New York, 1907
For a full half hour the stage manager sat on a stool near the footlights, his fingers curled on the hooked head of his cane, silently watching the vaudeville players at morning rehearsal. Not a single word of correction or praise passed his lips, not even the typical complaint that a minute be cut from one bit or added to another. Harland Stanley was biding his time.
But now, as Pepper MacClair hunched against a white gazebo set piece with her knees pulled to her chest and the hem of her black cotton frock skimming the top edge of her boots, she watched the man pummel the heel of his steel-braced foot into the boards, not once, but three times in a brutal call for quiet.
In an instant, the music stopped, the voices fell away.
This was why they were here, the reason the scrawled note had been tacked to the call board telling performers and stagehands alike they were expected on the stage.
No exceptions, no excuses. Even the wardrobe mistress was sitting upon a crate, tugging her needle and thread through a ripped seam on an extra-large pair of green plaid trousers.
Jimmy, the opening-act juggler, roused himself from beside the piano, the brim of his bowler clenched between his fidgety fingers. “Mr. Stanley, before you say anything about that Variety notice, I’d like to say in my defense that it was hardly raining plates upon the stage. It was one plate, sir, only one.”
The stage manager raised his palm. “I am not concerned with your dropped plate, Mr. Jack.” He turned to Marvani, the magician. “Nor am I concerned with the dove that seemed to disappear beneath your cape until it escaped by way of your sleeve.” He turned to the Shorty Shakespeareans, a troupe of thespians measuring between three and four feet tall. “Neither will I remark upon certain forgotten lines from the Midsummer scene, except to say it was most unfortunate that these events— and others—were witnessed by the only critic to visit The Chance Theatre in well over a year. Shall we leave it at that?”
The stage filled with murmurs of shame and sheepish agreement.
Pepper watched her fellow players in disbelief before scrambling to her feet. “No,” she declared. “We should not leave it at that.”
She searched for a supportive nod from any quarter, but no one met her gaze.
Except Stanley, who stared back with a hateful glare. “I suppose you would prefer I make light of these errors? Or lie and say such mistakes don’t matter?”
“No, but what you might say . . . You could say . . .” She did not know what he should say, only that what he had said was frightfully unfair. The day the critic appeared had been an awful day at the theater. Another stagehand had quit, the third that month, and a ventriloquist with two weeks left to his contract had gotten himself arrested for disorderly conduct during the dinner break. The shuffling backstage had taken a toll, as Stanley was very much aware.
He smiled and watched her fluster.
“You could say the notice was undeserved,” she blurted at last.
“Undeserved, Miss MacClair?”
“Yes, very much undeserved.” Fresh conviction swelled within her. “You could say it was untrue. That we are not a ‘band of vaudeville fools, misfits and deviants.’ ” She was quoting the portion of the notice where the critic had poked fun with the phrase, alleging it to be more apt than Vaudeville Stars, Marvels and Delights, the show’s title since The Chance Theatre had opened its doors sixteen years before.
Stanley pounded his cane like a gavel. “I will not be lectured to, Miss MacClair. Not by anyone, and certainly not by a seamstress.”
His words cut, though not as deeply as did the muffled laughter behind her. She shot a look over her shoulder and saw Beatrice Pennington’s froth of white-blond curls at the edge of the crimson curtain. Her dance partner was already dressed in their Dancing Dolls costume— the snug black bodice that covered little more than a corset and the black tulle skirt that dropped to the knee.
Beside her, Trixie Small, the third and youngest member of their trio— a girl of a mere sixteen years— stared in horror at the stage beneath her feet.
Pepper ignored them. “I am a dancer now, Mr. Stanley, and have been since the start of the season, as you well know.”
“Seamstress, chorus girl, it hardly makes a difference. May we move on to the business at hand?”
She would have pressed him, forced him to admit the wrong, if she had not seen the message implicit in the expressions of those around her. The others wanted her to stop. Jimmy and Marvani. The dog trainer and the wardrobe mistress. Even the stagehands. She read the meaning in their dodged and downcast glances: If Stanley preferred to ignore the notice, they did as well.
She plopped down against the fake gazebo’s step and crossed her arms over her chest.
“Thank you,” he said with false sincerity and turned to the others. “I have called you together to say that Mr. DeGraaf will not return this week as planned, and it is with deepest regrets that he has advised me his convalescence will extend indefinitely.”
Disappointment tinged the air. The sickness that had kept the theater’s owner away had seemed a blessing at first. A welcome reprieve from the old man’s booming Dutch curses and nightly rants. But now that The Chance had been left solely in Stanley’s tight-fisted charge, even Pepper was eager for DeGraaf’s return.
The marquee and playbills still read James P. DeGraaf Presents, but for the past five months it had been the stage manager filling the show’s slots, and he was doing it with one embarrassment after another. Last week’s headliner had been the worst yet. The man sang Irish ballads so maudlin and morose that more than one patron fled mid-act with a hanky pressed to her nose. The singer had taken it as a source of pride, even crowed backstage about his “keen ability to stir the soul.” Pepper had to clasp her hands to keep from smacking him silly. Only a simpleton called a bit that sent the audience fleeing from the seats a success, but if he did not know that yet, he likely never would. He was a lost cause, and as far as she was concerned, so was Stanley.
“So you are still in charge,” she said. “That is the big announcement?”
“No, Miss MacClair. Mr. DeGraaf’s son will be stepping in during his father’s recovery.”
Robert DeGraaf was returning to The Chance? The old man had sent his son off to a Cambridge college on a sweltering September morning more than three years ago, and the younger DeGraaf had not stepped foot in the theater, even once, in all that time.
The boy had never spent much time at The Chance, but the veterans knew him well enough. “How can a young man reared in classrooms and drawing rooms know anything about running a theater?” “When has he ever showed an interest in his father’s business?” “What good can he possibly do?”
Pepper held her tongue. The complaints about Robert were not new, and they had never been fair. He could certainly do no worse than Stanley. She, for one, welcomed the change, and it had nothing to do with her feelings for the younger DeGraaf. Absolutely nothing at all. Robert had promised he would come back for her. No matter what anyone said, he was keeping his word.