1922: Theater Producer Sam Harris

From a 1922 issue of The American Magazine:

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How a Messenger Boy Became a Big Theatrical Producer

The interesting career of Sam Harris, who as a youngster sampled several kinds of jobs, but slowly and surely found his way to the realization of his main ambition

by Mary B. Mullett

At least half a dozen persons, in talking to me about Sam Harris, have said something like this: “Tell you what you ought to do: you ought to call his story ‘A Tale of Three T’s’ — Telegrams, Towels, and Theatres. You see, he was a telegraph boy and he was in the towel supply business; and now he is one of the best theatrical producers in the country. So there you have him; literally ‘to a T.’ Pretty good, eh?”

I don’t agree with them. That little bunch of clever-sounding catch-words does not give you the real story of Sam Harris, any more than a description of a man’s shoes, socks, and shirts would give you a picture of his real self. The jobs a man holds are merely the clothes in which he dresses up his career. The real story lies underneath.

Sam Harris was born forty-seven years ago in a New York tenement district. That means, among other things, that what his father earned in a year did not come within forty rows of apple trees, or, rather, within several rows of figures, of the amount his son now receives in a week!

“You can be sure that I had more pockets in my clothes than I had pennies to go in them,” Mr. Harris said to me; “and of course I wanted pennies just as much as any kid does. But I don’t believe there are many boys who want them for one particular reason as badly as I did. That one reason was my mother.

“I cared more for my mother than for anyone, or anything, else. It hurt me a good deal more to see her go without things than to go without them myself. And I got my first job because I wanted to earn money for her.

“That was when I was about eleven years old. A firm down in Grand Street hired me, for two or three dollars a week, to deliver hats. I used to start out about five o’clock in the afternoon, with so many hat boxes attached to my very small person that I could hardly see where I was going.

“The hats had to be delivered at places within a range of a mile or so and quite often I received twenty or thirty cents for car fare. But as I could think of at least a hundred things I’d rather do with money than to hand it to a street-car conductor, I used to walk. Maybe I was too tired, when I got through walking, to care about spending the money. Maybe I — well, anyhow, I used to take it home to my mother, along with my princely salary.

“That experience gave me my first glimpse of the intricacies of finance. My mother soon discovered a startling increase in the rapidity with which my shoes and stockings were wearing out and she asked for an explanation. When I told her of my pedestrian exploits to save car fare, she praised my motive, but demonstrated to my satisfaction that it would be cheaper for me to ride than to have a new pair of shoes every week. I had been a good son, but a poor financier. I guess that taught me more about accounting than some men ever learn.

“1 went to school, doing odd jobs at odd times, until I had got as far as the second grade of grammar school — and that’s as far as I ever did get. I was about fourteen years old then, eager to go out into the world and earn my own way. So I went down to the Wall Street district and got a job with the Mutual Telegraph Company as messenger boy.

“Whatever else I was, I guess I wasn’t lazy. The office in the financial district closed about five o’clock, so I got the manager to put in a word for me at a branch office up-town and I worked there in the evening after my day’s work downtown.

“I learned at least one important thing while I was a telegraph boy: There was a man named Bloodgood down-town who used to ring all three boxes in his office — Western Union, Postal, and Mutual — when he wanted a messenger. Usually the three boys would show up at the same time. He would call us all into his office, look us over carefully, and choose the one with the cleanest face and hands, the best brushed clothes, and the best polished shoes. And the lucky chap that was chosen got a rip of a dollar! That taught me the value of making a decent appearance.

“After a while, I became messenger boy in a broker’s office; and there, too, I learned some important things. One was that you can make your head save your heels — and save time, too.

“For instance, I used to be sent around to other offices to deliver stock certificates; and sometimes, especially if there was a flurry, or a panic, in the Street, these certificates had to be delivered in a boiling hurry. The clerks were always in a rush and would scribble the names of the various firms to which the envelopes were to go, without stopping to write out the addresses. If I had to hunt up the addresses, it meant delay that might be serious. So I learned the locations of all the firms with which we did business. And as I went around to the various buildings, I made a mental note of the names on other doors and windows; so that in time I knew the addresses of dozens of firms.

“People don’t realize what a time saver the memory is if you make it work for you. I knew boys who were always hunting up addresses, or stopping to ask people where a firm was located. They wasted their own time and the time of their employers. It would have been less effort to have learned the addresses once for all.

“Going around, as I did, to all these offices, I met a great many business men, and I had a number of good offers to take up other work. But I was only a boy, and a very restless one at that. I hadn’t yet found the thing I wanted to settle down to. So the next move I made was in quite a different direction.

Over on Eighth Avenue there was a man who ran a bicycle repair shop and, as a side line, a towel supply business. He would put a mirror and towel rack in an office and supply three clean towels a day for seventy-five cents a week. But he didn’t do much with this feature of his business. The bicycle craze was at its height then and he was more interested in his repair shop.

“I knew about the towel supply scheme and I thought there were big possibilities in it, so I asked him if I couldn’t solicit orders for him. He agreed and I went to work on a commission basis: I was to receive a dollar for each order I brought in. The first week I brought in so many orders that he had hard work getting the money together to pay me my commissions. And the second week I brought in so many that I swamped the business. He couldn’t buy the necessary mirrors, racks, and towels to fill the orders.

“‘Look here!’ he said, ‘I haven’t got the time or the capital to do business this way. And how do I know that you can get enough orders to pay me to devote my whole time to the towel proposition?’

‘”How many orders would make it worth your while?’ I asked.

“He thought it over and said, ‘Five hundred.’

“‘All right,’ I said; ‘I’ll get them.’ And I did, inside of a few weeks.

“You mustn’t think this was any super-human achievement on my part. It was simply a wonderful opportunity and I happened to see it at the psychological moment. The business of supplying clean towels every day to the great office buildings is a big enterprise now, but it was just starting then. Any live young man with
a good appearance — Bloodgood had taught me that — a civil tongue, and a pair of legs that could keep on the move all day long, could have got those five hundred orders.

“The proprietor of the business wanted me to take a half interest in it, but I wasn’t satisfied yet. I liked work, almost any kind of work. But I hadn’t yet found the kind I wanted to stick to for life.

“All this time I had been tremendously interested in the theatre. We didn’t have movies then; but I used to go to the Bowery theatres, when I was a boy, every time I could get the few nickels necessary to admit me to the cheapest seats. And I used to hang around the theatres and run errands for the actors. Later I got a job in Miner’s Bowery Theatre as a stage hand.

“Boys are a queer species, aren’t they?” Mr. Harris interrupted himself with a laugh. “And I’m afraid I was queerer than even a boy has any right to be. I used to do things that I knew would get me into trouble at home; hanging around the theatre at night, for example. And there was one thing I could not stand; that was to go home and be lectured for an hour or two at a stretch by my father.

“When I knew I was due for one of these lectures I didn’t go home at all. I stayed away all night and slept in bread wagons or in some comer or other. The next day, when I knew my father would be gone, I went home. My mother could always manage me; but my father, though he meant it all right, did the one thing I couldn’t stand. I wouldn’t have minded a beating — at least, not much. But to be lectured is as if someone beat your mind. Do you understand what I mean?

“I don’t believe it does children much good. In fact, I don’t believe it does anybody much good. I would have run a mile, or have stayed out all night, to escape a ‘talking to’ when I was a kid. And perhaps it is because I felt it so keenly then that I am so opposed to it now.

“If I ask someone, who is working with me — my people don t work for me, they work with me — if I ask him for information he ought to have ready for me, and he doesn’t have it ready, I’m not going to haul him over the coals and lecture him for half an hour. I’ll only make him sore if I do that.’

“What will you do?” I asked.

“Oh, I probably will say: ‘Don’t you think you’re a little bit late with this?’

“You see, it’s this way: I think there is too much talk about getting service from employees and associates. What we should want to get is cooperation. I can’t make anyone work for me. What I can try to do is to make him want to work. If he wants to, he will work. If he doesn’t want to, I might talk myself blue without getting the work out of him. If I am not able to get his cooperation, I let him go. The fault may be his, or mine. But for some reason we don’t pull together. At any rate, I won’t try to beat his mind into being ‘good,’ for it can’t be done.”

When a man says things like this, it is perfectly natural for you to begin mentally to check up the facts and see whether they fit the creed he has expressed. I had talked with some of the people who, as Mr. Harris puts it, work with him; and I had found them so enthusiastic about him that it was almost amusing.

“Let me tell you how it is!” said one of them. “There’s a lot of offices where the prize little gloom-spreader is the boss, he less he comes around, the happier everybody is. But it’s just the opposite here. Somehow, everybody’s sitting around smiling after Mr. Harris has come in.

“And the work we get done! You know that a man can’t have four successful shows running in New York at one time, and several more on the road, without an immense amount of detail to be looked after. The other day, when someone asked me how many people we had handling all this managerial work, and I said there were only ten of us, he wouldn’t believe me. But we get away with it simply because everything runs along as smooth as silk. In some offices, the people are flying around like chickens with their heads off — and accomplishing just about as much.

“That isn’t Mr. Harris’s way. There’s never any fussing and fuming, and backing and filling. He knows what he wants; and he lets us know, without getting us all balled up. If he makes a mistake, he takes all the responsibility. If we make one, he helps us not to make the same one a second time. He’s absolutely on the level with everybody.”

One of the most interesting things in Sam Harris’s career is the fact that he made Terry McGovern the champion lightweight of the world. When I asked him about this, he said:

“Well, that came about partly by accident. I happened to go over to Greenpoint one evening with some friends to see a match, and one of the fighters was a young fellow who was billed as ‘Terrible Terry.’ You can imagine that he wasn’t so terribly terrible, however, for he was fighting then for three dollars a match! I was pretty young myself — only about twenty — but I was interested in the sport, as a spectator, I mean, and it seemed to me that this chap had unusual possibilities. So I got him to let me be his manager. And in two years he was champion of the world in his class.”

“How did you do it?” I asked.

“By matching him very carefully,” said Mr. Harris; and, leaning forward in his chair, he added, “that’s the way to make anybody a success in any line. I matched McGovern with one fighter, then with another, then with another; and so on. I picked opponents who were not too far beyond him in ability for him to beat them. But I kept raising the standard, making each new fight a little harder than the one before, always planning a match from which he would learn something.

“I made him go forward slowly — but I never let him stand still. I kept him from being over-confident, by matching him against men who were not easy for him. But I kept him from losing confidence, because I did not put him up against a man who was sure to lick him.

“You make a big business man, a successful doctor or lawyer, a great actor or artist, just the way you make a champion prize-fighter. The great danger is in trying to go too fast. You can’t jump from the little things into the great big ones, and not get licked. Match yourself against a little harder job, and then a little harder one, and keep learning all the time! That’s the way to make yourself a champion. The trouble with most men is that they want a big match — that is, a big job — too soon; and they don’t learn enough from the smaller jobs.”

“Is that the way you learned the theatrical business?” I asked.

“It certainly was! I began learning when I hung around the theatre in my boyhood. I added to my knowledge when I was a stage hand. Then, when McGovern became champion, I put him in a play as the leading character and we toured the country. Next, for a few years, I was in a firm of which Al Woods was a member. Then, for sixteen years, I was with George M. Cohan in the firm of Cohan and Harris. And for the past two years I have been ‘on my own’ as a producer and manager. I’ve grown up to my present job through those years of experience. They are absolutely invaluable to me.

“No achievement of any kind is impossible, if you understand clearly what you want to do — and how to do it. All the failures in the world are due to a lack of one or both of those things.”

Here was a statement of another part of Sam Harris’s creed; and again I tried to find how the facts checked up with his theories. When the firm of Cohan and Harris was dissolved, and Mr. Harris started out “on his own,” plenty of people shook their heads and declared that he would not succeed by himself.

“He’s a good business manager,” they said, “but he doesn’t know anything about putting on plays. Cohan was the one that did that.

When I asked an old friend of Mr. Harris’s about this, he said, “It is true that they divided the work between them — Cohan being the play producer, and Harris the business manager. It was an absolutely harmonious arrangement. In all the years of their partnership, I believe there never was a written contract between them.

“But outsiders did not realize that Mr. Harris had plenty of ideas about stage production and that he was constantly enlarging his knowledge. He used to sit back in the theatre during rehearsals, smoking a cigar and rarely saying a word. But year by year, as he watched and listened and kept thinking and studying, he was accumulating a wonderful knowledge of stage technique. And when the time came for him to take hold of the machinery himself he amazed everyone by his mastery of it. There isn’t a detail of the work that he does not understand and supervise.

The fact that in each of the two seasons during which he has worked alone he has had four successes running simultaneously in New York is so remarkable that I asked Mr. Harris whether he himself selects his plays.

“Yes,” he said; “I must be the one to make the decision on all important matters — and most matters are important in this business. A man who hasn’t confidence in his own judgment, and the courage to depend on it, is no more stable than a weathercock. I consult others; but I must stand on my own feet. If I make a mistake, I must take the responsibility. If I make too many mistakes, it will show that my judgment isn’t good enough for my job. I will lose out; and I ought to. No man can ride long on other men’s shoulders. It’s too uncertain. The men who are carrying him are liable to step from under at any moment, and down he comes.

“Make your own decisions — and make them now. Shoving them into a corner won’t dispose of them. Pushing them off is like striking a punching bag. It comes back, and hits you in the face, and there it is, just as solid as ever.

“Putting off decisions is simply a waste of time; and time is one of the biggest factors in achievement of any kind. The man who takes two days to do what another man does in one day is hopelessly handicapped.

“One of the best ways of saving time is to tell the truth. It is amazing to me how people of all kinds waste time by lying, or bluffing, or side-stepping, or trying to let somebody down easy. For instance, someone comes into your office to ask for a job. You haven’t anything for him, and you know you won’t have. But you hate to come out flatly and tell him this, so you say, ‘I’m sorry I haven’t anything just at present. You might leave your name with me; and if anything turns up—’

“You side-step the unpleasant task of telling the truth; and what happens? A few weeks later, your caller comes back to see if anything has turned up, and you have the whole thing to do over again. That is just one example of how we waste time by not stating the truth and getting it over with. You give a sigh of relief when you get rid of something, or someone, in this manner. ‘There!’ you say to yourself; ‘that’s out of the way!’ But it isn’t. It comes back, and keeps on coming back, until you meet the issue squarely and dispose of it definitely and honestly.

“And there’s another advantage in being known as a person who can be depended on to tell the truth. People then know that you mean what you say. If you say ‘No,’ that settles it. They don’t hang on, hoping that you will weaken and say ‘Yes.’ If you say ‘I will do so-and-so,’ they don’t keep running around after you to see whether you are really going to do it. They know you will and they leave you alone. Even if there was no other reason for being absolutely straightforward and truthful, it would be worth the effort simply because it saves so much time and trouble.”

“Going back to the subject of plays,” I said, “what does the public want?”

“To be entertained!” was the emphatic answer. “And from my point of view they are right. I don’t mean that a play should not have some big idea in it; but if it is nothing but a lot of talk about an idea, it isn’t what it should be.

“Take one of the plays I produced this season: ‘Six-Cylinder Love.’ There is a big idea in that play; but not some far-off one, that nine tenths of us never have to think of in our own lives. It is the idea that living beyond one’s means is a dangerous pastime. You don’t have to go far to find people who are acutely interested in that subject, do you? If the man in a certain seat doesn’t bring it home to himself, he knows that his Aunt Mary, or his Cousin John, or his neighbor next door, is flying too high, and he nudges his wife and whispers it to her.

“But the idea is not put across, in this case, by a lot of moralizing about it. You see the thing actually happen in the play; see it happen to real people, as real as yourself or your neighbors. And there’s laughter in it, and tears, and suspense, and finally satisfaction. People are entertained. They have a good time. They haven’t had a prosy sermon, or a psychological discussion. They know what it’s all about. And they say: ‘You bet your life, that’s true!’

“I’ll tell you about another play I produced, which shows something else that the public likes. Last year I put on ‘The Hero;’ the story of a young man who always had been a good deal of a scamp, but who went to France and came home covered with medals — but still a scamp. He does all sorts of rotten things; and yet he has some fine and lovable qualities. And the audience liked him! They saw the good in him and they pictured him as a sort of under dog, the victim of circumstances. Finally, he is passing a burning building, and after rushing into the house and rescuing a child, he himself is burned to death.

“Now that play was not a financial success; and do you know why? Because people wanted to see the boy come out all right; they wanted him to repent and be noble, so that they could forgive him his faults and enjoy loving him for his good qualities. In other words, they always want to see the weak grow strong, the little fellow win, the under dog come out on top. When you come right down to it, that’s a fine trait in the public. It shows that people are fundamentally kind and generous. If anyone should put on the greatest play ever written, and in that play the villain triumphed, it would not succeed. You couldn’t drive it down people’s throats.

“It’s just that way in real life. If a man whom you like personally does something wrong, you always begin to make excuses for him — unless he has done wrong to you: stolen your money, or run off with your wife.

“I can give you an illustration right out of my own experience: Some months ago, a young man came to the business office here to collect a bill for seven hundred dollars. The bill was all right, properly made out on the stationery of the firm by which he claimed to be employed as collector. He probably would have received a check for the amount if there had been time to give it to him. But before matters could get that far, the merchant to whom the money was due came in, accompanied by a policeman!

“I went out to see what was the matter, and learned that the young man really had been in the merchant’s employ, but had been discharged. When he left he took with him a lot of bills, and he had been collecting the money and keeping it. He admitted the whole thing and said that he deserved to be punished.

“It certainly was a bad matter, wasn’t it? But I couldn’t help liking the young chap in spite of everything. And I could see that the policeman didn’t have much enthusiasm for making the arrest either. Somehow he liked the boy, too. But the ex-employer, who was the injured party, wanted the boy punished.

“‘It’s all right,’ the young man said; ‘I deserve it. I’ll go with you, but I want you to do me one favor: Please don’t tell my wife. I’ll send for a friend of mine, and he will take a message to her that I’ve had to go out of town on business. Please promise me that!’

‘”But she will have to know sooner or later,’ I said.

“‘Yes,’ the boy admitted; ‘but don’t let her know just yet! You see –‘

“And with that he broke down completely and explained that his wife was going to have a baby, and that he wanted to spare her the knowledge of his disgrace until she would be better able to bear it.

“Of course you can say that it was pretty late to begin thinking about that — and it was. Still, there was something in him that won my interest, and I asked his former employer to give him another chance. He refused; so l asked him if he would let the boy go if I would pay the amount of the indebtedness. He agreed to this, to the evident relief of the policeman; and I did pay it.

“Before the young man left, he said to me, ‘Mr. Harris, I will pay back that money; every cent of it!’

“Now, here is the sequel to the incident: The young man did pay me every cent I had advanced. He is doing well in another position and I am sure he has had a lesson he never will forget.

“But that isn’t the whole story. About that time, we were preparing to put on the play I spoke of: ‘Six-Cylinder Love.’ In its original form, the young husband, who is living beyond his means, did not go to the extent of actually stealing money from his employers. I felt that the play would be stronger if he did become a thief; but the others did not agree with me, and for two or three weeks we argued and argued over the matter. Finally, it was decided to let me have my way and the play was changed. I think no one denies now that this very change was largely responsible for the success of the play. And that change was made because of the experience I had with the young man who came to this office to collect money that belonged to his employer.

“We were talking about it one day and the manager of the play said to me: ‘Do you realize that you did yourself a good turn when you helped that boy? It gave you the big idea for the play, made it a success. I figure it was worth at least fifty thousand dollars to you.’

“That’s a pretty big return from casting a little bread on the waters, isn’t it?” asked Mr. Harris with a laugh. “And I hadn’t been looking for any return whatever. I had simply responded to the feeling which is common to all human beings — if audiences are any criterion of the race in general, the feeling that we want to see the weak get another chance, want those who are in trouble to get out of trouble, want the under dog to come out on top; that is, if the under dog has traits that we like.

“An audience would rather see someone who has faults, overcome those faults and turn out well, than to have all the plums drop into the lap of a person who is absolutely perfect, without a single redeeming fault. They want struggle and achievement. That’s the most interesting thing in life, and it is the most interesting thing on the stage. But you’ve got to make it entertaining too.”

* * *

Additional:

Wikipedia: Sam Harris

Original page images (final two are composites), click to enlarge:

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “1922: Theater Producer Sam Harris

  1. Rebecca

    I really enjoyed reading this on Sam Harris. I was looking for a biography on him but couldn’t find one so I was happy to come across this old article you found on him. Thanks so much for posting this, it’s a treat to learn more about him. Interesting too that it came from American Magazine – I just came across that in Lincoln Steffens autobiography.

  2. Roy

    thanks for posting this…Sam H. Harris was my grandmother’s brother and I know very little about him. I would love to know more about his personal life: wife, children, grandchildren.

    • Neilan Stern

      Dear Roy, I am doing genealogical research for a descendant of one of Sam’s siblings. Please, how are you related? Please email me directly.
      Neil

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