Historical SM Calling Technology: Telephone Switchboards

by Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier
Switchboard at the prompter's corner
Switchboard at the prompter's corner

Over the course of 75 years, as cueing technology was continuously updated, it drastically altered how a show was called and how the audience perceived the performance. As noted in my article on bells and whistles, the prompter performed an aural role in the production, one that was noticed and acknowledged by audience members. With the invention of the speaking tube, and cue lights, the prompter’s role became increasingly quieter and more remote, gradually disappearing from the audience’s experience. Once electricity was installed in theaters, the telephone system followed shortly behind.

A small switchboard was often installed in the prompter’s corner which allowed them to communicate to several different areas of the theater, including the front of house and/or the box office. This allowed the prompter to speak directly with front of house personnel about the start of the performance and thereby created a seamless theatrical experience for patrons, upon their entrance to the theater to the final curtain call. Using the switchboard, the prompter could connect to telephones strategically placed throughout the theater including the orchestra pit, green room, star dressing rooms, and other locations.

On the online blog Backstage at the Fox 1929, the author, Bob Foreman, explains how the technology was integrated into the “Super Deluxe Movie Palace” using ground plans and manuals. On his blog site, he includes this list of switchboard and telephone locators:
Switchboard and Telephone Locators List from the Fox Theatre, Atlanta, GA. Courtesy of Bob Foreman, Backstage at the Fox 1929 blog

Notice the “30 STAGE - SWITCHBOARD”, “31 STAGE - PROMPT SIDE (STAGE MGR.)” and “32 STAGE - OPPOSITE PROMPT.” These numbers correspond with the locations in the following map:
Theater Map of the Fox Theatre, Atlanta, GA with telephone locations marked. Courtesy of Bob Foreman, Backstage at the Fox 1929 blog

The backstage switchboard included an in-house phone system, which connected the switchboard, stage manager, orchestra leader, organist, and projection booth, allowing for seamless, two-sided conversations to occur. This switchboard is arguably the precursor to the intercom headsets used today.

In addition to the telephone, a dressing room paging system was invented. Once the call button was pressed at the prompter’s desk, a buzzer would sound out in the dressing room until an actor pressed the response call button. This, in turn, would cause an arrow to appear on the main board to acknowledge the call. Prompters/stage managers no longer needed call boys to fetch actors to the stage, instead these return call stations notified performers of upcoming cues and provided confirmation of acknowledgement to prompters/stage managers.

As noted above, before the mid-nineteenth century, the prompter used aural methods for cueing scene changes and special effects and the cornerstone of their job description included prompting actors who forgot their lines. Both tasks were inherently noticeable to audience members, and as audience members were historically boisterous during performances, the added disruption of the prompter was interpolated into the production. As audiences quieted down at the end of the nineteenth century and the etiquette for attending a performance shaped into the expected behavior we see today, the prompter’s methodologies altered to become quieter and less invasive on the performance.

Today, there is a popular proverbial verse that states that a good stage manager is never noticed. “Poor stage management brings about a poor performance and good stage management means a smooth performance – so smooth sometimes that the audience is quite likely to forget that someone must have been responsible.” (Indianapolis Star, Jun 1, 1919) It is interesting to consider the implications of this proverb and its history. Perhaps if the prompter was not silenced, methodologies not updated, and technology not encouraged, the role of the prompter in a performance would not have been so foundationally changed.

©Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier. All Rights Reserved.