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 November 26, 2016
Turkey (a flop production); Turkey Show

A “turkey” is a stage production (later a film and then in extended use) that is unsuccessful—a “flop” or a “third rate production,” as entertainment reporter Walter Winchell defined it in Vanity Fair in 1927. The “turkey” expression grew from the term “turkey show,” a special show for a holiday such as Thanksgiving or Christmas, and often the final show of the year. The theatrical “turkey shows” in the early 1900s were one-night affairs usually given in small towns, performed for the money and not the critics.

“A First-Class Attraction for Thanksgiving Day (,,,) No Turkey Show” was an advertisement in The New York Dramatic Mirror on November 17, 1900. The Duluth (MN) Evening Herald explained on April 28, 1903:

“A turkey show? Why, a show that’s put together to fill in the tail end of a season. It hasn’t any reputation or standing and don’t want any. It is simply out to get the money at the close of the season—just thrown together, that’s all.”

There is no precise date for when “turkey show” became just “turkey,” absent any Thanksgiving or Christmas connections. “The show, for which $2,20 was asked, was a turkey of the worst sort” was published in Variety on September 21, 1927 and referred to a bad season opening.


(Oxford English Dictionary)
turkey, n.
An inferior or unsuccessful cinematographic or theatrical production, a flop; hence, anything disappointing or of little value.
1927 Vanity Fair (N.Y.) 29 132/3 ‘A turkey’ is a third rate production.
1939 G. Marx Let. 27 Oct. in G. Marx et al. Groucho Lett. (1967) 21 The boys at the studio have lined up another turkey for us… I saw the present one the other day and didn’t care much for it.

Old Fulton NY Post Cards
17 November 1900, New York (NY) Dramatic Mirror, pg. 28, col. 4 ad:
Managers Take Notice.
WANTED
A First-Class Attraction for
THANKSGIVING DAY
MATINEE AND NIGHT.
NO TURKEY SHOW.
Address JOS. FRALINGER
Academy of Music, Atlantic City, N. J.

Old Fulton NY Post Cards
16 September 1902, The Morning Telegraph (New York, NY), “The Calendar of a Chorus Lady,” pg. 6, col. 3:
NOVEMBER.
Still keeps up my tale of woe. Now I’m with a turkey show. Play in Providence, alack! The Providence if we get back.

Old Fulton NY Post Cards
28 April 1903, Duluth (MN) Evening Herald, “Hotel Gossip,” pg. 8, col. 3:
“We all come back together, and on the way across I put a show together to go over a shot circuit as a “turkey” in the little open time I had been corresponding about.

“A turkey show? Why, a show that’s put together to fill in the tail end of a season. It hasn’t any reputation or standing and don’t want any. It is simply out to get the money at the close of the season—just thrown together, that’s all.”

Old Fulton NY Post Cards
14 December 1904, The Morning Telegraph (New York, NY), “Literature and Stage Management,” pg. 4, col. 6:
“I’m gunnin’ fer some mark with three hundred and fifty to stake a friend of mine ‘ts got a Turkey show to take out on the Codfish Circuit. Turkey shows is about ripe, and there ain’t no time to lose.”

“Meaning by turkey shows” --

“Cheese, cull! Cut that! You know what a turkey show is, all right. Didn’t me and you go out with one last Christmas and get a stake that put us to the good a the plunger fer a month? Oh, you’re wise to the turkey thing, all right.”

Old Fulton NY Post Cards
14 February 1905, Brooklyn (NY) Daily Eagle, “Gossip of the Stage,” pg. 3, col. 4:
Pixley had backed a “turkey” show for his friend and an extremely small town in New York State had been selected for the opening.

Old Fulton NY Post Cards
19 December 1905, The Morning Telegraph (New York, NY), “Told by the Busy Press Agent,” pg. 5, col. 6:
This Is Not a “Turkey Show.”
(...)
He wishes it understood that, although produced at the festive season, this is not a “turkey show,” but distinctly Russian in its tone.

Old Fulton NY Post Cards
13 August 1906, The Evening Telegram (New York, NY), pg. 9, cols. 6-7:
Bird Shows Without Feathers.
What Is a “Turkey Show”?
THREE or four people were discussing a theatrical venture which may be seen in this city some time in the fall. “I think,” said George M. Cohan, “it’s a turkey show. Don’t know what a turkey show is? Well, I didn’t until a short time ago. I was in the printer’s one day when a man came in and said he wanted some paper for a ‘turkey show.’ It was a new one on me, and I asked what it meant. He explained that it was a show that simply went out to get the Thanksgiving money.”

Perhaps even this explanation needs a little explaining. Of all the holidays of the year Thanksgiving Day is the best beloved by the theatrical managers. On Christmas and New Year’s a great many people are apt to stay away from the theatre, but from the fact that almost any kind of show will get a good house it does seem as though the entire United States showed its thankfulness by going to the theatre. Hence a show that will just about get away under cover of a general and generous theatregoing is a “turkey.”

And New York certainly gets some tough old birds.

18 March 1907, The Sun (Baltimore, MD), pg. 9, col.7:
GOOD-BY WEEK AT GAYETY
Closing Show Strong For “Turkey” Or Last Show Of Season.
The closing show of the season at the Gayety is strong for a “turkey” show.

Old Fulton NY Post Cards
24 December 1907, Duluth (MN) Evening Herald, pg. 1, col. 6:
ACTORS GIVE TURKEY SHOWS
Companies Playing Small Engagements to Secure Funds.
New York, December 23.—This promises to be a banner year for “turkey shows.” In theatrical parlance a “turkey show” is a company playing a short engagement in some small town in the holiday season. The company is organized for this special engagement, sometimes a single performance, and in many cases the proceeds are divided among the members of the company.

Google Books
The Sorrows of a Show Girl:
A Story of the Great “White Way”

By Kenneth McGaffey
Chicago, IL: J. I. Austen Company
1908
Pg. 12:
“I got a chance to shake down a little change as prima donna with a turkey show. What do you know about that ? I played with one last Thanksgiving, and—excuse these tears—it was a college town and the show was on the blink. ‘Nough said.”

24 July 1909, Variety, pg. 3, col. 3:
A “TURKEY” STRANDS.
Toledo, July 22.
It’s not so hard stranding in the summer as when the snow is flickering about. So one doesn’t hear laments arising from Bowling Green, O., although a “turkey” show of 25 people has just flopped over in that town. There were fourteen girls with the company.

Old Fulton NY Post Cards
31 December 1909, The Evening Post (New York, NY), “It Happens in Stageland” Salvation Sometimes Lies in ‘Turkey Shows,’” pg. 2, col. 2:
Lastly, as a resource for the hard-up, comes the despised “turkey show,” which is perhaps better known among the managers as the “holiday snap.” A group of idle players is more or less hastily picked up on Broadway and sent to one of the smaller towns to furnish the inhabitants with Thanksgiving or Christmas or Washington’s Birthday entertainment. Royalties cost nothing, for old standbys like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” “East Lynne,” or “Cricket on the Hearth” are selected.

25 June 1910, Variety, “A Self-Made Manager to His Booking Agent” by J. A. Murphy, pg. 13, col. 2:
The Stadium has got an act advertised which is all performed by chickens and other poultry. I aint seen it yet but one of my actors says it is a turkey show.

21 September 1927, Variety, pg. 47, col. 2:
SYRACUSE PEEVED OVER TURKEY TAB AT $2.20
Papers Had Urged Town to Support Legit and Look What Was Handed ‘Em
Syracuse, Sept. 20.
In the 30 years that the house has done duty it is doubtful that a poorer seasonal opening ever played the Wieting than the colored show, Mamie Smith and Her Gang, which opened the road year at the Shubert theatre last week.

The show, for which $2,20 was asked, was a turkey of the worst sort.

Google Books
27 November 1927, Vanity Fair, “A Primer of Broadway Slang” by Walter Winchell, pg. 132, col. 3:
“A turkey” is a third rate production.

17 October 1928, Variety, pg. 49, col. 5:
“PEGGY ANN, TURK,
BLOWS UP IN MINN.
(...)
Bainbridge had got wind that the show was a “turkey” and was tickled at the prospect of having it cancelled.

18 January 1931, Hartford (CT) Courant, “The Lights of New York,” pg. E2:
Turkey SHow.
This information should have been told a month ago, but it is an important note for the record.

When a show is called a “turkey” it is very bad entertainment. In fact, one producer fired his press agent for illustrating the advertisement of Thanksgiving and Christmas matinees with the picture of a turkey.

The expression originated many years ago when troupers often found themselves stranded over the holidays in some small town. They would piece together an impromptu show and gie it as a benefit to buy themselves a turkey dinner.

The shows were always terrible, and they became known as “turkey dinner shows.”

10 August 1931, Charlotte (NC) Observer, “Behind he Scenes in Hollywood” by Hubbard Keavy, pg. 13, col. 5:
But the citizens of the suburb apparently never had heard of the Marx brothers. They didn’t think they were funny. The show was a turkey.

25 November 1965, Los Angeles (CA) Times, “Broadway Dines on Turkeys, Too” by Cecil Smith, pt. 4, pg. 30, col. 1:
So many turkeys have been launched in the American theater this season that today’s dinner is almost an anticlimax.

The Producer’s Perspective
BROADWAY VOCAB 101. WHY IS A FLOP CALLED A TURKEY ANYWAY?
November 25, 2010
(...)
COMMENTS
Douglas Gray
November 27, 2010
Alternate Holiday Explanation:
Though attractive, it’s hard to deny,
The turkey’s IQ is not high.
But everyone knows,
Like many bad shows.
Turkeys are fowl and don’t fly.

Joe
November 29, 2010
I had heard there was a time when Broadway shows traditionally opened in late fall in hopes of tapping into a holiday surge and those that weren’t any good never made it past Thanksgiving.
Though considering the source, that could easily have been apocryphal.

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityMusic/Dance/Theatre/Film • Saturday, November 26, 2016 • Permalink