Historical SM Calling Technology: Bells, Whistles, Flags, and Call Boys

by Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier
Reading From a Manuscript Before him, He Continuously Whispers the Lines.  James O. Spearing. “The Prompter’s Art Lost to America.” New York Times, June 19, 1927. ProQuest Historical Newspapers
Reading From a Manuscript Before him, He Continuously Whispers the Lines. James O. Spearing. “The Prompter’s Art Lost to America.” New York Times, June 19, 1927. ProQuest Historical Newspapers

Tracking technological developments over time might be my favorite subtopic within the scope of stage management history. Calling technology predictably changed over time, however, it also affected how audiences related to backstage life. Before Clear-Coms and lightweight headsets, there were telephone switchboards and before that, there were cue lights. But let me tell you a little secret: before electricity, calling the show had an aural impact on the performance.

Prompters used bells, whistles, flags, hand signals, and call boys throughout the performance to indicate scene changes, special effect cues, and warnings for actor entrances. Some historians argue that these bells, whistles, and activities would not have been heard by the audience because of the spectators’ rowdiness and the distance between backstage and the seating area. At the time, it was common for the house to hiss, boo, cheer, and throw food at the stage, a much different etiquette display than our contemporary audiences. As several newspaper articles, first-hand accounts, and biographies confirm, some audience members heard these cueing sounds and remarked on the excitement felt by the crowd when the prompter’s bell rang out, knowing that something was about to happen. The use of bells for signaling cues was so widely understood, that in an 1847 novel called A Natural History of Stuck Up People, humorist Albert Smith parodies the “theatrical use of house bells.”

Just imagine that every time a bell or whistle went off during a show—the curtain opened, the set changed, or a special effect occurred. These cues were indicated in the promptbook: a “W” stood for whistling, a sharp sign (#) represented bell cues, and a large number with vertical slashes (//2//) corresponded with the call boys book and indicated forthcoming entrances. These notations are commonly found in many old promptbooks.

“Old Style - The Prompter Passes - No More an Essential of Our Stage”. San Francisco Chronicle Feb. 15, 1894. ProQuest Historical NewspapersMichael R. Booth, theatre historian, wrote a book review of The London Theatre World, 1600-1800 that appeared in The Modern Language Review. In his review, he admires the book’s quality and range of research. He also postulates that the prompter likely had a “system of bell pulls [that] would have represented possibly the earliest form of control board.” The illustration shows the prompter’s corner as depicted in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1894. On the left-hand side, a row of bell pulls create an early form of a control board. These bell pulls would have connected to bells in different areas of backstage. There are two windows indicated in the drawing, one to see the audience, and the other to see the stage.

In addition to calling the show, the prompter prompted the actors on their lines and acting. Although the audience may not have known the prompter’s name or title, between the ringing of the bells and audibly providing actors lines, spectators were aware of this mystical being, whose voice and sounds left an impression on their theatrical experience. This is quite a change from our contemporary views that a stage manager should neither be seen nor heard during a production, and that a good stage manager is one that goes unnoticed.

©Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier. All Rights Reserved.