The battle for etiquette in theaters has been going on since actors traipsed from town to town performing out of the backs of wagons. Audiences at the original Globe talked back to the players on stage, all the while crunching peanuts and throwing the shells into the dirt of the floor they were standing on. By the time, 1976, that I became part-manager of a movie palace, the 2,672-seat St. George Theatre in Staten Island, audience interruptions were more or less benign. They consisted for the most part of a constant low mumbling, as if the theater itself were a crowded marketplace. Patrons had, apparently, no idea that silence was even desirable. A number of folks talked, sotto voce, and there was just nothing we could do about it Across the water in Manhattan, the same mumblers would have been shushed or even removed from the premises, but in the Staten Island of forty-plus years ago, manners, including not throwing half-full sodas on the carpet and (when it came to the neighborhood boys) not walking on the backs of the seats, were largely unenforceable.
1976 audiences were even worse in the bathrooms, where they moistened bits of toilet paper and shot them, through straws, at the ceiling. (Those tiny pellets are really hard to scrape off, BTW.) When I tried to guilt them out with a sign that read, This is your theater too, help us take care of it!, I unwittingly brought the anger of the pellet-shooters to a boil. Rebels responded by jamming whole rolls of toilet paper down the toilets, then leaving them on flush, which flooded the bathroom floors.
I should have known better than to appeal to reason or decorum; the seventies were an era of rebellion. In my own circle, jumping subway turnstiles or buying slugs to substitute for subway tokens had become a normal way to thwart “the establishment.” And in the theater we were just that, somebody else’s idea of authority.
The badly-scratched fifties trailer we used to run with the animated soda, hotdog and popcorn bucket (who jumped willingly into the proper receptacle after consumption) never did any good either, as mouse populations of the time would have been happy to attest.
Post-millennium, much of the babbling in auditoriums is still going on, increased mightily by the constant distraction of hand-held devices. Those animated food items in trailers have been joined by cartoon iPhones that admonish us to "Turn me off and put me away," the small screen crying for us to pay attention to the bigger one.
Our audiences at the St. George knew they should stay in their seats when the show began, even if they did mumble. But these days, people used to watching at home in their jammies kick off their shoes literally and wander the aisles, and if you think movie theater operators have it tough, live audiences can be worse. No less than Madonna was denied access backstage after an early showing of Hamilton, for texting through the second act. Patti Lupone became a poster-girl for the enraged actor movement in 2009 when she stopped her performance in Gypsy to lecture an audience member taking a photo. “Stop taking pictures right now! You heard the announcement! Who do you think you are? How dare you? Who do you think you are? Get them out! I won’t continue with this! Get him out! This is the theater and all of you, every single one of you except for that person has respect, and I and the rest of this company appreciate it. Thank you.”
Pity Saoirse Ronan or Meryl Streep or Daniel Day-Lewis who, in their Oscar-worthy two-dimensional performances, can’t defend themselves! But the audience and an army of movie-going bloggers can do it for them.
“Yes, of course something important might happen during the two or so hours you're sitting in theoretical rapt silence, but if you really can't handle the thought of going without your texts for that long, you either shouldn't be at the movies, or you could probably stand disconnecting for a couple hours....You can do this. You can turn off your phone at the movies.” Advice from Thrillist, who also admonishes would-be moviegoers not to groom themselves or hook up (well, that’s been going on since there were movie theaters, hence the bra we found once in the St. George balcony and innumerable condoms — hazards of cleaning up). Also don’t explain the movie to your friend or pre-react to the good parts of a movie you’ve already seen once. How about hogging those armrests? Don’t do that either.
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema has taken the unusual step of establishing itself as arbiter of movie theater etiquette. Alamo’s “rules for watching movies” include deputizing audience members to help keep order. “We don’t tolerate disruptive behavior in the theaters.... If you are a person who likes to talk, text or use your cell phone during a movie, we are not the place for you.... We position ourselves as a theater that takes extreme pride in providing an excellent and undisturbed movie watching experience.... We enforce the policy with pride and people who disrupt other patrons will be ejected from the theater. Should you find this policy being broken, please help us and raise an order card to alert the staff and management about a disruptive patron.”
Haven’t yet been to an Alamo Drafthouse, but will soon. As a former theater operator, I’d like to see ejection in action!
Phillip Kennicott observes that technology “...has scrambled the lines between public and private. Cellphones make our most intimate conversations available to anyone within earshot, while headphones create zones of pure solitude even in the midst of the liveliest crowd.”
There has been a gradual erosion of attention and community, over recent decades. Roughly ten years after I tried my hand at movie theater management, I began a twenty-year spate as a teacher in NYC public schools. I got out in 2003, just in time — cellphones in classrooms were not yet ubiquitous. But friends who still teach tell exasperating tales of classroom management in an age of personal digital immersion. Movie theater? Classroom? It’s all the same. Performance is performance. Community is, after all, community.