Amateur Night by Jack London
The elevator boy smiled knowingly to himself. When he took her up,
he had noted the sparkle in her eyes, the color in her cheeks. His
little cage had quite warmed with the glow of her repressed eagerness.
And now, on the down trip, it was glacier-like. The sparkle and the
color were gone. She was frowning, and what little he could see of her
eyes was cold and steel-gray. Oh, he knew the symptoms, he did. He was
an observer, and he knew it, too, and some day, when he was big
enough, he was going to be a reporter, sure. And in the meantime he
studied the procession of life as it streamed up and down eighteen
sky-scraper floors in his elevator car. He slid the door open for her
sympathetically and watched her trip determinedly out into the street.
There was a robustness in her carriage which came of the soil
rather than of the city pavement. But it was a robustness in a finer
than the wonted sense, a vigorous daintiness, it might be called,
which gave an impression of virility with none of the womanly left
out. It told of a heredity of seekers and fighters, of people that
worked stoutly with head and hand, of ghosts that reached down out of
the misty past and moulded and made her to be a doer of things.
But she was a little angry, and a great deal hurt. "I can guess
what you would tell me," the editor had kindly but firmly interrupted
her lengthy preamble in the long-looked-forward-to interview just
ended. "And you have told me enough," he had gone on (heartlessly, she
was sure, as she went over the conversation in its freshness). "You
have done no newspaper work. You are undrilled, undisciplined,
unhammered into shape. You have received a high-school education, and
possibly topped it off with normal school or college. You have stood
well in English. Your friends have all told you how cleverly you
write, and how beautifully, and so forth and so forth. You think you
can do newspaper work, and you want me to put you on. Well, I am
sorry, but there are no openings. If you knew how crowded—"
"But if there are no openings," she had interrupted, in turn, "how
did those who are in, get in? How am I to show that I am eligible to
"They made themselves indispensable," was the terse response. "Make
"But how can I, if I do not get the chance?"
"Make your chance."
"But how?" she had insisted, at the same time privately deeming him
a most unreasonable man.
"How? That is your business, not mine," he said conclusively,
rising in token that the interview was at an end. "I must inform you,
my dear young lady, that there have been at least eighteen other
aspiring young ladies here this week, and that I have not the time to
tell each and every one of them how. The function I perform on this
paper is hardly that of instructor in a school of journalism."
She caught an outbound car, and ere she descended from it she had
conned the conversation over and over again. "But how?" she repeated
to herself, as she climbed the three flights of stairs to the rooms
where she and her sister "bach'ed." "But how?" And so she continued
to put the interrogation, for the stubborn Scotch blood, though many
times removed from Scottish soil, was still strong in her. And,
further, there was need that she should learn how. Her sister Letty
and she had come up from an interior town to the city to make their
way in the world. John Wyman was land-poor. Disastrous business
enterprises had burdened his acres and forced his two girls, Edna and
Letty, into doing something for themselves. A year of school-teaching
and of night-study of shorthand and typewriting had capitalized their
city project and fitted them for the venture, which same venture was
turning out anything but successful. The city seemed crowded with
inexperienced stenographers and typewriters, and they had nothing but
their own inexperience to offer. Edna's secret ambition had been
journalism; but she had planned a clerical position first, so that she
might have time and space in which to determine where and on what line
of journalism she would embark. But the clerical position had not been
forthcoming, either for Letty or her, and day by day their little
hoard dwindled, though the room rent remained normal and the stove
consumed coal with undiminished voracity. And it was a slim little
hoard by now.
"There's Max Irwin," Letty said, talking it over. "He's a
journalist with a national reputation. Go and see him, Ed. He knows
how, and he should be able to tell you how."
"But I don't know him," Edna objected.
"No more than you knew the editor you saw to-day."
"Y-e-s," (long and judicially), "but that's different."
"Not a bit different from the strange men and women you'll
interview when you've learned how," Letty encouraged.
"I hadn't looked at it in that light," Edna conceded. "After all,
where's the difference between interviewing Mr. Max Irwin for some
paper, or interviewing Mr. Max Irwin for myself? It will be practice,
too. I'll go and look him up in the directory."
"Letty, I know I can write if I get the chance," she announced
decisively a moment later. "I just FEEL that I have the feel of it,
if you know what I mean."
And Letty knew and nodded. "I wonder what he is like?" she asked
"I'll make it my business to find out," Edna assured her; "and I'll
let you know inside forty-eight hours."
Letty clapped her hands. "Good! That's the newspaper spirit! Make
it twenty-four hours and you are perfect!"
"—and I am very sorry to trouble you," she concluded the statement
of her case to Max Irwin, famous war correspondent and veteran
"Not at all," he answered, with a deprecatory wave of the hand.
"If you don't do your own talking, who's to do it for you? Now I
understand your predicament precisely. You want to get on the
Intelligencer, you want to get in at once, and you have had no
previous experience. In the first place, then, have you any pull?
There are a dozen men in the city, a line from whom would be an
open-sesame. After that you would stand or fall by your own ability.
There's Senator Longbridge, for instance, and Claus Inskeep the
street-car magnate, and Lane, and McChesney—" He paused, with voice
"I am sure I know none of them," she answered despondently.
"It's not necessary. Do you know any one that knows them? or any
one that knows any one else that knows them?"
Edna shook her head.
"Then we must think of something else," he went on, cheerfully.
"You'll have to do something yourself. Let me see."
He stopped and thought for a moment, with closed eyes and wrinkled
forehead. She was watching him, studying him intently, when his blue
eyes opened with a snap and his face suddenly brightened.
"I have it! But no, wait a minute."
And for a minute it was his turn to study her. And study her he
did, till she could feel her cheeks flushing under his gaze.
"You'll do, I think, though it remains to be seen," he said
enigmatically. "It will show the stuff that's in you, besides, and it
will be a better claim upon the Intelligencer people than all the
lines from all the senators and magnates in the world. The thing for
you is to do Amateur Night at the Loops."
"I—I hardly understand," Edna said, for his suggestion conveyed no
meaning to her. "What are the 'Loops'? and what is 'Amateur Night'?"
"I forgot you said you were from the interior. But so much the
better, if you've only got the journalistic grip. It will be a first
impression, and first impressions are always unbiased, unprejudiced,
fresh, vivid. The Loops are out on the rim of the city, near the
Park,—a place of diversion. There's a scenic railway, a water
toboggan slide, a concert band, a theatre, wild animals, moving
pictures, and so forth and so forth. The common people go there to
look at the animals and enjoy themselves, and the other people go
there to enjoy themselves by watching the common people enjoy
themselves. A democratic, fresh-air-breathing, frolicking affair,
that's what the Loops are.
"But the theatre is what concerns you. It's vaudeville. One turn
follows another—jugglers, acrobats, rubber-jointed wonders,
fire-dancers, coon-song artists, singers, players, female
impersonators, sentimental soloists, and so forth and so forth. These
people are professional vaudevillists. They make their living that
way. Many are excellently paid. Some are free rovers, doing a turn
wherever they can get an opening, at the Obermann, the Orpheus, the
Alcatraz, the Louvre, and so forth and so forth. Others cover circuit
pretty well all over the country. An interesting phase of life, and
the pay is big enough to attract many aspirants.
"Now the management of the Loops, in its bid for popularity,
instituted what is called 'Amateur Night'; that is to say, twice a
week, after the professionals have done their turns, the stage is
given over to the aspiring amateurs. The audience remains to
criticise. The populace becomes the arbiter of art—or it thinks it
does, which is the same thing; and it pays its money and is well
pleased with itself, and Amateur Night is a paying proposition to the
"But the point of Amateur Night, and it is well to note it, is that
these amateurs are not really amateurs. They are paid for doing their
turn. At the best, they may be termed 'professional amateurs.' It
stands to reason that the management could not get people to face a
rampant audience for nothing, and on such occasions the audience
certainly goes mad. It's great fun—for the audience. But the thing
for you to do, and it requires nerve, I assure you, is to go out,
make arrangements for two turns, (Wednesday and Saturday nights, I
believe), do your two turns, and write it up for the Sunday
"But—but," she quavered, "I—I—" and there was a suggestion of
disappointment and tears in her voice.
"I see," he said kindly. "You were expecting something else,
something different, something better. We all do at first. But
remember the admiral of the Queen's Na-vee, who swept the floor and
polished up the handle of the big front door. You must face the
drudgery of apprenticeship or quit right now. What do you say?"
The abruptness with which he demanded her decision startled her. As
she faltered, she could see a shade of disappointment beginning to
darken his face.
"In a way it must be considered a test," he added encouragingly. "A
severe one, but so much the better. Now is the time. Are you game?"
"I'll try," she said faintly, at the same time making a note of the
directness, abruptness, and haste of these city men with whom she was
coming in contact.
"Good! Why, when I started in, I had the dreariest, deadliest
details imaginable. And after that, for a weary time, I did the
police and divorce courts. But it all came well in the end and did me
good. You are luckier in making your start with Sunday work. It's not
particularly great. What of it? Do it. Show the stuff you're made of,
and you'll get a call for better work—better class and better pay.
Now you go out this afternoon to the Loops, and engage to do two
"But what kind of turns can I do?" Edna asked dubiously.
"Do? That's easy. Can you sing? Never mind, don't need to sing.
Screech, do anything—that's what you're paid for, to afford
amusement, to give bad art for the populace to howl down. And when
you do your turn, take some one along for chaperon. Be afraid of no
one. Talk up. Move about among the amateurs waiting their turn, pump
them, study them, photograph them in your brain. Get the atmosphere,
the color, strong color, lots of it. Dig right in with both hands,
and get the essence of it, the spirit, the significance. What does it
mean? Find out what it means. That's what you're there for. That's
what the readers of the Sunday Intelligencer want to know.
"Be terse in style, vigorous of phrase, apt, concretely apt, in
similitude. Avoid platitudes and commonplaces. Exercise selection.
Seize upon things salient, eliminate the rest, and you have pictures.
Paint those pictures in words and the Intelligencer will have you. Get
hold of a few back numbers, and study the Sunday Intelligencer feature
story. Tell it all in the opening paragraph as advertisement of
contents, and in the contents tell it all over again. Then put a
snapper at the end, so if they're crowded for space they can cut off
your contents anywhere, reattach the snapper, and the story will still
retain form. There, that's enough. Study the rest out for yourself."
They both rose to their feet, Edna quite carried away by his
enthusiasm and his quick, jerky sentences, bristling with the things
she wanted to know.
"And remember, Miss Wyman, if you're ambitious, that the aim and
end of journalism is not the feature article. Avoid the rut. The
feature is a trick. Master it, but don't let it master you. But master
it you must; for if you can't learn to do a feature well, you can
never expect to do anything better. In short, put your whole self into
it, and yet, outside of it, above it, remain yourself, if you follow
me. And now good luck to you."
They had reached the door and were shaking hands.
"And one thing more," he interrupted her thanks, "let me see your
copy before you turn it in. I may be able to put you straight here
Edna found the manager of the Loops a full-fleshed, heavy-jowled
man, bushy of eyebrow and generally belligerent of aspect, with an
absent-minded scowl on his face and a black cigar stuck in the midst
thereof. Symes was his name, she had learned, Ernst Symes.
"Whatcher turn?" he demanded, ere half her brief application had
left her lips.
"Sentimental soloist, soprano," she answered promptly, remembering
Irwin's advice to talk up.
"Whatcher name?" Mr. Symes asked, scarcely deigning to glance at
She hesitated. So rapidly had she been rushed into the adventure
that she had not considered the question of a name at all.
"Any name? Stage name?" he bellowed impatiently.
"Nan Bellayne," she invented on the spur of the moment.
"B-e-l-l-a-y-n-e. Yes, that's it."
He scribbled it into a notebook. "All right. Take your turn
Wednesday and Saturday."
"How much do I get?" Edna demanded.
"Two-an'-a-half a turn. Two turns, five. Getcher pay first Monday
after second turn."
And without the simple courtesy of "Good day," he turned his back
on her and plunged into the newspaper he had been reading when she
Edna came early on Wednesday evening, Letty with her, and in a
telescope basket her costume—a simple affair. A plaid shawl borrowed
from the washerwoman, a ragged scrubbing skirt borrowed from the
charwoman, and a gray wig rented from a costumer for twenty-five cents
a night, completed the outfit; for Edna had elected to be an old
Irishwoman singing broken-heartedly after her wandering boy.
Though they had come early, she found everything in uproar. The
main performance was under way, the orchestra was playing and the
audience intermittently applauding. The infusion of the amateurs
clogged the working of things behind the stage, crowded the passages,
dressing rooms, and wings, and forced everybody into everybody else's
way. This was particularly distasteful to the professionals, who
carried themselves as befitted those of a higher caste, and whose
behavior toward the pariah amateurs was marked by hauteur and even
brutality. And Edna, bullied and elbowed and shoved about, clinging
desperately to her basket and seeking a dressing room, took note of it
A dressing room she finally found, jammed with three other amateur
"ladies," who were "making up" with much noise, high-pitched voices,
and squabbling over a lone mirror. Her own make-up was so simple that
it was quickly accomplished, and she left the trio of ladies holding
an armed truce while they passed judgment upon her. Letty was close at
her shoulder, and with patience and persistence they managed to get a
nook in one of the wings which commanded a view of the stage.
A small, dark man, dapper and debonair, swallow-tailed and
top-hatted, was waltzing about the stage with dainty, mincing steps,
and in a thin little voice singing something or other about somebody
or something evidently pathetic. As his waning voice neared the end
of the lines, a large woman, crowned with an amazing wealth of blond
hair, thrust rudely past Edna, trod heavily on her toes, and shoved
her contemptuously to the side. "Bloomin' hamateur!" she hissed as
she went past, and the next instant she was on the stage, graciously
bowing to the audience, while the small, dark man twirled
extravagantly about on his tiptoes.
This greeting, drawled with an inimitable vocal caress in every
syllable, close in her ear, caused Edna to give a startled little
jump. A smooth-faced, moon-faced young man was smiling at her
good-naturedly. His "make-up" was plainly that of the stock tramp of
the stage, though the inevitable whiskers were lacking.
"Oh, it don't take a minute to slap'm on," he explained, divining
the search in her eyes and waving in his hand the adornment in
question. "They make a feller sweat," he explained further. And then,
"What's yer turn?"
"Soprano—sentimental," she answered, trying to be offhand and at
"Whata you doin' it for?" he demanded directly.
"For fun; what else?" she countered.
"I just sized you up for that as soon as I put eyes on you. You
ain't graftin' for a paper, are you?"
"I never met but one editor in my life," she replied evasively,
"and I, he—well, we didn't get on very well together."
"Hittin' 'm for a job?"
Edna nodded carelessly, though inwardly anxious and cudgelling her
brains for something to turn the conversation.
"What'd he say?"
"That eighteen other girls had already been there that week."
"Gave you the icy mit, eh?" The moon-faced young man laughed and
slapped his thighs. "You see, we're kind of suspicious. The Sunday
papers 'd like to get Amateur Night done up brown in a nice little
package, and the manager don't see it that way. Gets wild-eyed at the
thought of it."
"And what's your turn?" she asked.
"Who? me? Oh, I'm doin' the tramp act tonight. I'm Charley Welsh,
She felt that by the mention of his name he intended to convey to
her complete enlightenment, but the best she could do was to say
politely, "Oh, is that so?"
She wanted to laugh at the hurt disappointment which came into his
face, but concealed her amusement.
"Come, now," he said brusquely, "you can't stand there and tell me
you've never heard of Charley Welsh? Well, you must be young. Why,
I'm an Only, the Only amateur at that. Sure, you must have seen me.
I'm everywhere. I could be a professional, but I get more dough out
of it by doin' the amateur."
"But what's an 'Only'?" she queried. "I want to learn."
"Sure," Charley Welsh said gallantly. "I'll put you wise. An 'Only'
is a nonpareil, the feller that does one kind of a turn better'n any
other feller. He's the Only, see?"
And Edna saw.
"To get a line on the biz," he continued, "throw yer lamps on me.
I'm the Only all-round amateur. To-night I make a bluff at the tramp
act. It's harder to bluff it than to really do it, but then it's
acting, it's amateur, it's art. See? I do everything, from Sheeny
monologue to team song and dance and Dutch comedian. Sure, I'm
Charley Welsh, the Only Charley Welsh."
And in this fashion, while the thin, dark man and the large, blond
woman warbled dulcetly out on the stage and the other professionals
followed in their turns, did Charley Welsh put Edna wise, giving her
much miscellaneous and superfluous information and much that she
stored away for the Sunday Intelligencer.
"Well, tra la loo," he said suddenly. "There's his highness chasin'
you up. Yer first on the bill. Never mind the row when you go on.
Just finish yer turn like a lady."
It was at that moment that Edna felt her journalistic ambition
departing from her, and was aware of an overmastering desire to be
somewhere else. But the stage manager, like an ogre, barred her
retreat. She could hear the opening bars of her song going up from
the orchestra and the noises of the house dying away to the silence
"Go ahead," Letty whispered, pressing her hand; and from the other
side came the peremptory "Don't flunk!" of Charley Welsh.
But her feet seemed rooted to the floor, and she leaned weakly
against a shift scene. The orchestra was beginning over again, and a
lone voice from the house piped with startling distinctness:
"Puzzle picture! Find Nannie!"
A roar of laughter greeted the sally, and Edna shrank back. But the
strong hand of the manager descended on her shoulder, and with a
quick, powerful shove propelled her out on to the stage. His hand and
arm had flashed into full view, and the audience, grasping the
situation, thundered its appreciation. The orchestra was drowned out
by the terrible din, and Edna could see the bows scraping away across
the violins, apparently without sound. It was impossible for her to
begin in time, and as she patiently waited, arms akimbo and ears
straining for the music, the house let loose again (a favorite trick,
she afterward learned, of confusing the amateur by preventing him or
her from hearing the orchestra).
But Edna was recovering her presence of mind. She became aware, pit
to dome, of a vast sea of smiling and fun-distorted faces, of vast
roars of laughter, rising wave on wave, and then her Scotch blood
went cold and angry. The hard-working but silent orchestra gave her
the cue, and, without making a sound, she began to move her lips,
stretch forth her arms, and sway her body, as though she were really
singing. The noise in the house redoubled in the attempt to drown her
voice, but she serenely went on with her pantomime. This seemed to
continue an interminable time, when the audience, tiring of its prank
and in order to hear, suddenly stilled its clamor, and discovered the
dumb show she had been making. For a moment all was silent, save for
the orchestra, her lips moving on without a sound, and then the
audience realized that it had been sold, and broke out afresh, this
time with genuine applause in acknowledgment of her victory. She chose
this as the happy moment for her exit, and with a bow and a backward
retreat, she was off the stage in Letty's arms.
The worst was past, and for the rest of the evening she moved about
among the amateurs and professionals, talking, listening, observing,
finding out what it meant and taking mental notes of it all. Charley
Welsh constituted himself her preceptor and guardian angel, and so
well did he perform the self-allotted task that when it was all over
she felt fully prepared to write her article. But the proposition had
been to do two turns, and her native pluck forced her to live up to
it. Also, in the course of the intervening days, she discovered
fleeting impressions that required verification; so, on Saturday, she
was back again, with her telescope basket and Letty.
The manager seemed looking for her, and she caught an expression of
relief in his eyes when he first saw her. He hurried up, greeted her,
and bowed with a respect ludicrously at variance with his previous
ogre-like behavior. And as he bowed, across his shoulders she saw
Charley Welsh deliberately wink.
But the surprise had just begun. The manager begged to be
introduced to her sister, chatted entertainingly with the pair of
them, and strove greatly and anxiously to be agreeable. He even went
so far as to give Edna a dressing room to herself, to the unspeakable
envy of the three other amateur ladies of previous acquaintance. Edna
was nonplussed, and it was not till she met Charley Welsh in the
passage that light was thrown on the mystery.
"Hello!" he greeted her. "On Easy Street, eh? Everything slidin'
She smiled brightly.
"Thinks yer a female reporter, sure. I almost split when I saw'm
layin' himself out sweet an' pleasin'. Honest, now, that ain't yer
graft, is it?"
"I told you my experience with editors," she parried. "And honest
now, it was honest, too."
But the Only Charley Welsh shook his head dubiously. "Not that I
care a rap," he declared. "And if you are, just gimme a couple of
lines of notice, the right kind, good ad, you know. And if yer not,
why yer all right anyway. Yer not our class, that's straight."
After her turn, which she did this time with the nerve of an old
campaigner, the manager returned to the charge; and after saying nice
things and being generally nice himself, he came to the point.
"You'll treat us well, I hope," he said insinuatingly. "Do the
right thing by us, and all that?"
"Oh," she answered innocently, "you couldn't persuade me to do
another turn; I know I seemed to take and that you'd like to have me,
but I really, really can't."
"You know what I mean," he said, with a touch of his old bulldozing
"No, I really won't," she persisted. "Vaudeville's too—too wearing
on the nerves, my nerves, at any rate."
Whereat he looked puzzled and doubtful, and forbore to press the
But on Monday morning, when she came to his office to get her pay
for the two turns, it was he who puzzled her.
"You surely must have mistaken me," he lied glibly. "I remember
saying something about paying your car fare. We always do this, you
know, but we never, never pay amateurs. That would take the life and
sparkle out of the whole thing. No, Charley Welsh was stringing you.
He gets paid nothing for his turns. No amateur gets paid. The idea is
ridiculous. However, here's fifty cents. It will pay your sister's car
fare also. And,"—very suavely,—"speaking for the Loops, permit me to
thank you for the kind and successful contribution of your services."
That afternoon, true to her promise to Max Irwin, she placed her
typewritten copy into his hands. And while he ran over it, he nodded
his head from time to time, and maintained a running fire of
commendatory remarks: "Good!—that's it!—that's the
stuff!—psychology's all right!—the very idea!—you've caught
it!—excellent!—missed it a bit here, but it'll go—that's
And when he had run down to the bottom of the last page, holding
out his hand: "My dear Miss Wyman, I congratulate you. I must say you
have exceeded my expectations, which, to say the least, were large.
You are a journalist, a natural journalist. You've got the grip, and
you're sure to get on. The Intelligencer will take it, without doubt,
and take you too. They'll have to take you. If they don't, some of the
other papers will get you."
"But what's this?" he queried, the next instant, his face going
serious. "You've said nothing about receiving the pay for your turns,
and that's one of the points of the feature. I expressly mentioned it,
if you'll remember."
"It will never do," he said, shaking his head ominously, when she
had explained. "You simply must collect that money somehow. Let me
see. Let me think a moment."
"Never mind, Mr. Irwin," she said. "I've bothered you enough. Let
me use your 'phone, please, and I'll try Mr. Ernst Symes again."
He vacated his chair by the desk, and Edna took down the receiver.
"Charley Welsh is sick," she began, when the connection had been
made. "What? No I'm not Charley Welsh. Charley Welsh is sick, and his
sister wants to know if she can come out this afternoon and draw his
pay for him?"
"Tell Charley Welsh's sister that Charley Welsh was out this
morning, and drew his own pay," came back the manager's familiar
tones, crisp with asperity.
"All right," Edna went on. "And now Nan Bellayne wants to know if
she and her sister can come out this afternoon and draw Nan
"What'd he say? What'd he say?" Max Irwin cried excitedly, as she
"That Nan Bellayne was too much for him, and that she and her
sister could come out and get her pay and the freedom of the Loops, to
"One thing, more," he interrupted her thanks at the door, as on her
previous visit. "Now that you've shown the stuff you're made of, I
should esteem it, ahem, a privilege to give you a line myself to the