How did they do school shows back in the day?

June 22, 2016

I’ve recently found some old sources about how to put on a school show. This blog originally catered toward people putting on school shows, and I thought some of my readers might get a kick out of how much things have changed, and how they also absolutely haven’t changed at all. There seems to have been a real vogue for school operetta from the late 1920s through 1940, and most of these quotes come from that era.

Oddball Advice

Have all your rehearsals onstage.

“Have your rehearsals conducted as often as possible upon the stage on which the contemplated performance is to take place, for in an operetta you will in all probability have groups to deal with. If available space is not taken well into account, it will be found necessary at the last moment, perhaps, to dispense with the services of some who have worked hard in preparation, and who have possibly gone to the expense of purchasing a costume. This, to a boy or girl is heartbreaking.” -Joseph Despicht, The Practical Teacher, 1898.

Despicht goes on to explain that if you can’t have all your rehearsals onstage, you can tape out another room to make sure you don’t need to dismiss half the chorus when you realize they don’t fit on the stage. I love that this advice sounds like it comes from bitter experience.

Kids are cool and will basically get all your casting decisions.

“The director should be unbiased in choosing his principal characters. His chorus must know that he is governed in his choice by the desire for a successful production. Students are generally fair minded and will abide by the directors decision.” -William J. Watkins, Producing a School Operetta, 1937

Where is this school? Has anyone experienced this calm reaction to casting, ever?

Scenery is Overrated.

“Perhaps the wisest plan is to trouble very little about [scenery], for it is far less essential than many people suppose…” -Joseph Despicht, The Practical Teacher, 1898.

If you need publicity, that’s what the English department is for.

“The English department will handle the publicity.”-William J. Watkins, Producing a School Operetta, 1937

Or you can do it the old fashioned way: (I’m pretty sure this picture was meant as a joke in the book)

Live advertising

Frank A. Beach’s Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

Wow, Things Have Changed!

Spanish Grandee

Those gas lights can be a pain.

“Let some adult be in charge of all lights and fires about the premises. He should have no other duties. Lastly, don’t lower the gas in the auditorium so that visitors can neither read their programmes nor the Book of Words.”-Joseph Despicht, The Practical Teacher, 1898.

I know this is the way theatrical lighting has been for most of the history of theatre, but it’s a miracle everyone wasn’t immolated at every production.

Need electrical lighting equipment? Make it yourself!

“A home-made dimmer may be constructed at a comparatively small cost. In making a dimmer, consideration should first be given to the resistance, voltage, and candle power of the light to be employed. Ordinarily a resistance equal to four times the resistance of the lamp load must be placed in series with the foots or borders, or with both, in order to dim completely either or both of these circuits. The bulletin, L.D. 146 A of the General Electric Company, on stage lighting suggests…”-Frank A. Beach, Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

“A set of four or five dimmers can be made for five dollars. Common drain tile is used. A copper slug is cemented to the bottom of the tile, with an electric cord attached to the slug leading out the bottom. To the other end of the cord is attached another copper slug. The second wire is unbroken and runs down the outside of the tile. The tile is filled with water and the closer the slugs come together the brighter the light will be…” – Gwynne Burrows, Light Opera Production For School and Community, 1929

“The following homemade dimming device is very satisfactory for small stages. In recommending this we want to again caution the amateur to be very careful, for there is always danger in handling live wires. Take two old dry cell batteries and extract the center pole by breaking away the packing around it. This center pole is a stick of carbon. Next cut one of the wires of the electric cord leading from the current source… fill a large earthen jar three-fourths full of water…” – Kenneth R. Umfleet, School Operettas and Their Production 1929

Hold up. To save money, we’re chopping up batteries and floating things in water?? After theatrical lighting went electric, it’s still amazing everyone wasn’t killed!

An opposing view is expressed by Mr. Jones:

“While it is quite possible to make improvised dimmers, it is not advisable on account of the fire risk and the danger of electrocuting the stage crew.” -Charles T. H. Jones, Musico-Dramatic Producing, 1930

Have half the rehearsals during the school day.

“It is always desirable to make the rehearsals a part of the classroom work…”-Clifford A. Caton, How To Select and Produce Operettas, 1930

“In this schedule at least one-half the time required should be taken from the regular school day. The arrangement of such a program will conserve the strength of the participants, avoid conflict with scheduled and extra events, encourage cooperation, and avoid serious encroachments upon the leisure hours of the student and the director.”-Frank A. Beach, Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

But when would they do the standardized testing?

Costumes? Make the girls sew them.

“…when a performance of any dramatic piece is contemplated a committee of ladies should be formed to carry out this department of the business. The ordinary theatrical costumer does not care for the work unless he may charge an enormous price. The school staff, assisted by lady friends, do the work better, and at much less cost.”-Joseph Despicht, The Practical Teacher, 1898.

Well, the bit about theatrical costumers charging a lot you have to agree with. But surely there must have been some boys who wouldn’t have minded helping?

Don’t choose shows with all that tawdry jazz in it.

“It is a cause for regret that so many [published operettas], consisting of cheap and tawdry verses set to commonplace and drab, or jazz-colored melodies, masquerade as worthy operettas, and as such are admitted into good standing in the musical repertoire of many schools.”-Frank A. Beach, Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

No Cello? An Alto Sax will do. They can just transpose.

cello sax-Charles T. H. Jones, Musico-Dramatic Producing, 1930

This is just a terrible, terrible idea. No, no, no.

I’m just going to leave this here…

Make upblackfaceBoth of these come from Frank A. Beach’s Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

um nomistrelsblackface 2

These are from Charles T. H. Jones, Musico-Dramatic Producing, 1930, who says “The only real black-face makeup is done with burnt cork.”

“Irish, German, blackface, and similar characters usually involve a certain amount of dialect, and actors must be especially careful not to overdo it. The colored porter in ‘Peggy and the Pirate,’ the Swedish maid in ‘Sailor Maids,’ and the Irish comedian in ‘Belle of Barcelona’ are funny only if they are heard.”-Clifford A. Caton, How To Select and Produce Operettas, 1930

Let’s hope those days are all behind us.

Some Things Never Change

Pick a worthwhile show.

“If the supervisor or amateur director, then, realizes and accepts his responsibility and opportunity in connection with the selection of an operetta, he will be confronted by two questions: first, ‘What will the singer do to the operetta,’ -second, and equally important, ‘What will the operetta do to the singer?'”-Frank A. Beach, Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

“…our first admonition is to select an operetta worthy of serious production, one that will enlarge the interest in life itself, that will instruct and deepen the sympathies, and lead to a better insight into the motives of men.”– Kenneth R. Umfleet, School Operettas and Their Production 1929

Use Understudies.

“The presence of well-trained understudies also serves another purpose- that of keeping each member of the cast alert in the matter of attendance, interest, and effort; for the knowledge that someone else stands ready to step into his place is an excellent spur for each principal.”-Frank A. Beach, Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

Don’t let kids cast the show.

“To have a vocal class vote on these candidates is one way of asking for trouble. The judgment of the class is too apt to be prejudiced.”-William J. Watkins, Producing a School Operetta, 1937

Shockingly, I occasionally hear of schools that have students make the casting decisions today.

Don’t bow to parental pressure.

“A supervisor should be cautious in dealing with the ambitious ‘little star’ who in order to gain a footing, will sometimes bring unthought-of pressure, and even parents with interests somewhat their own ‘move in mysterious ways their wonders to perform.'”– Kenneth R. Umfleet, School Operettas and Their Production 1929

“Family connections, social prestige, or financial status have no bearing whatever on the qualifications of the actor. No boy should be chosen because he is the trustee’s son, and no girl is qualified merely because she is the banker’s daughter!”-Clifford A. Caton, How To Select and Produce Operettas, 1930

Make sure the singing parts are cast with actual singers.

“Singing by people absolutely devoid of prowess is torture to performer and audience alike.” – Charles T.H. Jones, Musico-Dramatic Producing, 1930

Learn the music first.

“If possible, let all learn all the music, solos and choruses (regard being paid to the range of the child’s voice) and let the spoken parts be read til all errors are eliminated. Nothing so irritates the young performers as to have to ‘stand about’ when all should be in action, while some soloist repeats and re-repeats his part.” -Joseph Despicht, The Practical Teacher, 1898.

Yes. Have the music rehearsals first.

Somebody actually needs to block the show.

“Although it is plainly evident to the audience that in the preparation of the operetta the music has been carefully directed, it is equally apparent to a critical observer that the action in the average operetta suffers from the lack of direction.” -Frank A. Beach, Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

Biggest complaint I hear from kids about productions they’re in? They had to make up their own blocking.

Your costumes need not be as racy as they are on Broadway or the Vegas national tour.

“In connection with the dancing chorus it is well to supervise the type of costumes that will be worn. Girls particularly will want to wear the abbreviated costumes seen on the professional stage. These generally are unsuited to school productions, aside from the fact that they are seldom compatible with the text of the show. Perhaps the most serious effect of this type of costume is to provoke eyebrow raising and loss of sympathy for the production by the adults of the audience. They may ask, and rightly so, if that is the sort of things schools are teaching today.” -William J. Watkins, Producing a School Operetta, 1937

I’m with him. In some high school productions I’ve attended, I’ve spent most of the dance numbers studying carefully the ad for the car dealership on the back inside cover of the program. Oh, and you kids get off my lawn.

You also don’t need to blow your vocal cords out singing like the Original Cast Recording.

“The conductor will do well to keep in mind the fact that the average operetta will be given but once; the voices of the singers will be used for years to come. No vocal effect therefore will justify the misuse of the voices of the cast and chorus. Furthermore, the director in his choice of the operetta should remember that a work which has no moments that are really musical- from a vocal standpoint- is unworthy of the time of the conductor, the cast, or the chorus.” -Frank A. Beach, Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

Get those scene changes moving fast.

“One or more of the early rehearsals should be devoted to stage setting alone; the director may use, as an incentive for acquiring rapid shifts, a definite time limit within which the used setting is to be removed and the next one set up. Dress rehearsals often drag late into the night simply because the stage manager has neglected to have separate rehearsals for scenery and lighting.”-Frank A. Beach, Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

“Do not forget to hold one or more special rehearsals for the stage crew at which time nothing is done but the actual changing of scenery and properties. A half-hour wait between acts is intolerable and unnecessary.”-William J. Watkins, Producing a School Operetta, 1937

“Never, under any circumstances, let more than ten minutes elapse between acts. Five minutes are better.”– Gwynne Burrows, Light Opera Production For School and Community, 1929

Shout it from the rooftops, people.

Have an honest to goodness dress rehearsal and give the speech.

“See that they are equipped with everything necessary and require them to wear it at least for the first act if no change is necessary. This is important. You will then find that the flowing dresses of the girls catch on the scenery, that one boy trips himself on his cane, that swords are difficult to manage, that beards fall off and any number of things are apt to happen. Another trial for the director is the disposal of costumes after the dress rehearsal. Watch your hero throw is outfit in a corner and rush out. When he wants it again, he will not be able to find it. Then confusion results, and the curtain rises on a thoroughly demoralized hero. Get a suit box for each person. Impress your cast with the necessity for taking care of their costumes. Your home economics people should check them as soon after the dress rehearsal as possible. Hold your dress rehearsal at least two days before the performance.”-William J. Watkins, Producing a School Operetta, 1937

Makeup. Amirite?

“Watch the make-up problem. Amateur make-up artists are often bad. Professionals are sometimes worse. In a school auditorium where the lighting is inferior to the professional theater, your professional make-up man will plaster it on so think as to make your actors look ridiculous. Try out your make-up man as you do your electricians and scene shifters. It will pay dividends.” -William J. Watkins, Producing a School Operetta, 1937

There’s always that one kid…

“You cannot do anything with the fellow who arrives at the school just at curtain time. He is a species that produces gray hair on the director’s head. Sometimes you can predict who that person will be, but sometimes it is your most trusted principal actor… In any event, if you wish to live to a normal age, have your entire company on hand a half hour before curtain time- and keep them out of sight.” -William J. Watkins, Producing a School Operetta, 1937

Be inspirational. Energy, energy, energy!

“Just before the curtain is ready for the overture he should call all of his people on stage and have another one of his heart-to-heart talks. This talk should be entirely optimistic; he knows they are going to give him a wonderful performance; that every one must give him the best that is in him; that they must all watch for their entrances; speak loud enough and make the audience feel that this is the happiest and peppiest bunch of young people in the country.” – Gwynne Burrows, Light Opera Production For School and Community, 1929

But More Importantly: Why do it?

“Reasons might be easily added, such as the extraordinary amount of pleasure the young folks take in the musical portion of an operetta, the charm this always has for the parents and friends of the youthful singers, and so on…”-Joseph Despicht, The Practical Teacher, 1898.

 “Few programs seem to afford audiences as great pleasure as does the school operetta: it seems to be a lodestone which attracts many who are vitally interested in, as well as those who are remotely concerned with, what is going on in the school. The pleasure afforded to the school community; the gratification which results from seeing, even in a minor role or in a chorus part, one’s own child or a neighbor’s; and the varied appeals of the operetta itself,- all combine to make it a unique medium through which a school may appeal to its own particular and intimate audience.” -Frank A Beach, Preparation and Presentation of the Operetta, 1930

Kenneth Umfleet’s words are still profound and important, probably more true now than 80 years later.

“Most of our educational efforts have been considered sufficient if they have properly attended to the intellectual side of the pupil. The emotional elements, which in reality are far more important in determining character and action, have been left to shift for themselves, practically unguided. We have been centering our efforts on training the intellect rather than the emotions, yet the greater part of mankind lives, and is guided by emotion. It is said that practically all the actions of the present generation are traceable to an emotional source, and, in view of this supposition, the neglect of emotional training is a serious fault in our educational system. It is the opinion of many that dramatic activity will serve as an emotional outlet, an excellent safety valve for the young…

…Moreover, in our schools and in our life we fail to recognize adequately the educational power of joy – the joy of refined and edifying leisure activities. Our education seems to have run to brains, giving slight regard for the feelings. It has been slighting the heart, the imagination, the creative and dramatic nature of the child…”– Kenneth R. Umfleet, School Operettas and Their Production 1929

I’ll try and share more trips down memory lane as I come across them!



  1. […] via How did they do school shows back in the day? — Music Directing the School Musical […]

  2. That last quote by Umfleet made me cry. Beautiful.

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