In his 1919 book, The Theatre Through its Stage Door, theatrical producer, David Belasco (1853-1931), devoted a chapter to child actors. After addressing those who are children of performers, or who became child stars, he spoke of supernumeraries:
“These children almost invariably come from a very
humble class. Except in the occasional instances
when their parents belong to the theatrical
profession, we never get the children of affluence
or even of the modestly well-to-do. They are of the
lowliest origin – little dependents of a crippled
father or a widowed mother who has had to turn to
scrubbing as a precarious support for her family.
Perhaps they are orphans who have been left in half
neglect while an older brother or sister is away
from home at work.
"The employment of such a child as this – even if, in the case of an infant, it is carried on and off the stage only once or twice during a performance – may enable a mother to support in fair comfort a family of five or six. If it happens to be a little older, the hour or two it spends in the theatre, at work which, to it, does not seem like work, is infinitely less harmful than the time it would otherwise have to spend in a dirty tenement, an ill-ventilated sweat-shop, or perhaps unlooked after in the streets.
Such children are paid from $25 to $85 a week. They very seldom receive less than the first sum. So it may be seen that they are able to earn from three to seven times more than their parents. They must be kept clean and well-fed. Often they are brought for the first time in their little lives under the influence of the gospel of soap, water, and sunshine. It has been my experience that they improve at once under the changed conditions which the theatre provides. Everything is furnished for them. In many instances, even their food is provided. They are never left to their own resources, for the parent or guardian is expected to be on hand always to look after them. When a play goes on the road it is always made possible for her to earn her expenses by securing employment as maid to one of the actresses in the company.
"I know there is sometimes an impression that children on the stage, like Toby Tyler who ran away with the circus in the old story, are pathetic victims of neglect. But the exact opposite is more likely to be the case. They stand in greater danger of being spoiled by too much attention and petting. Selfish motives, without reference to humane considerations, dictate that a manager safeguard carefully the child who happens to be in his company, for in its welfare lies his own material advantage.
A little child is always a good influence in a theatrical company. It becomes at once an object of general interest and solicitude, the more so because actors and actresses, as a rule, live lonely lives. Its effect is to elevate the tone of the organization, for all men and women are quite sure to be careful in the presence of a child. I know of no more effectual check on the department of people behind the scenes of a theatre than the thought that they are be watched by wide-open, wondering eyes. Our tiny players may sometimes be a source of a good deal of trouble to us, but in this respect, they furnish substantial compensation.
"The aspect of the problem of the child actor that I have been considering up to this point has been restricted to children in a very tender period of their lives – that is, children under eight or ten years of age. In the case of boys and girls beyond that age, the question becomes more difficult and complicated for then the matter of education and discipline begins to have an important bearing on it.
"But again must be borne in mind the conditions which a child of very humble origin finds in the theatre and what that same child would be likely to encounter outside it. A theatre manager or producer of plays cannot be expected to superintend the education of the child whom he employs in his company.
"The most that can be asked of him is that he provide adequately for its comfort and that he regulate its hours of rehearsal its regular performances are an arbitrary matter so that it will be given reasonable opportunity for study play and rest The working hours except during the period of preliminary rehearsals are I may say never long and the work itself is more like play to the child It loves to rehearse and to act. In fact I have never known a child to become tired of playing its part and I have found that it is less likely than grown actors to become careless or inattentive. The severest reproof that can be given a child actor is to deprive it a night or two from acting its role. There is as a rule ample time for a child in a theatrical company except on Wednesdays which is the established midweek matinee day to attend to study provided the proper discipline is exercised by its parent or by the person who happens to have it in charge If the parent is inclined to be lax in these matters of discipline the child would be just as badly off if it were not in the theatre.
"Each state also has its laws which regulate the employment and dictate the education of children and especially in the case of the child actor these laws are rigidly enforced. I would not want to be understood as not favoring regulations which widely operate in the interest of children especially children who for one reason or another have been deprived of the protection and guidance of parents. But when account is taken of the thousands of ragged ill fed and almost abandoned children who by day and night swarm the streets of every large city I am led to the belief that some of our authorities and charitable societies are inclined to be over solicitous concerning the welfare of children who find clean and pleasant employment in our theatres.
"Many a time I have watched the grimy little merchants who flock around the back doors of the big newspaper offices at midnight in heat or rain or cold waiting for the bundles of papers from which they can make at best only about a dollar profit I have wondered who feeds them who washes them who cares when they come home. Then I have contrasted them with the clean well-fed children who come and go through the stage entrance of a theatre and I have never hesitated in my opinion as to which are the better off. And it should not be forgotten that these two groups of children come from pretty much the same class. Have the objectors on principle to the employment of children on the stage ever walked late in the evening through one of the streets of New York's lower East Side with its dense throngs of juvenile humanity.
"I wonder If the laws which affect the employment of children on the stage were made uniform in the various states great advantages would follow both for the children and for the theatrical manager. Certain states such as Massachusetts Illinois Maryland and Ohio have very drastic regulations. They prohibit the appearance on the public stage of any child under the age of sixteen. Other states such as New York Pennsylvania and many more allow them to appear in stage plays but with restrictions as to work that might be physically injurious. Presumably, the authorities in all these states have made careful investigations before writing on their statute books the laws which govern the work of professional children. If so is it more harmful to a child to appear in the theatre in Massachusetts or Illinois than in the state of New York. And why I do not believe any theatrical manager would argue for laxity in the laws which safeguard the well-being of child actors. But all managers would prefer to have such laws standardized.
"A dramatic production is a delicate work of art which is brought to perfection only after infinite thought care and preparation. The various elements which compose it cannot be changed without throwing its intricate machinery out of gear. All plays are eventually sent on tour and once having conformed to the laws of the state in which they were produced to alter them to suit the changing requirements of different localities becomes fatal in many cases to their artistic beauty and symmetry and ruinous to the manager whose skill labor and financial investment they represent. To all who may harbor a belief that the child actor is a poor little bond slave placed in the theatre before its time to earn its living I would say that invariably it loves its work and its lot In the great majority of cases it is an unfortunate child compared with well to do children in normal domestic circumstances whose only thought is to breathe and eat and grow up.
"If the fortunes of all our lives were distributed more equally and justly especially among our little folk, I would deplore a condition that makes it necessary for any child to earn a living for itself or for others. But the conditions which affect people are not the same. Some children are destined to luxury and comfort and some to want even to neglect I can only add that if a child must work no child really should have to work at all the employment it finds in the theatre is more pleasant and less likely to do it physical harm than any other that is accessible to it. The problem of the child actor is one which invites our wisest consideration. That it is a problem we who are in the theatre know only too well. Yet the harshness of the problem is softened when we stop to consider for a moment the attitude of the child actor toward its work It is work of which a child never wearies work which to it means only play. Does any theatre goer imagine that his own enjoyment of Barrie's Peter Pan was greater than that of the child actors who capered in its fanciful scenes?”