A History of Playbills and (depending on which spelling you prefer) Theatre Programs, Theater Programs or Theatre Programmes
‘Playbill’ and ‘program’ (or, in Britain, ‘programme’) are commonly accepted today as being the same thing. However, the origins of the two words are somewhat different.
From the Middle Ages, a ‘bill’ has been a written or, later, a printed statement or itemized list. So, a ‘clean bill of health’ is a statement saying that someone or something is in a healthy or acceptable condition; a money ‘bill’ (such as the dollar) is so called because it has a printed and signed statement from a bank saying that the money will be repaid. For several centuries, the word has been used for a printed notice advertising a theatrical event, first for a ‘handbill’ – a small printed sheet, delivered by hand, announcing a theatrical entertainment that ranged from serious plays to public lectures, and from operettas to military bands. By the middle of the nineteenth century, ‘bill’ was used for a large printed piece of paper that, giving information about a play, was posted in public places.
The word ‘programme’ came into the English language from French. Its English use was, at first, applied primarily to a list of and brief information about music played in a concert. By the mid-nineteenth century, it also came to be used for the brief printed pamphlet (containing a cast list) that was handed to people attending a public entertainment.
As they were given away, most of the early play programs were printed as cheaply as possible. They tended at first to be used in large city theatres presenting a prestigious production, often with a famous lead actor. Smaller theatres, music halls and provincial or country theatres where there was a touring company or a variety act continued to use the single-sheets handbill.
It was the sudden and rapid growth of paid commercial advertising that changed forever the theatre programme. In the USA and Western Europe, the theatre in the last half of the nineteenth century provided the only truly popular entertainment and, as mass circulation newspapers were unknown, the theatre play bill was one of the few pieces of printed paper that were widely – and freely – distributed. By the 1870s, advertising, normally for local business, were appearing on theatre programmes that continued to be published normally by the theatre or, more rarely, by a touring company or visiting stage star.
Realising that this development provided a real commercial opportunity, the New York businessman, Frank Vance Strauss, in 1884 approached the larger playhouses offering to provide them, free of charge, with magazine-style ‘theatrical programmes’. For each theatre
that accepted there was a special colour cover and pages with cast-list and brief information about the performance. The other pages – with short articles and a considerable amount of advertising – were the same for every theatre. The contents of the programs changed, as the plays normally did, every week. Strauss made his money – and his subsequent vast fortune – from his advertisers who were guaranteed considerable circulation. In 1911, this publication was named the ‘Strauss Magazine Theatre Program’. Most major New York’s theatres used them but not all. The powerful Shubert brothers – whose productions were normally long-running operettas and whose vast Winter Garden Theatre in New York was opened in the same year – chose for many years to issue their own programs.
During this period (from the early 1880s to the beginning of the First World War), the situation was very different in London’s West End. The larger theatres – which either presented expensively staged musicals or were run by famous actor-managers such as Herbert Beerbohm Tree – rigorously exploited every commercial possibility, including selling expensive souvenir programs full of illustrations and postcards of the major actors and scenes from the play.
Not surprisingly, the higher quality of theatre programs in both in Britain and the United States meant that playgoers kept them as a souvenir of their visit to the theatre. Collecting programs and other theatrical memorabilia became a very popular British and American hobby; publishers produced special albums and leather-bound volumes in which these collections could be kept.
The First World War brought to an end the Golden Age of popular theatre that had commence at the beginning of the 1880s. In Britain, the period of social upheaval that followed the war also saw the rise of the cinema as the pre-eminent popular form of entertainment. The theatre became reliant on an entrenched middle-class audience that was fed a diet of mainly drawing-room comedies, classic revivals, escapist musicals and comic reviews. Aware that their playgoers had money to spend, London theatre managers began charging for programmes, the money they received from sales and advertising going some way to compensate them for the Entertainment Tax on theatre tickets that the British government had introduced in 1916.
In the USA, the Strauss publications were being distributed free of charge throughout most Broadway theatres. Over the years, they had several name changes until, in 1934, the name ‘The Playbill’ was finally adopted. Four years earlier, the colour covers had been replaced by a sepia-coloured one that, in time, included a picture of members of the cast.
During the Second World War and the austerity years that followed, the British Government imposed restrictions on the use of paper and so theatre programs, during this period, usually consisted of only a single sheet folded into two (or sometime three) parts. Because of this and because of the uncertainty of the times, British programs from this period are comparatively rare. It was not until the 1970s that most London theatres started issuing the photo-filled programmes that are still common today.
In the USA, there were not such harsh wartime restrictions and the Playbill continued to be published. Over the years, the company’s management has changed many times but the publication ahs continued to grow both in its distribution and its size. Modern issues have coloured covers and, in addition to the advertising and extremely useful information about the play and the cast, contain articles of
considerable interest to most theatregoers. Since 1982, the company has also issued the monthly ‘Playbill – The National Theatre Magazine’.