In the interest of helping friends of The Smith Center become more attuned to the language of the stage, “Theater Lingo” debuts with a special Thanksgiving edition. We turn to the 1999 edition Dictionary of the Performing Arts by Frank Ledlie Moore and Mary Varchaver for an authoritative definition of “turkey,” which is described as a “Slang term for a play that fails badly at the box office.” Etymologically, its usage likely originated in 1920s trade publications that covered film and theater. Comparing a struggling or subpar production to a flightless bird’s efforts to fly was perhaps inevitable in an industry that quickly had to create its own vernacular.
One theory holds “talking turkey,” as in no-nonsense, was an earlier adaptation. Factually, “turkey” replaced “guinea fowl” when the birds began to be imported through Turkey from their African origin. Thought to lack intelligence, their futile wing motions inspired the “turkey trot,” an early 20th-century arm-flapping dance that Moore and Varchaver describe as “considered unsuitable in polite society.”
Little Eva, who had a No. 1 hit with “The Locomotion,” tried again with “Let’s Turkey Trot.” The record reached No. 20, but her subsequent attempts at getting another hit were indeed turkeys.
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