in letting Johnny see that he'd be welcome as the flowers in May when it came to the Lohengrin stuff. Mae Morrison, the queenly one, assumed the indifferent attitude,—the I-don't-give-a-hoot pose that drives a man crazy. An' right from the jump,—that is, after we got going an' started out on the road,—little Linette Larue threw herself at his head. Crude tactics, I call it.
The act? Oh! it got by pretty good. Never been a vaudeville actor, have you? Then you won't understand this—but there's a certain sort of vaudeville turn that gets applause because the audience thinks it ought to clap. That was us. We'd screech out the Rigoletto Quartette as hard as we could go it an' the poor audience wouldn't know what it was—except them that had phonographs. An' when we'd finish everybody would look at everybody else as much as to say, "That's classical stuff an' I'm the guy to appreciate real art." Then they'd applaud—just to show their neighbors that they didn't have nothing on them in the way of culture. An' you know what the poet says about the gink that won't use his eyes bein' the original blind guy—that was Johnny Devine. He'd hear that applause an' trot us out to bow an' then we'd pull a mess of stuff like The Spinning Wheel Quartette an' the Good Night Quartette from Martha, an' that dope from Verdi's Masked Ball—an' they'd clap a little more, wearing a My-Gawd-I-got-to-do-it expression.
But what really saved the act was Johnny Devine's little dinky musical instruments. He was a regular human being when he'd trot out with them things an' toot an' fiddle away. They'd laugh then an' the applause they'd give would rock the house. Oh! Johnny was goin' fine, he was—but the act was a flivver, only it got across because people like to like the highbrow stuff even though they don't know what it's all about an' none of them ain't never seen the tune.
At that we might have run on indefinitely if it hadn't been for them two girls an' Johnny Devine.
I don't care how friendly two girls have been—when a man comes between them there's bound to be a sort of coolness. Me, being right friendly with both, an' especially with Mae Morrison, was in a position to get the inside dope. I got it, too— you bet your life.
I'll admit that I was partial to the Morrison dame. She was queenly,—you know the type;—regal they call it. An' there wasn't nothing crude about her tactics,—not on your life there wasn't She knew the ropes, that Jane did. She didn't throw herself in Johnny's arms an' say, "Kiss me, kid, I love you to death." Not her. She left that sort of stuff to Linette Larue, knowing that Johnny would get sick an' tired of it after awhile an' chase the girl that wasn't caught so easy.
So Mae an' me got to be right good friends. We travelled all in a bunch you see, an' we always occupied two Pullman sections, so's we had to sit around in pairs. I thought it'd be nice for Johnny an' me to sit together, but Linette wouldn't have none of that, an' between towns she'd fasten her lunch-hooks on Johnny an' never so much as let him peep. An' so, of course, Mae an' me was together all the time. We got to be right friendly. I remember the first time the subjeci was broached,—Linette an' Johnny was sitting with their heads close together across the aisle, talking right confidential. I says to Mae: "Crude stuff, huh?"
"Crude stuff? What?"
"The way Linette's making a jump for him."
"Oh! him?" The way Mae's patrician nose curled up you'd of thought she didn't care a snap of her fingers for Johnny. Linette's a fool."
"She sure is," I says. "There ain't a man in the world will fall for that sort of stuff. A man likes to pursue the woman," I says, having read all that out of a book. "He don't care nothing about having the woman throw herself at him."
"No?" she answers, looking at me kind of peculiar. "Is that so? I thought it'd tickle their vanity."
"A man ain't vain," I remarks curtly. "Vanity is for women only."
"No," she says slowly, "a man ain't vain when he tackles Verdi an' Puccini an' them ducks, with a barbershop tenor. That ain't vanity at all."
"I mean vanity regarding women. The most desirable woman is the woman who must be chased."
"Spell it," says Mae.
"C—H—A—S—E—D," I comes back, grinning. "I ain't saying that it don't tickle Johnny right now to have Linette making a dead set for him because Linette sure is a pretty girl an' I'm crazy about brunettes."
She flushes red as a beat. "You're scarcely complimentary."
"Oh! I don't count you," I says. "I mean thinking of marriage, I'd choose' a brunette, bein' blonde myself. Now Johnny has always liked blondes. That's why you stand a heap better chancst than Linette."
"Chance? Chance for what?"
"To land Johnny."
Her eyes narrowed an' she gave me a slow once-over. "You think that's what I'm after?"
She rises at that an' makes for the back of the car. "Mr. Howron," she says, "you're positively insulting!"
And if that ain't like a woman, I don't want a cent. Leading me on to talk turkey an' then getting mad when I do it. "Well," I says to myself when she does that, "wimmin is too temperamental for me. It'd suit Johnny, but me—nix!"
There was some more of this eternal triangle stuff with Johnny bein' the rose with two thorns in it, as the saying goes. It was right interesting to watch, although I knew from the beginning that Linette didn't have a chance. Naturally, Johnny hung around Mae Morrison quite a bit—you got to, being in the same act an' travelling together, an' lots of times I caught them with their heads together talking, an' it didn't make Linette happy a bit, which was natural.
Also, it was natural that that sort of stuff didn't make them two girls any too fond of one another. When two girls is trying to marry the same man,—well, I was disappointed a bit in Mae. I never would of thought she'd throw herself at a man. No, that ain't fair—she didn't throw herself at Johnny, not direct But there's more than one way of doing a thing. For instance, if a man wants to hit the earth real hard, he goes up high before he jumps, an' the higher he goes, the harder he hits. Mae was playing the dim distance stuff with Johnny, knowing that when he discovered that she was the dame he was after he'd come a-running an' they'd get together so hard that there wouldn't be no separating them,—until after the better-or-worse stuff had been safely pulled.
There was the two old methods of the female of the spe-chees chasing the male: Linette with arms opened wide an' lips ready for diamond-ring kisses; Mae just as ready, but working the opposite sort of a come-on game. It was a two- to-one bet on Mae.
Then one night Mae Morrison comes to me in the dressing room where we was playing,—Johnny an' Linette was out by the fire exit so's Johnny could puff a cigarette,—mad as a wet hen.
"They're going too far," she says.
"Is that a fact? How so?"
"I just seen him talking to the orchestra leader."
"I've seen him do that many a time."
"Don't get funny, Dan. I'm serious."
"I take my cue," I says. "What was he saying to the orchestra leader?"
"He was telling him," she sizzles, "that when he gets an encore for that one-string fiddle stuff, him an' her—Linette—is coming on to do that Home To Our Mountains stuff they been yowling in the boarding house for the last week. Beat that if you can. Now I ain't saying that highbrow singing ain't all right, but for her to be hogging it all—I won't stand for it, that's all."
It was tough, although I wasn't giving myself away by no sudden talking. Talking without thinking has lost many a man a good home.
"What you thinking of doing?" I questions, playing safe.
"Much more of that an' I'll quit the act," she half sobs. "I don't get any appreciation, anyway. More an' more I have seen that I am being relegated to the background. More an' more has it become evident to my eyes, an' Linette has succeeded in entrapping him with what you yourself termed her 'crude methods.' I am disappointed in him; an' as for her—as for her—" she sort of choked like she had swallowed too much camembert. "Well, you'd think when I an' her has been teamed up as long as we have, she wouldn't be doing no such low-down trick as to take advantage of his affection for her—"
"Whoa! Mae,—you're in the right church but the wrong pew."
"I ain't in any church nor yet any pew," she flashes, kind of ugly. "An' if you'll talk straight, plain English, maybe I'll make you better."
"He ain't stuck on Linette," I says, real positive.
"No?" An' then again, real sarcastic, "No? Nor she on him, I suppose."
"Well, that's different—"
"An' I suppose she made him kiss her out there by the fire exit? I suppose she made him, huh? Not that she wouldn't That's the way a woman has to do these days to rope a man—just throw herself at his head an' make him see that she thinks he's the only shirt in the laundry."
"Mae!" I says, "I'm plumb surprised that you admit that your theory is all wrong."
"My theory? Whadaya mean, my theory? Huh?"
"About courting a man."
She shook her head an' frowned sort of puzzled-like.
"Come again, Dan. I didn't get that."
"Your theory about making a man fall in love with you. I thought you was under the impression that the right way to do to win a man was to play in the distance—indifferent an' I-should-worry, an' all that sort of stuff; like you been doing with Johnny."
"Like I been doing—doing—with—Johnny! Oh, Dan!" An' with that she starts laughing, hysterical-like, until the tears run out of her eyes.
"Don't take it thataway," I says. "They ain't announced their engagement yet, an' maybe what you seen was sort of—sort of premature."
She looks at me kind of funny. "I guess it was—if they ain't engaged."
I got right up. "The Musical Moretti's are on now," I says, "an' when they finish comes that nut comedian, an' after him is us. There's eighteen minutes between then. Meanwhile—" an' I starts for the door.
She was after me in a jiff. Her hand grabbed my arm.
"Where you going? What you going to do?"
"I'm going to have a plain talk with Johnny," I answers right back,—"a plain, straightforward talk."
An' as I walked away I heard her laughing some more—same choky, hysterical laugh. I was worried.
I got more worried the minute I rounded the alley entrance kinder sudden an' caught Linette an' Johnny breaking away from a long-distance clinch. They was kinder flushed an' happy-looking, but one glance at me an' Linette beat it sort of swift. Johnny fidgeted from one foot to the other an' looked at me with a what-the-hell-business-is-it-of-yours expression.
"Johnny," I says, real severe, "you hadn't ought to do it."
"Do it?" he comes back petulantly belligerent. "Do what?"
"Fool them poor girls."
"Fool—them— What the devil are you talking about?"
"Linette right now. What right have you got to make love to her when you're going to marry another woman?"
With that he steps close an' sticks his face almost in mine, looking real serious. He drops back an' shakes his head. "I thought you didn't drink," he says, "an' I don't smell nothing, but these days—"
"I never drink an' you know it. An' when I try to talk to you for your own good you try funny stuff. Well, I'm telling you now, Johnny Devine—if you'd try more of the funny stuff on an' less of that grand opera, you'd have a better act. I just heard of this Home to Our Mountains yodle you put in for a fiddle encore an'—an'—"
"That yellow-domed sorehead sent you to me with a howl because it cuts her out of the spotlight!" he rasps. "I make you now, all right, all right Well, I ain't saying nothing against your girl, Dan—"
"Hey there! Hold on, Johnny. You're three miles ahead of me—what do you mean,—my girl?"
"How many you got? I mean Mae Morrison, of course. There ain't a bone in her body that ain't jealous of Linette. Linette says so. She's jealous of Linette's better voice an' she's jealous because I'm giving Linette the chancst that she—Mae—never would of given her if they'd of stayed teamed up."
"Come again, Johnny," I says slowly. "You got the ropes all twisted. Mae Morrison is your girl, she ain't mine."
He looks at me for a long time, his lower jaw kinder separating slow an' gradual from the upper.
"Quit your kidding."
"I'm trying to talk sense. If you, now—"
"You honest to goodness mean you got the nerve to stand there an' tell me that you think I'd marry that bleached blonde."
"It's natural blondeness," I says coldly, not caring to hear that poor, unfortunate, jilted woman traduced; no, not even by Johnny Devine, which same I like immensely an' am good pals with.
"Allowing that it is; as far's I'm concerned, she ain't in the class in no way with Linette. You brought this on yourself. I wouldn't of said nothing against your girl—"
"Johnny Devine—which one of them dames are you engaged to?"
"Linette!" he answers, prompt but sheepish,—"as far's I know."
"Don't be a damned fool. Of course I'm serious. Why?
"It ain't according to Hoyle or Laura Jean Libby. You ought to be engaged to Mae. She suits you better."
"Thank you, I'd rather splice with Linette; not that I blame you for liking Mae the best, but, strictly between you an' me, Dan, Linette an' me have been talking an' we think that a real classical two-act of operatic stuff such as her an' me could put on would make a sensation—"
"So does a busted garter."
"Make a sensation."
"As I was saying,—Linette an' me in a two-act—"
"Two from four," I says, soft an' easy, but mad clear through, counting on my fingers. 'Two from four makes—two."
"You know the old saying," he says, embarrassed, trying to gloss over the situation, "that no pay envelope is big enough for two families. Now you an' Mae would make a swell rough-stuff two-act. Of course you ain't got the temperament, and she's just a block of ice with a fair voice."
"You an' Linette get spliced an' leave me to make a new act with Mae Morrison—a girl who's in love with you."
"With me? Dan Howron—you're deaf, dumb, blind, an' an ass. Will you do me a favor?"
"For old time's sake," I says, with dignity,—"just once."
He thinks for a minute, an' then speaks slow an' deliberate. "This is it, Dan—you go straight back to Mae now—before our call. You go to her an' say—just like this: 'Mae—Johnny an' Linette are going to get married. They want to break up this quartette an' have a two-act. What do you say to teaming up with me indefinitely?' You say that to her, Dan,—say it in the dressing-room so them nosey Parker Sisters won't get wise. Then you come back an' tell me what she says."
It was a bughouse thing to do—but little enough he'd asked, an' I thought it'd lay what these here diplomatic fellers call "a basis for further negotiations." So I breeze into Mae's dressing-room, after knocking of course, an' I sits down on the trunk beside her.
"Mae," I says, according to my lesson, "Johnny an' Linette are going to get married. They want to break up this quartette an' have a two-act. I know it's a shock to you, but what do you say to teaming up with me indefinitely?"
Yes sir, I said it just like that; not laying no emphasis on any of the words, because they was so silly. An' what do you think that woman done? You'd never guess in a million years. She flung them perfect arms of hers about my neck an' holds up her lips for a kiss.
I kissed her. I'll swear I couldn't help it.
"Oh, Dan," she sobs, "I'm so—so-o happy!"
With that, she ups with her lips again an' I kissed her once more. There was something dog-goned final about the taste of that kiss, too.
"An' Dan—I—I—thought—you never would—"
"Never would—propose," she cries. "An' I'm so glad you've done it—because I love you, Dan. D—d—d—do y—y—you l—l—l—love me?"
I looked into them eyes of hers.
"Uh-huh," I says, an' kissed her again.
We got married. Mae an' me an' our act is immense,—nut stuff an' a strong line of patter written specially for us.
Linette an' Johnny are going good, too, over the Big Time. We are on the same bill this week, with them in headline position, but our pay envelopes nearly the same. An' only this morning I was talking to Johnny.
"You happy?" asks Johnny.
"You betcha. An' you?"
"As a lark," he says. "An' the act going stronger every day. It's all in educating the public. Say—once I thought you really wasn't in love with Mae—"
"Uh-huh. But I knew she'd land you."
"You've made fool remarks like that before, Johnny," I says. "What do you mean?"
"Wasn't you an' her together all the time when the quartette was doing business?"
"An' didn't she do all the chasing? Wasn't it her that sought you out always?"
"Pretty nearly. That was while Linette was making a dead set for you."
"Sure—it always works. When a woman rushes a man real hard he's bound to fall for her. I'll admit I fell for Linette's campaign,—an' I'm glad of it. But the way she rushed me wasn't even a circumstance to the way Mae went after you."
I scratched my head a bit. It was a plumb new idea.
"You mean Mae was in love with me from the first."
"Of course, you nut—"
An' then I understood for the first time.
"Well, I'll just be dog-goned," I says. "Honest to Gawd, Johnny—I never thought of that!"