Vaudeville, like all businesses, produced its own terminology that can seem to outsiders like a foreign language. I’ve had to struggle sometimes to figure out what a certain phrase meant, and dictionaries have been no help. Only recently did I learn the definitions for two phrases were not what I had thought.
Vaudeville performers who were interviewed or who penned autobiographies occasionally used the phrase, working “in one,” or played an act “in two.” I assumed that meant they were working a solo act or a duet. Wrong. “In one” meant your act took place in front of the curtain. “In two” meant behind the curtain. Theater managers tried to stagger the acts so that “in ones” alternated with “in twos.” As a comedian was performing out front “in one” without props, the stage behind the curtain could be set up for a more elaborate act with props and scenery. I’m planning to work this into the manuscript I’m finishing up now.
Then there’s the “flash act.” What’s that? A large production with scenery and a big cast, designed to impress the audience. Flash acts were always “in two.”