A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from June 20, 2011
“Actor can read the telephone book” (actor’s saying)

An old saying is that an entertainer is so good or so popular that he or she can “read the telephone book/directory” and the audience will still be satisfied. The saying appeared in print since at least this, from a 1935 Saturday Evening Post story:

“‘She can read the telephone directory and make ‘em love it,’ was Broadway’s description of what she did to an audience.”

Other sayings preceeded the “telephone book” one. Helena Modjeska (1840-1909) recited the multiplication table in Polish before an 1887 New York City audience, bringing it to tears. The Italian actor Tommaso Salvini (1829-1915) is credited with saying that he can bring an audience to tears by reading a menu.


Wikipedia: Tommaso Salvini
Tommaso Salvini (January 1, 1829 in Milan – December 31, 1915 in Florence) was an Italian actor. His father and mother were both actors, and Tommaso first appeared when he was barely fourteen as Pasquino in Goldoni’s Donne curiose. In 1847 he joined the company of Adelaide Ristori, who was then at the beginning of her brilliant career. It was with her as Elettra that he won his first success in tragedy, playing the title rôle in Alfieris Oreste at the Teatro Valle in Rome.

He fought in the cause of Italian independence in 1849; otherwise his life was an unbroken series of successes in his art. He acted frequently in England, and made five visits to America, his first in 1873 and his last in 1889. In 1886 he played there Othello to the lago of Edwin Booth.

Apart from Othello, which he played for the first time at Vicenza in June 1856, his most famous impersonations included Conrad in Paolo Giacometti’s La Morte civile, Egisto in Alfieri’s Merope, Saul in Alfieri’s Saul, Paolo in Silvio Pellico’s Francesca da Rimin, Oedipus in Nicolini’s play of that name, Macbeth and King Lear.

Salvini’s acting in Othello greatly inspired the young Russian actor Constantin Stanislavski, who saw Salvini perform in Moscow in 1882 and who would, himself, go on to become one of the most important theatre practitioners in the history of theatre. Stanislavski wrote that Salvini was the “finest representative” of his own approach to acting.

Salvini retired from the stage in 1890, but in January 1902 took part in the celebration in Rome of Ristori’s eightieth birthday. Salvini published a volume entitled Ricordi, aneddoti ed impressioni (Milan, 1895). Some idea of his career may be gathered from Leaves from the Autobiography of Tommaso Salvini (London, 1893).

Salvini was so confident in his talents as an actor that he was once quoted as saying, “I can make an audience weep by reading them a menu.”

Wikipedia: Helena Modjeska
Helena Modjeska (October 12, 1840 – April 8, 1909, whose actual Polish surname was Modrzejewska (Polish pronunciation: [mɔdʐɛˈjɛfska]), was a renowned actress who specialized in Shakespearean and tragic roles.

23 March 1887, Kansas City (MO) Star, pg. 2:
“ONE, TWO, THREE.”
A Series of Remarkable Elocutionary Ef-
fects Produced by Modjeska.

From the New York Tribune.
A week of two ago Mme. Modjeska, who happened to be spending Sunday in New York, was talking to some friends in her rooms at the Clarendon hotel about her art, always with her a favorite topic.
(...)
By this time her auditors were divided between their admiration of the art which was something more than elocutionary and amusement at the little trick she had played, not only on them, but on the many assemblies to whom she had recited her “Polish poem.” But as the recitation proceeded and she sounded every note of human passion and emotion they burst into continued applause. Finally, number after number having been given a distinct meaning, the whirlwind of indignant scorn and indignation and the accompanying regal gesture with which the climax “forty” came “brought down the house,” and her point was gained. “You can make a tragedy of the multiplication table and a comedy of a long division sum,” was one of the comments addressed to her.

Google Books
August 1908, Munsey’s Magazine, pg. 630:
THE ACTOR’S POWER OF EXPRESSION
He must be able so to breathe “Mesopotamia” that it seems to be a blessed word indeed. He must be ready to rival the feat credited to Mme. Modjeska at a reception in New York, when she was asked to recite in Polish. For a while she demurred, but she yielded to the urging of her friends. Standing at one end of the room, she began to repeat a strangely rhythmic composition, unintelligble of course to her hearers, although (Pg. 631—ed.) they could catch the occurrence of the same sounds at intervals. At first, it seemed simple enough, apparently with some give and take of question and answer; and then it became pathetic, and as she spoke the saddening words, the voice of the accomplished actress broke. There was almost a sob in her tones, and there were tears ready to fall from her eyes. but the one person in the company who understoof Polish had to leave the room to restrain his laughter, because what she was delivering thus emotionally was the multiplication table.

Google Books
The Art of Play Production
By John Dolman
New York, NY: Harper
1928
Pg. 285:
The time-worn story of Madame Modjeska reducing an audience to tears by reciting the Polish multiplication table is more likely to be quoted in illustration of the power of imagination than in defense of real emotion in acting—as is the similar story of three actors in a restaurant, one of whom made the others weep by reading the menu aloud.

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The Saturday Evening Post Stories
New York, NY: Random House
1935
Pg. 100:
For the past five years New York had flocked to see her in—what did it matter? “She can read the telephone directory and make ‘em love it,” was Broadway’s description of what she did to an audience.

14 October 1947, Nevada State Journal (Reno, NV), “Pitching Horseshoes” by Billy Rose, pg. 4, col. 6:
“She plays the part of a native girl whose sailor friend has walked out on her. With that set-up, she couldn’t miss if she came out and read the telephone directory.”

26 March 1948, Los Angeles (CA) Times, “Looking at Hollywood” by Hedda Hopper, pt. 2, pg. A9:
The Lunts’ performances are sheer magic, but they could read the telephone directory and make it entertaining.

30 October 1955, Cleveland (OH) Plain Dealer, “Faint praise Damns Shirley Booth’s Play” by Harlowe R. Hoyt, pg. 37D:
Walter F. Kerr of the Herald Tribune commented: “All these people who swore they’d go to see Shirley Booth read the telephoine book now have their opportunity.”

Google Books
The Face of the World;
An international scrapbook of people and places

By Cecil Beaton
New York, NY: Day
1957
Pg. 152:
They have been in the theatre full many a year; their timing and perfection are legendary; they could read the telephone book and get a laugh a minute.

Google Books
Take My Life
By Eddie Cantor with Jane Kesner Ardmore
New York, NY: Doubleday & Company
1957
Pg. 88:
I should add here that Jolson would have been a sellout if all he’d done was read the telephone directory.

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The Making of Australian Theatre
By Hugh Hunt
Melbourne: Cheshire
1960
Pg. 32:
It has sometimes been said that a great actor can read the telephone directory to the audience and still hold their attention riveted upon himself.

Google Books
Celebrity Register, Volume 2
By Cleveland Amory and Earl Blackwell
New York, NY: Simon & Schuster
1963
Pg. 390:
Indeed, so formidable is the acting team of Alfred Lunt and his wife Lynn Fontanne that it has been said people would come to see them read the telephone book.

Google Books
The Paper Dragon: a novel
By Evan Hunter
New York, NY: Dell
1967, ©1966
Pg. 346:
“He could read the telephone book and make it exciting, you know that.”
“Certainly,” Stuart said, and glanced at Arthur.
“But the play is a very good one, and that helps,” Mitzi said,...

Google Books
2 June 1969, New York magazine, “Movies” by Judith Crist, pg. 49, col. 1:
Since Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward could, however, for my money, just stand there and read the telephone book — who’s to quarrel?

Google Books
Jack Benny:
An intimate biography

By Irving Fein
New York, NY: Putnam
1976
Pg. 182:
...to do was read the telephone book, and with his stares and his timing he would get screams. Well, one day Louella Parsons printed a line about all Jack had to do was read the telephone book, and Jack told the audience on one of his programs about the Parsons line. He told them that he thought he really needed writers, but if Louella Parsons thought he could get laughs by reading the phone book, he’d try it.

Google Books
From the Margin:
Writings in Italian Americana

Edited by Anthony Julian Tamburri, Paolo Giordano and Fred L. Gardaphé
West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press
1991
Pg. 132:
I once heard Sara Ferratti, the actress, read the telephone book in Rome. She moved me, us to tears.

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The Wisdom of Eve
By Mary Orr
New York, NY: Dramatists Play Service
1994
Pg. 37:
People have said to me that I could walk on the stage and read the telephone book, and they’d be fascinated. It’s a nice compliment to my ego and I’m flattered but deep down in my cat-like instinct, I know it isn’t true.

Google Books
America’s Bishop:
The life and times of Fulton J. Sheen

By Thomas C. Reeves
San Francisco, CA: Encounter Books
2001
Pg. 6:
“If he came out in a barrel and read the telephone book, they’d love him.”

Google Books
Father Hartke:
His life and legacy to the American theater

By Mary Jo Santo Pietro and Gilbert V. Hartke
Catholic University of America Press
2002
Pg. 238:
Of course Channing is such a great favorite in Washington that she could read the telephone book at a furniture mart and pack them in.

Google Books
Natural Rights and the Right to Choose
By Hadley Arkes
New York, NY: Cambridge University Press
2002
Pg. XII:
When he returned to teaching, with a stint back in Claremont, one of his students wrote in a review that “Professor Uhlmann could read the telephone book and make it compelling.”

Google Books
American Empire:
The Victorious Opposition

By Harry Turtledove
New York, NY: Del Rey
2004, ©2003
Pg. 413:
Dutch could read the telephone book and make it interesting. If there ever was a great communicator, he was the man.