A Trough at the Theater— To Chow or Not to Chow?

I can scarcely begin to describe my dismay at the calamitous news that Broadway theaters are now allowing everyone to eat and drink during a show. As I see and hear it, chowing down in the theater will kill the theater.

Like a lot of people I know, I used to love going to movies, until I simply couldn’t take people pigging out around me any longer. The constant crunch, munch and slurp—the junk, the smell, the noise, the talk, the charming fuck-you mentality that goes with it all—ruined movie-going for me.

The writing is now on the wall for our theaters, where, until only recently, eating and drinking at your seat were forbidden. Now even those ritual warnings about unwrapping candy and cough drops before the curtain goes up are out-of-date. “This let-them-eat-snacks philosophy,” The New York Times reported on Jan. 5, “has been embraced at the Helen Hayes, Hilton, New Amsterdam, Eugene O’Neill and Walter Kerr Theaters, as well as all nine houses owned by the Nederlander Organization.”

The Nederlander, Disney, Jujamcyn and Clear Channel theater owners are the ones involved in this latest unacceptable example of greed. “This is part of a broader attempt to enhance the audience experience,” rationalized Jim Boese, Nederlander’s vice president.

Mr. Boese, a word in your ear: Imagine you’ve paid $200 for you and your guest to see a revival of Death of a Salesman at one of your lovely Broadway houses. You’re sitting there wishing there were more legroom at these prices—but let’s not go into that now. The excellent new production is about to begin when the couple nearest you start to dig into a giant bucket of buttered popcorn, to be washed down with Coke and ice rattling through Act I in Arthur Miller commemorative plastic cups. In front of you, another couple is enjoying hot dogs with onions and beer, while someone behind you is saying, “Pass the soy sauce, sweetheart.”

Tell us, Mr. Boese—how come none of this distracts you in any way from what’s happening onstage, but somehow “enhances” your theater-going “experience”? Am I exaggerating? With all grudging respect, Mr. Boese, please resist responding that you don’t sell hot dogs in your theaters.

You will. Popcorn today; wraps, salads and dogs tomorrow. Why not? It happened at the movies.

Why can’t America stop eating for two hours? The Times theater story was ignited by a stunned Patti LuPone telling us that when she was playing Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd last season she found herself distracted by a couple in the front row wrestling over the remains of a bag of popcorn. The Times went on to report, however: “All the theater owners whose houses serve food said they were investigating packaging that would reduce wrapper noise.”

Thank God for that. It’s certainly comforting to think that Rocco Landesman, president of Jujamcyn, and his fellow Broadway producers have hired a crack team of Nobel Laureate research scientists to solve the mystery of wrapper noise. Coming soon to a theater near you: the world’s first silent bag of potato chips! But how will the world’s finest minds solve the problem of eating the chips silently … ?

“Broadway is about a theatrical experience. It’s not about pulling out Marie Callender’s chicken pot pie and a Sterno,” Patti LuPone argued. “Would you go to church and pull out a ham sandwich? I don’t think so. Then why would you do it at the theater?”

I demur only in that the theater isn’t a church: It’s our refuge and respite from the clamor of the world, and the unholy place where we might better understand and enjoy the world. It’s our sanctuary and home where eternal stories are told, words are heard, and music and poetry are cherished in the two-hour traffic of the stage. But our faith in theater is a secular religion, and Broadway has always been a rough-and-tumble hybrid of art and commerce.

As was Shakespeare’s theater. When the remains of the 16th-century, open-air Rose theater were discovered buried in Bankside, London, in 1989, among the artifacts excavated were various coins and peanut shells.

“To be or not to be”—“Get your peanuts!”—“That is the question”—“Peanuts here!

Theater has never been pure, and the masks of the tragedian and the clown are its two-faced Janus. Which came first in today’s newly guzzling Broadway: audience members who now want to eat and drink during a show, or opportunistic theater owners who saw the potential for more bottom-line profit?

It’s been quite a while since our established Broadway power-brokers led public taste. All praise, then, to Gerald Schoenfeld, the chairman of the Shubert Organization, for refusing to jump on the gravy train. Mr. Schoenfeld acknowledges that allowing eating and drinking during shows annoys many patrons as well as the performers. The Shubert’s 16 Broadway houses will continue to restrict the food to the lobby.

It may not be much in this cockeyed caravan, but we can thus defect from all the annoying Broadway theaters and patronize the Shubert houses only. We can also hope that the performers themselves will stand up to be counted.

During a now-renowned performance of The History Boys last season, a cell phone rang three times in the audience, upsetting its star actor, Richard Griffiths, who was in mid-scene. Mr. Griffiths stepped forward to the footlights and announced in no uncertain terms that if a cell phone rang again, he would stop the performance and wouldn’t appear again that night. No cell phone rang again. None dared.

Next time Patti LuPone is disturbed by two pigs in the audience fighting over the last handful of popcorn as she’s busting her chops onstage, she might consider stopping the show, as Mr. Griffiths did. She could tell the chomping culprits in so many sweet words, “You’re ruining the show for us and everyone around you. Either you stop or I do. You’re not in a movie theater. It’s live!”

Unless the star performers themselves protest, I fear the worst. The good Gerald Schoenfeld is 82 years old, and his long reign at the Shuberts cannot last forever. It’s conceivable there will soon come a time when every Broadway theater functions like a movie house. And our big nonprofit theaters on Broadway—the Roundabout at the American Airlines Theatre, the Manhattan Theatre Club at the Biltmore, Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont—will surely follow.

The Disney, Nederlander and Jujamcyn organizations et al. must reverse their grasping bottom-line foolishness and follow the lead of the Shuberts. Those who want to eat and slurp during a show should go to a supper club. All we are saying is let the curtain go up in food-free peace. Let the real theatergoers enjoy the show.

A Trough at the Theater— To Chow or Not to Chow?