By Peter Besas
Madrid, Sept. 13, 2023
As I was rummaging through piles of old papers and back issues of Variety in one of the rooms in my apartment, aside from chancing upon a playbill from Tony Pastor’s Theatre at 585 Broadway, with one of the dozen attractions being Miss Lillian Russell, and a 22-page 1912 program of the New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street for a “musical comedy deluxe” called The Pink Lady that included display ads for such restaurants as Shanley’s on Broadway, featuring an “exceptional Cabaret”, Cavanagh’s Restaurant and Grill on 23rd St. (“vocal and instrumental music, shell fish a specialty”), Murray’s “Cabaret in Roman Gardens” on 42nd St., Wallicks new Broadway restaurant on 43rd St. and Bustanoby’s on 39th Street (dinner $1.50, Parisian specialties, dancing, select performance, Tel.6780 Greeley”, I came across a Style Sheet that the former Variety editor Abel Green had printed in 1960 for the guidance of old and new muggs.
I confess that I had been with the sheet for a good many years as its Madrid stringer until, on one occasion when I happened to be in the old brownstone office on 46th Street, I learned that there existed a style sheet at Variety.
When I landed the job as Madrid rep in December 1969 after an interview with Syd Silverman and Bob Hawkins in the New York office and told them that I was nonplussed by the Varietyese jargon and slang used in the headlines and columns of the paper, Syd answered that it was perfectly acceptable to just write in plain English and that the best training for the job was to read the paper carefully each week. No need to outdo such iconic headlines as one that ran on July 17, 1935, STIX NIX HICK PIX, or substitute in my copy “helmer” for “director” or “thesp” for actor.
Indeed, since its founding by Sime Silverman in 1905 the paper had developed a whole new vocabulary of show business expressions, known as “slanguage”, many of them so convoluted that it made it difficult for those not familiar with the jargon to understand its articles. Its prose was peppered with expressions like biopic (currently adopted by the media, even in Spanish newspaper articles!) hoofer (dancer), b.o. (box office), oater (cowboy film – horses eat oats), boffo (a commercial hit) as well as the standard American slang of that era: gams (legs), chantoosie (singer, from French chanteuse), prez and prexy (president) and by-now-long-forgotten expressions such as “brodied” or “take a brodie” (flopped), derived from a certain Steve Brodie (not the actor of the same name) who allegedly jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge in 1886 and survived, a feat that made him famous and enabled him to open a successful saloon on the Bowery (the subject of a charming 1933 flick called The Bowery with George Raft playing the eponymous Brodie, and supports by Wallace Beery, Jackie Cooper and Fay Wray, directed by Raoul Walsh.
In his Style Sheet Green informs his reporters that: “Clarity is the first law.” He then adds: “Extravagant endearments or gushy ‘raves’ have no place in Variety phrasing. Avoid excessive descriptives like wonderful, beautiful, lovely, heavenly, marvelous. Do not use wearing terms like ‘stopped the show’ or any of the catchphrases popularized by columnists. Report births – not blessed events – awaiting the stork, etc.”
Green then lists some preferred spellings: disk not disc; theatre not theater (the British spelling of the word is always used by the American acting profession, and the names of the Broadway venues always appear on the marquees and programs as “theatre”), centre not center. But cigaret, monolog, brunet, catalog, dialog, quartet. He objects to the use of “attraction”, “feature”, “player” and “star”. Titles of books, films etc. are to go in double quotation marks, not italics. But names of newspapers, magazines, ships are not placed in quotation marks. “Avoid ‘well known’ as it’s meaningless if person really is that. Spell out March, April, May, June, July, others are abbreviated…”
One may quibble about Green’s dictates. I suspect the editors of respected publishing houses of the time must have sneered at the linguistic shenanigans of the old Variety and its crew of “muggs” or “ink-stained wretches”, as the reporters were called,. The story goes that Variety’s founder, Sime Silverman, when once presented a big heavy dictionary, instead of using it to improve his spelling and grammar, used it as a doorstop.
Green then details which words can be “telescoped”, a trend that has greatly increased over the intervening decades. He accepts antitrust, bandleader, commonsense, songwriter, bigtime, bestseller, boxtop, boxoffice, pressagent, costars, clipjoint, cutrate, dancehalls, tiein, tieup, dropoff, freelance and fingertip. The 16-page booklet concludes with three pages of style samplings and a page of words frequently misspelled.
By the time I joined the paper, I don’t think any of the reporters were even aware that there was a style sheet.
For the independent author working with a small foreign publisher who speaks no English, such as has mostly been my case, the question arises which style guide, if any, should he follow? All seem to be equally valid and who is to say which of the better-known ones the writer must bow to, unless it is so demanded by a strict publisher or literary agent. For my part I prefer to spell the synonym of “monster” as an ogre and somehow the word raveller looks better with two l’s. Moreover, I like to have an occasional dash in a sentence and prefer capitalizing Internet and writing e-mail with the hyphen. I occasionally am inclined to use the colon and opt having the footnotes in my books appear at the bottom of a page instead of bunched up at the back of the book. Nor do I object to the occasional use of a foreign expression such as de rigueur or schadenfreude and even occasionally take a perverse satisfaction in throwing into a sentence some archaic word such as yclept and awry to add a touch of the exotic flavor to my prose. I doubt not that many weighty books have been written on the subject of the semicolon and the proper use of the hyphen which would consider some of my fancies as barbarous.
A friend in New York who worked for the publisher Simon & Schuster on one occasion when discussing a book I had recently published in Madrid and had given him a copy of commented to me over lunch (perhaps somewhat disparagingly, since he was known for his bluntness) that he was struck by how often I had strayed in my book from the “manual”. “What manual?” I asked. He then explained that all the books he sub-edited had to conform to the guidelines set out by the venerable Chicago Manual of Style. Having lived for years in far-off Spain immersed in expatriate literary ventures, I had never heard of this Manual. I quipped that I didn’t imagine that any of the readers of my book, which had racked up quite successful sales in Madrid, had been put off too much, nor had even noticed my nonconformity to the Manual by perhaps misplacing a comma or erring in an excessive use of the hyphen.
What is more, I later learned that the Manual has been constantly revised every few years since its founding in 1906, hence I might be justified in following the dictates of the New York Times book of style, or the one issued by the Associated Press starting 1953, of which millions of copies have been sold instead of slavishly kowtowing to the exalted Chicago Manual.
Upon further investigation I discovered that there exist a whole gaggle of alternative guides, among them an Oxford Guide to Style. Each of these venerable, time-honored tomes tell you where to place quotation marks, what words to capitalize, and so on. Two of these august guides are now gathering dust in my apartment: Fowler’s Dicionary of Modern English Usage, first published in 1926, and the iconic (an overused adjective!) Elements of Style by Strunk and White (1920). When I first started to dip my pen into an inkwell both were sacrosanct; both were sine qua non rule-setters for writers.
Now perhaps all of the foregoing have been eclipsed and made redundant by the appearance of an online Wikipedia Manual of Style. When you scroll down the entry on the Internet, its length seems to run the equivalent of about 30 pages of text and gives detailed instructions on everything from where to place brackets to image placement and gender identity.
I don’t know whether the current Variety editors have set guidelines for their reporters on when to capitalize words or when to avoid slang. But if they have, their Style Sheet surely must have wandered far afield of the jargon that Sime and Abel accepted in their day.