After coming into possession of a patrimony of some sixty thousand dollars, Hooker shut himself up in his den and began work on a comic opera, which, in his callow estimation, would eclipse anything of the kind ever seen on the American stage. The music, more or less reminiscent, he composed himself; that is to say, he thumped out melodies on the piano, which were transcribed, arranged, and orchestrated by a professional musician. When it was finally finished he christened it, “Revels of the Muses,” a title that scarcely indicated the shocking antics through which the inexperienced young author put these classic damsels.50
Hooker submitted his libretto and score to several prominent managers, but they all shook their heads negatively, giving various shrewd excuses for not even examining the piece. Having spent two months in vain quest of a manager who would give him a favorable hearing, he at last resolved to produce the opera at his own expense. It was now midsummer. There was no time to waste If he desired to make all the necessary preparations for an autumn opening.
Through a dramatic agency, Hooker secured the services of doughty Colonel Rush as business manager. The stage manager, an eccentric individual by the name of Pragg, gave valuable assistance in suggesting the necessary scenery and in selecting the designs for the costumes. It was also Pragg who insisted on engaging for the leading female rôle his old friend Bertha Watts, whose name had been a famous one in the burlesque world a few years before, but who, now, in reality, was rather too passé, not to say obese, for the rollicking part of Thalia. However, Pragg’s entreaties prevailed, and Miss Watts was engaged.
Within a short time, the newspapers gave glowing announcements of the great comic opera by Harry Hooker, Esq., to be produced 51 early in October at the New Amsterdam Theatre. Rehearsals were held every day, and in the meantime Hooker decided to take the company out for two weeks on the New England circuit, and try his mental offspring “on the dog,” as it is called in theatrical parlance. Colonel Rush booked the “show,” which opened in Hartford, September 21.
During the tour Hooker had little or no cause to be gratified with the reception accorded his opera. The press roasted it without mercy, and the meagre audiences that gathered to witness it went away dissatisfied. If it would not please the provincial, how could he expect to please the metropolitan with it? The production had cost him nearly $20,000. Add to this four weeks’ rental of the New Amsterdam Theatre and other expenses, assuming that there would be little or no business, and he would lose anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 more. This ominous state of affairs set Hooker to thinking.
Now it happened that he had come into possession of a book entitled “A List of the Bald-Headed Men of New York,” which some individual, with an abnormal amount of patience, had compiled and put on the market. The book which gave the names and addresses 52 of over one hundred thousand New York men who are baldheaded had interested Hooker, irrespective of its statistical accuracy, because he had a tendency to baldness himself. He now conceived the idea of reserving the first three rows of orchestra seats in the New Amsterdam every night of the run of his opera for bald-headed men of New York to whom he would send “complimentaries.” For instance, for the opening night, October 12, he would send as many free tickets, each with a coupon, as there were seats in the first three rows of the orchestra; for the second night as many more, and so on, checking in the book each name as fast as the tickets were sent out, thus avoiding repetition.
Well, Hooker actually set this plan into operations, sending out for different dates over ten thousand complimentaries. He kept the secret to himself until the opening night, when a large throng came to see “Revels of the Muses” at the New Amsterdam.
For several minutes before the overture began, it was seen that an unusual number of baldheaded men had taken seats in the first three rows of the orchestra chairs. Every minute more baldheaded men joined their brethren, and the audience commenced a 53 guarded titter, which soon broke forth into a perfect gale of prolonged laughter. The baldheaded men themselves immediately became aware that they formed a curious phalanx, and nearly all of them commingled their merriment with the rest of the hilarious audience.
“This is a pretty rich joke on us,” said one red-faced old chap to another, who sat alongside in the second row.
“I think it a most impertinent piece of business,” snarled the man addressed. He was in evening dress, while his neighbor, who thought the whole thing a jolly lark, was garbed in a snuff-colored business suit.
Just as the curtain was about to go up, a tall, fine-looking man, with a smooth pate, went down the centre aisle, but halted short about midway to his seat on seeing the three rows or more or less shining heads in front. His look of utter astonishment soon altered into a broad smile of amusement, and then quickly turning about he retraced his steps toward the lobby, pursued by such advice from the gallery gods as, “Don’t go home, baldy! Take your medicine like the rest! Don’t be a coward,” etc., etc.54
Hooker had not let any of the company into the secret, and the consequence was that they were all convulsed when they saw the gentlemen in front. Even Pragg was quite overcome for a few minutes. One of the members of the orchestra, the trombone player, a little earlier had slipped out of his place, fearing he might die of strangulation from laughing, if he remained. But he soon returned, his old stolid self.
All the ladies in the audience were particularly amused by the exhibit, and the opera was merely a tame side-show in comparison. By way of trying to recover her composure, Bertha Watts advanced to the footlights and indulged in the impromptu remark: “I’m so glad to see so many of my personal friends here to-night,” and it tickled the people more than any lines or business in the opera.
It was an evening of wild and unrestrained merriment. A few of the baldheaded gentlemen did not appear to enjoy the occasion at all, keeping their eyes stoically and steadfastly on the actors, and two or three of them rose and marched defiantly out of the house. But most of them entered heartily into the spirit of the hour, and even poked fun at each other.55
Toward the end of the last act, Colonel Rush nudged Hooker, who was standing in the rear of the auditorium, and whispered: “I think you are a genius.”
I wish I had space in which to quote some of the notices of the opera that appeared in the next morning’s papers. The critics who had been present were unanimous in saying that they never had so much fun in their lives. They were careful to inform the public that their fun was not derived so much from Mr. Hooker’s piece as from the gentlemen in the first three rows.
Of course many of the baldheaded men invited for the second performance, who read these accounts in the press, were vastly puzzled. But after a little meditation nearly all of them concluded to visit the theatre, if only to experience of being in the presence of between two or three hundred other bald men. In consequence, there were only three or four vacant chairs in the first three rows of the orchestra at the New Amsterdam on the second night of the famous run of “Revels of the Muses.”
A quarter of an hour before it was time for the curtain to rise, “Standing room only” was placarded outside the theatre, and it 56 might as well be said now that this announcement was posted of absolute necessity every night to the closing performance.
Even Hooker, who is older but not much wiser than he was then, will admit that it was not his comic opera that people came to see, but the interesting contingent of gentlemen who were always in evidence down in front. The scheme served to develop the moral courage, or rather the sang froid, of many a bald-headed bachelor, who, before meeting with his fellows in this happy camaraderie, had been wretchedly sensitive concerning what he regarded as a sore and unmerited affliction.
Hooker left the metropolis for “green fields and pastures new,” with over $40,000 of profits from his opera. He visited all the large cities, and in every theatre where his company played there were baldheaded men in the first three rows. It was the advance man’s business to provide complimentaries to these gentlemen in every city visited. They appreciated the comical honor, speaking generally, just as much as had the liberal-minded New Yorkers. Other theatrical troupes tried to imitate Hooker, but none of them ever succeeded. He grew independently rich in three seasons and retired in time, just as the novelty of his 57 idea had begun to tarnish. He spends most of his time in southern Europe where the climate agrees best with his rather delicate health.
Bertha Watts is the wife of an old-time admirer, — a baldheaded man by the way — and lives in a cozy Harlem flat.
Poor Pragg is buried in the Actors’ Plot in Evergreens.
Colonel Rush goes about New York, a crusty old man, always kicking himself for not having been the originator of Hooker’s scheme.
The manuscript and all the part books of “Revels of the Muses” were long since reduced to ashes.