Seats And General Accomodation
( Originally Published 1916 )
PROBABLY not one person in a thousand who attend the theater is aware that theater seats vary in width. Yet there sometimes is as much as two inches difference between two chairs in the same section of the house. This is to make the rows come out even on the aisles. The law makes pro-vision for this variation. In New York, a statute places the necessary width of a theater seat from nineteen to twenty-four inches. The law also demands at least thirty-two inches from row to row.
A chair with a seat that may be turned up when not in use, has proven best for economy of space, affording room to pass. To achieve this end, the fixed arms must be short, or, if long, must automatically turn up out of the way with the seat itself at the proper time. Simple movement of the seat alone, however, is the favored form, although a self-raising seat, with or without automatic arms, has met with some success in the market. Of course, the wire hatrack is found beneath practically all theater seats, for gentlemen patrons like to stroll at intermission for a smoke.
Arms of a theater seat seem necessary to comfort, and manufacturers give them much consideration. Chair arms are of many kinds. In most theaters, the seat at the end of the aisle has its outside arm elaborately made; but that on the inside is the merest makeshift, cheaply constructed, and shared by the occupant of the seat adjoining. This is another managerial economy of space, and has some practical arguments in its favor that cannot be given here.
Arms of the chairs at the Little Theater, New York, are of decided interest. The wooden end-piece is repeated between every two chairs, in contradistinction to the usual cast-iron subterfuge. The arm itself is fixed and short, but still long enough to support the occupant's forearm below the wrist. The end is rounded to fit the hand and fingers, but is not curved so far under that it catches a gentleman's coat pocket as he attempts to rise. The upper surface is sagged so the spectator may rest his elbows in comfort, and slightly grooved so his elbows will not slip.
As to the back of the seat, most persons like it to come up well about their shoulders, slightly concave above and slightly convex below, to support the back naturally, and tilted backward, like the seat itself, to take the weight off the base of the spine. But it happens that assorted sizes and shapes of persons occupy the same chair in course of time, so here the upholstered chair that adapts itself to its occupant, has its great advantage. Seats that have high backs are likely to dearrange fashionable coiffures and hide pretty necks and shoulders in decollate that their owners are anxious to display. Managers frequently aim to keep the seat backs as small and as far apart as possible, mainly because the modifications mean that much less obstruction to the view from the rear.
A seat that requires no effort at all to sit in, induces somnolence in the patron. The occupant should at least hold his head up. It is quite possible for a seat to be too comfortable and so militate against alert appreciation of the play.
It would be a big help to managers if they could persuade patrons to check wraps and so forth at a cloak room. Carrying these various items into the seat reduces certain conveniences of the auditorium—and on a wet night, when soaked umbrellas are added to other moist articles, it makes the air damp, and spectators generally uncomfortable.
The great cloak room problem is the tipping evil. Some theaters, like many restaurants, lease the cloak room " privilege " to outside concerns that seek it because tips are substantial revenue. Effort is constantly being made by thoughtful managers to discourage the evil; but the public itself persists in giving dimes to attendants, even when the management requests in programs and on placards that no gratuities be given, and declaring that if any attend-ant is found accepting them, he or she will be summarily dismissed. If the attendant would refuse the tip, I am quite sure that the patron, far from being offended, would tell his friends about it, and so provide the manager with one more good sales point.
If it is inconvenient to check wraps, it is still more difficult to deliver them promptly when called for. People are not disposed to wait patiently in line until their turn comes at the cloak room window, for it makes it impossible to leave the theater promptly after performance, and generally compels a lady to stand in the darkening auditorium amid busy charwomen, while her escort is getting her wraps. Acting on the principle that " many hands make light work," some managers turn nearly their whole corps of ushers into the cloak room at conclusion of the performance. In this manner, in some of the larger theaters, six to a dozen patrons may be accommodated at a time.
Ushers have created a problem of their own. Like box office men, they are in direct contact with patrons, and offenses on their part are likely seriously to hurt future business. Their pay averages fifty cents apiece a performance. Therefore, boys usually regard the work as mere " filler-in, stepping-stones to places more lucrative. Ten or twelve years ago, girl ushers began to be seen in American theaters, but now they are almost as common as in the playhouses of Europe. Edward E. Lyons, when manager of Daly's Theater, was probably the first to introduce them to New York. He has found them so efficient that he has employed them ever since in all theaters with which he has been connected.
Under the Dillingham regime at the New York Hippodrome, Mr. Matthews, the house manager, demonstrated what could be done with boy ushers. He systematized them and drilled them as though they were soldiers. To use up their surplus energy and keep them alert, after being instructed in diplomatic handling of patrons and in selling souvenir programs, they were put through exercises in the lobby, marching and countermarching while performance was going on. They were officered from their own number, and rewarded for particularly efficient service. They were aided in starting a little weekly paper all their own—written, edited, and made up by them. In short, they were made the more efficient by being given an interest in their work.
A most important duty of the usher is to be at his post in case of fire. The head usher, who usually is a person of some experience, directs the corps. Word of the fire is sent to the box office and from there to the fire department. At prearranged signal, each usher goes to his post at a given exit, opens the door, which is generally secured by a panic-bolt, opening outward at slightest pressure from within. While this is going on, the stage manager steps out before the asbestos curtain is dropped to seal the proscenium opening, and delivers a short speech calculated to reassure those present. If the audience must go, it is directed to file out in orderly manner. I have actually seen a theater containing I,200 persons, ablaze at top of the auditorium emptied with everyone safely on the street, within three minutes after the alarm was given; and this is by no means a record.
VENTILATION AND HEATING
Two items vital to comfort of theater patrons are the systems of ventilation and heating. These are quite as vital to the manager, for there are no audiences more unresponsive than those in a cold or overheated auditorium, or one filled with foul air. There is much natural heat in a person's body; and when there is a congregation of per-sons, the temperature is raised very considerably. There-fore, it requires less artificial heat to warm a well-filled room than one with few in it. These differences are cared for automatically by the thermostat, but the engineer who is back of the instrument knows how to act if it fails to work.
One does not find clanking radiators in up-to-date theaters. Heat is evenly distributed through mushroom registers, one beneath each seat, while a steady circulation of air is kept going out through ventilators in the ceiling. Be-fore the air is. sent up under the seats, it is purified through many fine screens. This system also permits cooling the air in summer.
Before telling how audiences are handled at intermissions I want to say something about intermissions them-selves; and once more I must call upon the Little Theater of New York for my instance. The matinee performance at the Little Theater begins at 2 :45, the evening performance at 8:45—in both cases, fifteen minutes later than other theaters in the city. Yet both conclude at the usual closing time of other theaters—4:45 P. M. and 10:45 P. M., respectively. Paradoxical as it may seem, the play is no shorter than one in another theater that holds its patrons fifteen to thirty minutes longer.
The secret is in the intermissions. In most theaters, waits between acts are long; at the Little Theater there is but one long intermission, and that lasts fifteen minutes, long enough to stroll, smoke, or partake of other refreshment.
To begin with, there is reason in the Little Theater be-ginning its performance late. Winthrop Ames, the director, had observed that in most theaters that begin at 8:15 or 8:30 P. M., patrons are constantly arriving late. He made a canvass of the leading hotels and clubs and learned the time that most people finished dinner. Then he allowed time for them to dress and come to the theater. His opening hour, therefore, became 8:45. Next he was confronted with the problem of concluding his performance at the usual time—from quarter to eleven to eleven o'clock—without making his play unduly short, for, following the metropolitan engagement, it had to be presented on the road under ordinary touring conditions. The only place for adjustment was in the intermissions. These he shortened as far as possible.
Now, he conjectured that the audience, having been kept in their seats for a sustained period, would probably be-come restless, so, to give them opportunity to rise and stretch their limbs he threw all spare time into one long inter-mission, lasting fifteen minutes. This intermission was placed at that point where the greatest scenic change was to be made, giving the stage hands opportunity to accomplish their work. Figuring, further, that there might be persons who would not be disposed to rise and stretch, he decided to lure them forth by inviting them to become his guests in a delightful tea room and a fine smoking room downstairs.
A couple of minutes before the curtain is to rise again, bells controlled by the stage manager at the prompt desk, are gently rung in smoking room, tea room, and lobby—so gently, in fact, that chatty groups are loath to disperse. But Mr. Ames is determined to get his audience seated and quiet before the curtain rises again; so, in a moment more, half the lights in the tea room, smoking room, and lobby are switched off from the electrician's board back-stage, and patrons, instinctively feeling that the other lights are to be extinguished too, hurry to their places. Next the auditorium lights dim down to faintest glow, while the footlights slowly come up. Chimes sound, and, as the curtain rises, the last glow of the house lights dies out. The Little is, in many senses, a psychological theater.
If a gentleman prefers to smoke his cigarette on the street, in the open air, he strolls out, past the doorman. Probably he asks the doorman for a pass-out check. But, with a smile, this officer informs him that there are no pass-out checks at the Little Theater; his face will be his passport when he returns. And the gentleman, mystified, but pleased at the trust reposed in him, is impressed with one more feature of the unique house. No one has ever taken advantage of this system since the house was opened; and, even if one did, there would be no difficulty in separating the goat from the sheep, for each patron is able to identify his place with a ticket stub given into his possession when the usher shows him there.
Smoking rooms are usually also gentlemen's rest rooms, with male attendants. Ladies have their rest rooms, with maid on duty. Physicians are on call at all times from the immediate neighborhood.
AFTER THE PLAY
Facility of handling the audience at conclusion of the performance, depends largely upon construction of the house. Most theaters merely remove all brass rails and fixtures that have been in place in the lobby to admit patrons one by one, and open all lobby doors. Here and there special exits are opened to let the people out more quickly, fire exits being frequently used.
Practically all theaters have special exits for carriage and automobile patrons. A doorman flashes on an electric sign the number given the chauffeur upon arriving with his party, and this signal is duly received and responded to by the waiting driver. These flash signs are now made so they show up even in bright sunlight; but in many cases during the day the carriage porter calls the numbers up and down the street through a megaphone.
After the matinee, or the morning after the evening performance, charwomen enter the theater, pick up scraps of paper, or lost articles, which are placed in the box office to await claimants; polish rails, and clean up the theater generally. Vacuum sweepers are used almost exclusively nowadays, and are plugged in for electric current in various wall pockets about the auditorium.