OVATIONS: David Belasco Biography

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“From candle light, through gas, locomotor reflectors, the oxyhydrogen lime-light, up to the present electric system, Mr. Belasco has pursued the advance of his art. Until today none can rival him in the wizardry of stage lighting.” Theatre Magazine, 1922

David Belasco was born on July 25th, 1853, the son of Abraham and Reina Martin Belasco, who came to California from London during the Gold Rush. When the eastern states were engaged in The American Civil War, Belasco was learning all he could behind the scenes at the San Francisco Theatre. He grew up spending his formative years in the 1860s and 1870s taking various jobs including everything from callboy, script copier, actor, stage manager and playwright. He spent time traveling through mining camps and frontier settlements with small theatre companies, taking on the duties of acting, reciting poetry, singing, dancing, clowning, and painting and building scenery.

By the age of twenty-nine, Belasco had ventured to New York City to become the stage manager for the Madison Square Theatre. A few years later, he became the stage manager and house playwright for the new Lyceum Theatre. During this time, Belasco co-wrote several hit plays with playwright and good friend, Henry C. De Mille (The Charity Bell and Lord Chumley). In later years, Belasco would serve as a mentor to De Mille’s two sons, playwright William C. DeMille. and Hollywood director Cecil B. De Mille. Belasco also taught at the Lyceum’s School of Acting, a successful and highly regarded enterprise that eventually became the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

As Belasco gained industry experience, he began to specialize in naturalism, as he fixated on representing the aesthetic elements of productions as realistically as possible. The term “Belascoism” was even used to describe his romanticized style of naturalism. He is known to have used a flock of real sheep in a production; reproduced a restaurant kitchen with actual cooking smells blown into the audience; and purchased items from a boardinghouse, including furniture, carpet, gas fixtures, and wallpaper, all in order to accurately recreate the setting on stage.

His techniques proved rewarding; in 1898, Belasco had his first smash hit as a playwright, director, and independent manager. His Civil War melodrama, The Heart of Maryland, became a runaway hit in New York, London, and as a touring production across the United States.

In 1902, Belasco opened the first Belasco Theatre in New York City, which included a completely electrical system as well as an electrical workshop for further developments. The Theatre, leased from Oscar Hammerstein, was formerly known as the Theatre Republic before Belasco renamed it after himself. A few years later, ground was broken for a brand new theatre, the Stuyvesant: a state-of-the-art playhouse built largely to Belasco’s own designs. In 1910, the Stuyvesant took the name of the Belasco Theatre, while the former reverted back to the Republic (known today as the New Victory). During this time, Belasco continued to experiment with the latest technology for stage lighting and other effects.

Between 1884 and 1930, Belasco wrote, directed, and produced more than 100 Broadway plays, including his Madame Butterfly (1900).  In total, he claimed to have been involved with the production of 374 plays, adapting or writing most of them himself. Belasco’s innovations in the theatre industry led him to become the first American Producer whose name alone attracted patrons to the theatre. His success as a lighting designer contributed in creating productions that were unprecedented in technical innovations. He employed a large staff and became known for the attention to detail in his lighting and mechanical developments.

Often dressed in all black with a snow-white collar and matching beard, Belasco’s resemblance to a Catholic Priest inspired his title of The Bishop of Broadway. Certainly he had earned his acquired patriarchy over the industry, although his behavior was not priestly. He was known to have been quite promiscuous with the chorus girls.

His Techniques:

  • Use of arc lights on the wings of the theatre, which had to be manually operated. They were difficult to diffuse and control the color, but he did so with silk coloring and mica slides for dimming and spotting.
  • Use of baby spots rather than large spots to make sure all the actors’ faces could be seen throughout the auditorium/theatre.
  • Limited use of foot lighting, and in 1915 he covered up his foot lights and extended his stage, with all his lighting coming from above.
  • Use of reflected light and French colored lacquer to paint the reflectors for color effects.
  • Importance on color and shading – He installed colored lights in the dressing rooms and insisted the actors apply stage make up and costumes in similar lighting as would be on stage.

Belasco credited his love for lighting design with his childhood growing up with the Californian sun; “I gained my first ideas of lighting from the wonderful skies of southern California. I went directly to nature for my inspiration. There, on the brightest days, I would sit among the hills and watch the lights and shadows as they came and went. After a time I began trying to reproduce those lights and shadows.”

Belasco firmly believed that set design was an essential part of theatre, as he remarked, “I have sometimes doubled the persuasiveness of a speech, not by changing a word written by the author or an intonation or gesture by the actor, but by increasing the value of the light in which the character stands.”