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 February 03, 2012
“I watched this play at a disadvantage—the curtain was up” (Broadway saying)

A good seat in a theater can sometimes add to the enjoyment of the entertainment; a bad seat can make the stage difficult to see or hear. A famous theatrical saying (cited in print since at least 1931) is:

“I saw the play at a disadvantage. The curtain was up.”
or
I saw the play under bad/adverse circumstances/conditions. The curtain was up.”

The bad play was Earl Carroll’s Vanities, a showgirl-studded affair. Newspaper columnist Walter Winchell credited the playwright George S. Kaufman (1889-1961) in 1931, but credited the comedian Groucho Marx (1890-1977) in a column about ten years later. Marx received credit in theatrical manager C. B. Cochran’s book, I Had Almost Forgotten ... (1932).  Kaufman had written two films for the Marx Brothers by 1931—The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930).

Quote Investigator Garson O’Toole also researched this theatrical saying in 2010:

“In conclusion, in 1931 Groucho Marx told the joke to Walter Winchell who then communicated it to his vast audience of followers. Groucho probably credited George S. Kaufman with originating the quip when he spoke to Winchell, but it is not clear whether this information is accurate. It is possible that Marx crafted the witticism but wished to deflect responsibility. In any case, Marx or Kaufman probably created the jest.”

A 1933 newspaper citation (below) credits a “well-known dramatic critic.” George S. Kaufman was also a drama critic. Because Kaufman was credited first in print and because Kaufman was a drama critic as well as a playwright, it’s probable that Kaufman originated the popular theatrical quip.


Wikipedia: George S. Kaufman
George Simon Kaufman (November 16, 1889 – June 2, 1961) was an American playwright, theatre director and producer, humorist, and drama critic. In addition to comedies and political satire, he wrote several musicals, notably for the Marx Brothers. One play and one musical that he wrote won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama: You Can’t Take It With You (1937, with Moss Hart), and Of Thee I Sing (1932, with Morrie Ryskind and Ira Gershwin). He also won the Tony Award as a Director, for the musical Guys and Dolls.

Wikipedia: Groucho Marx
Julius Henry “Groucho” Marx (October 2, 1890 – August 19, 1977) was an American comedian and film star famed as a master of wit. His rapid-fire delivery of innuendo-laden patter earned him many admirers. He made 13 feature films with his siblings the Marx Brothers, of whom he was the third-born. He also had a successful solo career, most notably as the host of the radio and television game show You Bet Your Life. His distinctive appearance, carried over from his days in vaudeville, included quirks such as an exaggerated stooped posture, glasses, cigars, and a thick greasepaint mustache and eyebrows.

Wikipedia: Earl Carroll
Earl Carroll (September 16, 1893 – June 17, 1948) was an American theatrical producer, director, songwriter and composer born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Career
Carroll produced and directed numerous Broadway musicals, including eleven editions of Earl Carroll’s Vanities, Earl Carroll’s Sketch Book, and Murder at the Vanities, which was also made into a film starring Jack Oakie. Known as “the troubadour of the nude”, Carroll was famous for his productions featuring the most lightly clad showgirls on Broadway.

21 October 1931, Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI), “On Broadway” by Walter Winchell, pg. 3, col. 6:
Funny crack that one…I mean when somebody asked George S. Kaufman (who collabed on “Band Wagon”) how he liked the “Vanities” show…”I saw it under bad conditions,” he niftied, “the curtain was up.”

Google Books
I Had Almost Forgotten ...
By C. B. Cochran
London: Hutchinson & Co.
1932
Pg. 232:
Groucho Marx, the wittiest of the Four Marx Brothers of film fame whom I presented in the flesh in London not long ago, was asked whether he had seen the latest edition of Carroll’s “Vanities”.

“Yes. But I saw it under the worst possible conditions,” answered the past-master of wisecracking.

“How was that?” I enquired.

“The curtain was up,” said Groucho.

Google Books
The Night Club Era
By Stanley Walker
New York, NY: Frederick A. Stokes Co.
1933
Pg. 139:
Winchell, however, had been roasting Carroll’s shows for many years. Only a few days before the scene at the Casino he had printed in his column a quip credited to George S. Kaufman and Groucho Marx. Kaufman said to Marx: “What do you think of Earl Carroll’s ‘Vanities’?” and Marx replied: “I had rather not say. I saw it under bad conditions — the curtain was up.”

And so, on this great night at the Casino, Carroll arose and, looking at Winchell, said: “Walter, I wonder if you can take it? We’ve been taking it from you for a long time.” Winchell nodded and said: “Go ahead. It’s O.K.” Carroll went on: “I want to tell you that you are not fit to associate with decent people. You don’t belong!”

4 April 1933, The Evening Tribune (San Diego, CA), pg. 8, col. 4: 
A well-known dramatic critic, on being asked if he had seen the latest “girl show,” answered, “Yes. But I saw it under the worst possible conditions.”

“How was that?”

“The curtain was up.”

Google Books
Life & Letters
Volume 11
1934
Pg. 347:
And was it Mrs. Parker or another who, commenting on a new play, complained quiedy: ‘I saw it under very poor conditions. The curtain was up’?

Old Fulton NY Post Cards
23 November 1935, The Post-Star (Glens Falls, NY), “On Broadway” by Walter Winchell, pg. 4, col. 5:
I like Reader’s Digest nifty headline over its list of capsule criticisms, to wit: “Every Critic Has a Meanie of His Own”...They shouldn’t have used such timeworn ones, though, and overlooked the ace: “What did you think of that show?"..."I hate to say, I saw it under bad conditions—the curtain was up!”

Google Books
Saturday Review of Literature
Volume 25
1942
Pg. 16:
George Kaufman is the author of the most crushing comment of the year. “What did you think of so-and-so that opened last night?” someone asked him. “I thought it was frightful,” said Mr. Kaufman, “but you must remember that I saw it under particularly unfortunate circumstances. The curtain was up!”

16 June 1945, Omaha (NE) World-Herald, “Anecdotes of the Famous,” pg. 4, col. 1:
Disadvantage
While strolling along Broadway one morning, Playwright George S. Kaufman met a producer of his acquaintance.

“Hello, George,” greeted the latter. “Were you at the opening of my new show last night?”

“Uh-huh,” muttered the playwright.

“What did you think of it?”

“It was terrible,” said Kaufman frankly. “But, of course,” he hastened to explain, “I saw it under extremely unfavorable conditions. You see, the curtain was up!”

Google Books
From Gags to Riches
By Joey Adams
New York, NY: F. Fell, Inc.
1946
Pg. 267:
Groucho Marx remarked to Winchell after a flopperoo some years ago: “I saw the show at a disadvantage: the curtain was up.”

28 August 1955, Baltimore (MD) Sun, ‘The Mighty Pen,” pg. SF10:
“The Mighty Pen In Halls Of Ivy” on CBS Television, remembers with some amusement, now that the wound is healed, a devastating remark once made by a drama critic about one of his early efforts on Broadway: “I saw Mr. Colman and the play at a disadvantage. The curtain was up.”

Google Books
George S. Kaufman:
An intimate portrait

By Howard Teichmann
New York, NY: Atheneum
1972
Pg. 34:
“I saw the play at a disadvantage,” he once wrote, “the curtain was up.”

Google Books
A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory
By John A. Cuddon and Claire Preston
Oxford: Blackwell
1998
Pg. 110:
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.’

Google Books
Broadway:
Its History, People, and Places:
An Encyclopedia

By Ken Bloom
New York, NY: Routledge
2004
Pg. 271:
A famous quote of his (George S. Kaufman—ed.) is, “I saw the play at a disadvantage. The curtain was up.”

The Stage (UK)
A question of perspective….
By Mark Shenton on June 12, 2009 9:24 AM
It’s part of the chemistry of live performance that it changes from night to night, and no two performances are ever completely alike. But there’s also no escaping the fact that even going to the same show on the same night doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll see the same show: a lot depends on the view, and your relationship to the stage.

Though one is sometimes put in mind of George S. Kaufman’s immortal comment - “I saw the play at a disadvantage - the curtain was up” — critics are usually lucky when it does go up; it’s in the producers’ interests to give us the best possible views, though this isn’t always infallible.

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityMusic/Dance/Theatre/Film • (0) Comments • Friday, February 03, 2012 • Permalink