"Business was so bad they were shooting deer in the balcony” is an old Broadway saying. The actor George Jessel (1898-1981) said this in 1928 to describe the immense proportions of the Boston Opera House. A 1932 newspaper article (see below) called the old joke “too old for Georgie Jessel, maybe, to whom it is generally attributed.”
In 1930, Broadway business was said to be “so bad that at one house the other night they shot a deer in the balcony.” The Broadway saying is rarely used today.
Wikipedia: George Jessel (actor)
George Albert Jessel (3 April 1898 – 23 May 1981) was an American illustrated song “model,” actor, singer, songwriter, and Academy Award-winning movie producer. He was famous in his lifetime as a multitalented comedic entertainer, achieving a level of recognition that transcended his limited roles in movies. He was widely known by his nickname, the “Toastmaster General of the United States,” for his frequent role as the master of ceremonies at political and entertainment gatherings.
28 October 1928, New York (NY) Times, “What News On the Rialto?”:
IT was George Jessel, commenting on the recent failure of the Dempsey show in Boston, who found a way in which adequately to suggest the vastness of the Boston Opera House. “Why,” he declared, “they shot two wild deer in the balcony last week.”
15 March 1930, Piqua (OH) Daily Call, “New York Day-by-Day” by O. O. McIntyre, pg. 4, col. 4:
Phil Baker observes theatrical business is so bad that the night after a show opened they arrested the doorman for loitering and the third night they shot a deer in the balcony.
15 April 1930, Sandusky (OH) Register, “Daybook of a New Yorker” by Deming Seymour, pg. 4, col. 4:
It’s averred in Times Square that the theater business is so bad that at one house the other night they shot a deer in the balcony.
Old Fulton NY Post Cards
18 April 1932, The Citizen-Advertiser (Auburn, NY), “New York Inside Out” by Sam Love, pg. 4, col. 4:
THE SPRING season is practically free of revivals. Except of the old joke—too old for Georgie Jessel, maybe, to whom it is generally attributed. “Did we have customers?” asks Mr. Jessel. “Ask me,” he asks. “And did they have fun? Why one of them shot a deer in the balcony.”
A Proper Job
By Brian Aherne
Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin
I knew there would be almost nobody in the house, that, in the theatrical phrase, one would be able to shoot deer in the balcony.
The Wit and Wisdom of Hollywood;
From the squaw man to the hatchet man
By Max Wilk
New York, NY: Atheneum
The Mastbaum was so huge that its physical dimensions elicited many derisive quips. It was Al Boasberg who said, “It’s such a big theatre you need a license to shoot deer in the balcony.” And he later added, “At the Mastbaum you don’t hire a manager — you elect a governor.”
(A theater in Philadelphia—ed.)
Google News Archive
13 June 1974, Milwaukee (WI) Journal, “Shooting deer” by William and Mary Morris, Green Sheet, pg. 3, col. 5:
Actually the reference is to a traditional show business description of a house with a lot of empty seats: “The audience was so small you could shoot deer in the balcony.”
A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory
By John A. Cuddon and Claire Preston
capsule criticism A term used by Alexander Woollcott (1887-1943) as the title of an essay on dramatic criticism. It denotes a clever, witty, epigrammatic one-liner (usually damning). Examples are: ‘I watched this play at a disadvantage; the curtain was up’; ‘A bad play saved by a bad performance’; ‘Business was so bad they were shooting deer in the balcony.’
New York City • Music/Dance/Theatre/Film • (8) Comments • Friday, February 03, 2012 • Permalink
My father frequently would say of a small town where nothing much was happening, that you could shoot a moose on Main Street.
He was born in Brooklyn, 1893.
George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of “The African Theatre”, Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much since then.
I remember this broadway saying. I heard it first from my economics teacher way back third grade. Just a thought.
I find it so interesting how sayings from Broadway have made there way in to the everyday things we say in our society. It just goes to show how any art can be influence culture in the most unexpected ways.
I never heard this saying before, but I think it’s very funny - my own dad used to say that you could shoot a gun in church
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Those are some pretty funny sayings. Wouldn’t it be ‘from’ the balcony.
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As a comedy and theatre fan I can appreciate that old saying. But the history behind being such an influence on modern comedy has always fascinated me. Filling seats is key but I love the humor in the variations on this saying. lol I wish more can give us a more lighthearted perspective and help us view events as ‘challenges’, thereby making them less threatening and more positive.