Arranging All the Affairs
Last week’s blog drew from P. T. Barnum’s letters in the 1845 copybook that discuss the plays created for Gen. Tom Thumb, and these gave us some insights into his stage routines while on tour in France. This week we’ll “connect the dots” among various letters to get a better idea of what Barnum actually had to do to arrange for the General’s performances in each town and the range of people he dealt with, from Mayors and “lampistes” to “bill” printers, “bill” posters, porters, piano and prop renters, and newspaper men. He also had to bargain with hotel proprietors to orchestrate accommodations for the entourage, including the miniature ponies. And then the hotelier, mayor, newsmen, and even the chief of police had to be given their “soft soap”—free admission to a performance.
Attending to the practicalities was no easy feat, especially in the limited timeframe Barnum allowed himself before moving on to the next town. Time was money, after all, and he saw no profit in having to spend two days making arrangements in a town where “the General” would only be performing one day (2 or 3 days was the usual). Barnum’s lack of familiarity with the customs, attitudes and language was sometimes a source of frustration, and his letters are liberally spiced with expressions of his irritation. But he must have felt it worthwhile that he himself attend to the preparation details and negotiations, for we know from an earlier letter that there was a financial advantage—at least occasionally—in having people perceive him as merely an “advance man” or agent for Tom Thumb.
To start off, in each town Barnum first needed to meet with the Mayor, or meet the Mayor along with the local theatre manager. Although this may not have been true in every town, it seems as if Mayors held the authority to approve or prohibit particular theatrical performances, and the number of days they were permitted to perform. In addition, although there was an established rate for the “poor tax” (droit du pauvre, or poor man’s right) levied on luxuries like theatre acts, the Mayor could decide how much to demand, and whether he was willing to negotiate. At times a maddened Barnum felt the decision was quite unreasonable, leaving him little chance for profit (see A Touch of Yankee, May 8, 2020).
Then there was the theatre manager’s cut to be factored in. In another example of Barnum’s “Yankee-style” remedies, he provides instruction to Mr. Pinte, the interpreter he had hired for the tour, who would be with the entourage while Barnum had gone on to other towns. He advised,
The manager or director of the Theatre at Béziers will come and take his cinquieme [fifth] of our receipts. Now this 1/5 we must pay him, but I wish you to understand the law. The law is that one must pay him 1/5 after deducting the droit du pauvre—now the droit du pauvre for natural curiosities is one quarter recette Brute [gross receipts]. So we must deduct ¼ before paying the manager his 5eme. The hospice here demands 20 Francs per day & the Manager claims his 5eme after deducting 20 Francs—but you will discover he has no right to claims, for it is none of his business whether we pay 20 Francs or nothing at all, the droit du pauvre remains the same; one quarter and that quarter must be deducted before you pay the manager. There’s no mistake about this, and if the manager does not agree to your deducting the quarter which is the legal rights of the poor you must go before the Mayor and appeal to the law book to decide the fact. Don’t let the d—d rascal swindle us, although “it’s the custom of the country.”
Interestingly, Barnum used the higher one-fourth tax rate for the exhibition of natural curiosities to his advantage because it would, in theory, benefit him to substantially lower the amount on which the theatre manager’s one-fifth would be calculated—even though Barnum was only going to be paying 20 Francs per day. However, you may recall that when he was in Bordeaux he claimed the right to a lower rate, the “theatrical rate,” arguing to the Mayor that Gen. Tom Thumb was a legitimate actor and “. . . he [was] not therefore to be considered the same as a natural curiosity which by law gives the Hospital the right to demand a quarter of the receipts.” So, another “touch of Yankee.”
No doubt the time and energy required for negotiations triggered much of the aggravation Barnum experienced; Mayors seemed to be a trial for him in most every town. Thus we can readily imagine Barnum’s glee when he wrote from Montpellier on September 24th, “I dashed off this morning by railroad to Cette [Sete], where I am happy to say I succeeded in arranging all the affairs and got back here in time to attend the rehearsal of “Petit Poucet” to night.”
Likely depending on a town’s size, there might only be one venue or there could be several options, such as various “halls” and “exhibition rooms” in addition to a theatre. Barnum’s letters reveal he was sometimes forced to find an alternate location when his first choice did not pan out. That really came to a head in Béziers when Barnum inadvertently discovered that the grand hall had been double-booked by the Mayor himself. He voiced his indignation to Mr. Stratton (Gen. Tom Thumb’s father) in a letter on September 22nd:
I had arranged to have the Salle de la Mairie and had hired chairs, Lampiste & c and written out notices for the papers & c when lo and behold I went to the Printer to get the Bills printed and was there informed that a Concert would take place in the Salle Mairie the same night! I went to the Mayor, and sure enough the old fool had promised the Hall for a Concert and forgot it & afterwards promised it to me! I was obliged to do everything over again—so I hired another Hall—told the lampiste & the owner of the chairs that I could not use their lamps & chairs & have finally finished all arrangements for another Salle & left particulars at Hotel Poste.
Among the tasks at hand were getting both large and small “bills” (handbills) printed, the large ones posted and the smaller distributed by hand. A place or places had to be found where samples of the General’s clothing could be “exposed” (displayed) to drum up interest; likewise, lithographs (illustrative prints) needed to be displayed or circulated. Hiring a lampiste was essential, certainly for evening performances, because this was the person responsible for lighting and extinguishing the gas lights, for which one paid by the hour. (Barnum tried to limit that expense to four hours.) Then there were chairs to be rented, and set up, with a rope to separate the “premiers” (best seats) from those for lower priced ticket-holders, who might only be fortunate enough to sit on a bench. For example, Barnum tells Stratton that in Béziers, “I suppose there are only chairs enough for premiers—if so the seconds must stand up or else you must hire some plank to place on the chairs.”
In Montpellier rental chairs were more abundant. Unlike venues that required a DIY set up, here Barnum was hiring a “porter” to take care of cleaning and arranging the hall, as well as getting chairs for five days, all for a fixed price. Luckily in this instance a piano was already available, and at no additional charge. Again to Stratton he notes, “I talked to [the porter] first about 200 chairs, but when he came to stick to such a big price, I made him agree to furnish all the chairs necessary and so he has written it on the paper enclosed. He thinks we shall not need even the 200 (and I am afraid of it) but he is to furnish all that you do need.”
There are all kinds of details and “mini-episodes” like this that help us envision Barnum scrambling each day to make things work, all the while traveling overnight by diligence (stage coach) to stay ahead of the General’s entourage. If you’d like to read his letters, find a comfy chair and access them here. Most of those I have referred to fall between pages 171 and 174 on the bottom scroll bar (or the penciled page numbers 169 – 173).
Barnum Museum Curator