Peanuts With Your Bard? All Aboard Air Broadway

There goes the neighborhood! (Again.) The news that the Roundabout Theater Company has sold off the name of the historic Selwyn Theater–its new home on Broadway–to American Airlines is only the beginning of the corporate end.

“Let’s take in a show at the American Airlines Theater” lacks a certain something–call it magic–but let our righteousness pass for the moment. Rumors cannot be confirmed that luxury sleeperettes are to be made available in the boxes for those who wish to bed down during the Roundabout’s forthcoming Uncle Vanya . But can the drinks trolley rattling up and down the aisle be far behind? No, siree.

“To be or not to be, that is the question … “

“Two diet Cokes here!”

“Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows …”

“Any chance of extra peanuts?”

“Or to take arms against a sea of trouble …”

“There you go, hon! Compliments of American Airlines. Enjoy the show!”

One feels jetlagged already. But the dear old drinks trolley isn’t far behind. There’s a new phenomenon in theaters outside New York: You can now take popcorn and drinks–and, for all I know, a sushi banquet on a tray–with you into the once hallowed auditorium. “Pass the soy sauce, sweetheart!” And why not?

Why not rename the newly refurbished Selwyn on 42nd Street the American Airlines Theater? After all, the Roundabout Theater Company will receive $850,000 a year for a period of 10 years from the airline. “I think it’s wonderful that a major corporation would support the arts and want their name on our theater,” Todd Haimes, the artistic director of the Roundabout company told The New York Times . “I don’t have a philosophical problem with it.”

Oh, Mr. Haimes! Oh dear, Mr. Haimes! We need not be Wittgenstein to see that American Airlines isn’t supporting the arts, bless them. They are paying a tax-deductible fee in order to advertise and sell their corporate logo on Broadway. Philanthropy has sweet zilch to do with it.

Then again, Mr. Haimes believes that naming the house the American Airlines Theater is no different from naming it for an individual benefactor. One of the Roundabout’s former theaters was named after Laura Pels. What’s the difference?

It’s this: An arts patron donates millions to a cause; a corporation is in pursuit of name recognition for profit. Zillionaire arts patrons who wish to have a theater, a museum wing or a concert hall named after them are one thing. It isn’t too modest, true. But I don’t suppose the Lincoln Center people went to Mitzi E. Newhouse and said: “We really appreciate your millions, Mitzi. Would you mind awfully if we named the new theater the William Shakespeare?” On the other hand, there’s surely a difference between arts patronage and corporate marketing, between loving the theater and using it.

American Airlines and many other corporations, such as General Motors, now want a commercial alliance with the Disneyfied, family-oriented, boomtown open-air mall that is Broadway. In this corporate takeover of the marquees, the proud heritage of the landmark theaters themselves is irrelevant. The theaters are billboards. Why pretend otherwise?

All the major theater chains on Broadway–the Shuberts, the Nederlanders, Jujamcyn–are now considering corporate alliances. The only corporate name till now has been the Ford Center for the Performing Arts on 42nd Street, when Livent Inc. solemnly rechristened the combined Lyric and Apollo Theaters to house Ragtime . (Livent went bankrupt.) After negotiations with General Motors, the Shubert Organization has reportedly decided against renaming the Winter Garden, home to Cats , the Cadillac Winter Garden. Rocco Landesman, president of Jujamcyn, remains wary, telling The Times that “The Walter Kerr still sounds a lot better to me than ‘the AT&T.’”

It certainly does. But for how long? How long before the Richard Rodgers joins the corporate monoculture to be redubbed the Martha Stewart? The Brooks Atkinson the Yahoo? Or the Booth the Trump International Theater (and Family Casino)? Who will protect the dignity of our theaters?

Mr. Haimes of American Airlines is anxious to point out that the Roundabout will maintain complete control over its artistic policy. That’s what they always say. But of course it will! American Airlines is confident that Mr. Haimes will not be commissioning Christopher Durang to write a boisterous new satire entitled Leg Room , and Mr. Haimes is confident that a safe diet of Shaw and Chekhov won’t offend anyone.

No, the pity is that the Roundabout, a nonprofit theater, leads the way in Broadway’s commercial arena by selling out to the highest bidder. We might expect it, perhaps, from the traditional producers in the oldest established, permanent floating crap game in New York. But once again the nonprofit theater has blurred the vital differences with the commercial by compromising its independence and identity. What’s in a name?

Everything.

The Roundabout should rethink its new corporate image and cancel American Airlines.