Once in a Lifetime opens in a rundown apartment in New York City in 1929, where George Lewis, whose passion is eating Indian nuts, is conversing with the witty May Daniels. Jerry Hyland, the third to enter, completes the team for their vaudeville act. The three have only $180 between them, and their prospects seem dim.
Jerry, an ambitious man in his early thirties, proclaims that the new “talkies” have made the theater extinct and that he has just sold their act for five hundred dollars. He has decided to take his chances in Hollywood, inspired by Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (1927). May, hiding her affection for Jerry, agrees to the move. She reasons that they could make their fortune by opening a school of elocution to teach silent stars the proper way of speaking. George, who appears to be more interested in his Indian nuts than in any of the action going on around him, is reluctant to commit himself to the move. Soon, however, he is persuaded of the possibilities in the land of “talkies.” The first scene ends with all three singing “California Here I Come!”
In act 1, scene 2, the setting is a Pullman car headed west. George eats his Indian nuts as May nervously looks through a book on elocution in order to be ready to teach it in Hollywood. She reads aloud to George, “We strongly urge the use of abdominal breathing as a fundamental principle in elocutionary training.” Irritated by his continual crunching, she asks whether “those things come without shells”; impatiently, she leaves the coach. In his first sign of affection for May, Jerry tells George that they must keep her spirits up.
Having seen Helen Hobart, a well-known gossip columnist from Hollywood, on another car, May returns to the coach. It seems that May and Hobart are old acquaintances. The travelers hatch a scheme to enlist Hobart’s support for their new school of elocution, taking advantage of the contacts and funds to which she has access. The threesome decide to impress her, going so far as to give George the fictitious title “Doctor.”
Hobart is easily convinced that such an enterprise would be worthwhile and offers financial support as a 50 percent owner of the school. She decides that it should be housed in the studios of Herman Glogauer. Since he passed up an opportunity to own the technique used in the making of “talkies,” the vitaphone, he would be a most likely help in this cause, if for no other reason than embarrassment. Hobart’s promise is made as the scene moves toward conclusion. Susan Walker then enters the car. It quickly becomes obvious that she and George are a perfect match—both naïve and blindly hopeful of success.
The main action of act 1, scene 3 is the closing of the deal to open the school of elocution at the Glogauer Studios. Hobart sets up a meeting with Glogauer at the Stilton Hotel. Susan and her mother are the first to arrive and are barraged by movie star look-alikes and those hopeful of being discovered. George, May, Jerry, and Hobart appear. The last to arrive is Glogauer with a police escort. He agrees after some discussion to take on the threesome to educate his actors to speak properly. Two of the stars from his studios, Phyllis Fontaine and Florabel Leigh, have terrible regional accents. As the scene comes to an end, viewers are introduced to Glogauer’s closest competition, the twelve Schlepkin brothers. George introduces Susan and asks her to recite “Boots,” by Rudyard Kipling, in order to impress Glogauer. She begins the recitation; simultaneously, the Schlepkin brothers make an offer for merging the two studios.
The second act takes place in the reception area of Glogauer’s...
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