Cigarette ban challenging when it extends to actors

By Ronald B. Hellman

Once upon a time smoking was cool. Smoking was sexy. Look at some of those good old movies, the ones made for adults long before computer simulation and action heroes took over the screen, and see why those smoking scenes were so memorable. For example, “Now, Voyager,” starring Bette Davis and Paul Henreid — you know, the one that ends with “don’t let’s ask for the moon…we have the stars” — has some hot−and−heavy cigarette moments.

The Marlboro Man is long gone, warnings about health dangers have been on cigarette packages for almost 40 years, and the film industry has gotten the message, but there are still a lot of plays where smoking is essential to the story. Think of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” Edward Albee’s masterwork, or the poker players and Oscar in Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” and dozens of other plays where the artistic integrity of the performance requires lighting up. Some years ago The Outrageous Fortune Company produced “Agnes of God,” by John Pielmeier, in which the character of the psychiatrist chain−smokes throughout the first act. What to do?

Many states have banned indoor smoking of tobacco, but at least one, Colorado, extends it to smoking of any kind on stage, even though the use of cigarettes may be important to character, emotion, mood or another significant element of the play. Herbal cigarettes are substituted by actors to simulate tobacco, marijuana or other substances, protecting their health and that of the audience, but in a theater in the Rocky Mountain state, the only thing you’ll get high on is the altitude. And because of the ban there are a lot of plays that you won’t have a chance to see.

Aside from health concerns, the potential of fire in a theater, minimal though it may be from a lit cigarette, is something to worry about. The deadliest single−building fire in U.S. history took place in Chicago in 1903 at the Iroquois Theater. The death count was 602. Ironically, the theater was advertised as “absolutely fireproof.” In 1876 some 300 individuals lost their lives in a fire at the Brooklyn Theater, located at what is now Cadman Plaza. Closer to our time and particularly infamous were the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire in Boston in 1942, and the 1990 Happy Land social club fire in the Bronx. (By the way, none of those horrific incidents were caused by cigarettes.)

Audiences now are well aware that smoking (by them) is prohibited in the theater, but what remains is the dreaded cell phone or other “electronic device” — not life−threatening but at the top of the annoyance list. In spite of cautionary announcements, cute and otherwise, vocally and in writing, there are still a few people who can’t seem to silence these things.

I was at a recent performance of the hit musical “Billy Elliot” where a group of teenagers kept busy text−messaging during the show. With tickets over $100 to see some wonderful stagecraft, you have to wonder what those kids were thinking, oblivious as they were to disrupting those around them. Their parents, the house manager later told me, were wisely sitting a few rows away.

Among other prohibited audience activities are taking photographs and unwrapping candy and other goodies during the show. Perhaps coughing can’t be helped, although Carnegie Hall supplies free cough drops in the hope of suppressing it.

Now, if we can only convince the audience that not every performance deserves a standing ovation, we’ll be able to appreciate the curtain call and I can get home happy.

Contact Ron Hellman at RBH24@Columbia.edu.

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