Theatre yesterday and today



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The summer months on Broadway are not the favorite time of year for producers. With the Broadway season unofficially ending each season when the official Tony Awards are televised in early June, the rest of June and all of July and August are considered a poor time to open anything. Sure there are exceptions. A theatre may have a small window for an interim booking if something else is scheduled a few months down the road. But more often than not, producers look to the Fall and Spring to open their shows. It's generally considered a terrible idea to bring in something new in December either, as tourists are seeking the tried and tested during the winter holiday. Take a look at how The Lion King and Wicked consistently outgross everything else during Christmas and New Year's. Last season's musical Disaster, by Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick, opened just before Christmas and failed, as did Jason Robert Brown's Honeymoon in Vegas the season before, providing not-so-merry-Christmas's for all concerned.

In the time before modern air-conditioning was invented, it was common for Broadway shows to take a few weeks off in the summer. An ad in the August 26, 1956 New York Times Broadway listing proclaimed that the hit Paddy Chayefsky drama Middle of the Night, starring Edward G. Robinson, would "Return in a week!", something you would never see today.

Twenty and thirty years prior, there was little to no air-conditioning supplied for patrons. Audiences just sat and fanned themselves. And in stock all across the country, where temperatures outside were often in the high nineties mid-summer, featured advertising which I found pretty funny while researching this. Here are examples from the New York Times on August 25, 1945:

Note that Connecticut's Montowese Playhouse's No Time for Comedy boasted how it was "Air-Cooled by Sea Breezes." Truth in advertising, one hopes. Or below, read how the Bucks County Playhouse attempted to lure its audiences:

What exactly was the "Latest Type Cooling Plant?" We'll probably never know. Hopefully things in New Hope, Pennsylvania were a step above "Air-Cooled," which was the phrase and methodology back in the day. This was nothing more than fans that blew over enormous blocks of ice and used on Broadway well into the 1950s, not merely relegated to summer stock.

The ancient (though recently remodeled) Priscilla Beach Theatre where I'm working right now in Plymouth, Massachusetts, reopened its doors last summer after years of disrepair. Built as part of a working farm in 1875, it was a hundred years old when I first showed up as a seventeen-year-old, paying no attention what bad shape it was in. It was all far too romantic for that sort of reality to rear its ugly head. Offering "theatre in a barn" since the 1930s, the likes of Gloria Swanson and Veronica Lake were on the PBT stage in its hey day and, in the years that followed, apprentices such as future Academy Award winning actors Paul Newman and Estelle Parsons played tiny parts. Even Albert Brooks and Rob Reiner, who came during a summer they had off between junior and senior year at Beverly Hills High School to perform in Enter Laughing together, (not coincidentally written by Rob's dad, Carl).

The three summers I performed there in the mid-70s, the theatre had no air conditioning. I don't even think we used fans since we had no microphones and they would have drowned out the sound. Audiences, accustomed to the heat, didn't complain. So when we reopened our great barn doors last summer and still had no air conditioning—after all this was summer stock—it was slightly shocking when patrons complained angrily and immediately. At first I couldn't understand what made modern audiences so testy about this, but then remembered that back then there was a very different sensibility at play. Automobiles were sold without these comforts on a regular basis. Power windows and air conditioning were extras—and a huge number of new car owners simply opted out to save money. Now with air conditioning everywhere, audiences in Plymouth wanted that comfort and they wanted it now! And now is what they got when air conditioning was installed within one week's time.

As the saying goes: the show must go on—and cooly, whenever possible.

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