Elizabeth T. Craft: Voices from Theater in the 1918 Flu Pandemic

“I’m hoping and expecting that by the time these notes are read [the] epidemic will be no more than an ugly memory, but it was certainly a blow to the theater while it lasted,” wrote critic Burns Mantle in 1919, in the wake of an influenza pandemic that killed over 50 million, including 675,000 Americans.

A century ago, live theater was a vital part of American life; it was also big business. As a musical theater scholar watching the devastating fallout from COVID-19, I’ve turned to historical accounts to understand how this earlier pandemic — until recently largely forgotten — affected the theater industry. Although their lessons for today are not straightforward, voices from the influenza pandemic are remarkably relevant.

Surprisingly from our present vantage point, in 1918 many New York theaters stayed open. As Michael Wilson reported, the city’s health commissioner “saw them as a chance to educate” in a pre-radio and -television era. Influenza, furthermore, had a much shorter incubation period than COVID-19, and, as Wilson writes, “healthy people, unlike today, were not considered a threat to one another.” Disruptions to cultural life in 1918 were severe but comparatively short-lived.

Then as now, however, “social distancing” was one of the main tools for combatting the pandemic. Many theaters across the nation closed, and even when permitted, audiences were not necessarily inclined to take the risk of attending shows. Describing autumn 1918, critic Channing Pollack painted a dismal scene of World War I, influenza, and other “calamit[ies]” bringing “managers to the verge of bankruptcy, actors to destitution, and the whole extensive and expensive machinery of entertainment-purveying to wreckage and ruin.”

There’s an odd sense of familiarity in reading these historical accounts. Pollack complained that despite being “the cleanest and most carefully conducted” of public spaces, theaters were closed “while men and women continued to fight for standing room in street-cars, department-stores, and at political rallies. These last were even permitted in theaters denied the license to continue their regular bills.”

In Salt Lake City, a local newspaper initially praised theater managers for “accept[ing] the verdict of the health authorities without a murmur,” but, as it stretched on, the “theatre men” appointed a “fighting committee” to address the situation. They called not for reopening theaters, but for closing all businesses to stamp out the pandemic sooner so they could get back to work.

Examples of altruism also abounded. In one humorous anecdote, actor Walter Hampden, who played a minor part in one Broadway show, stepped in for Maxwell Ryder, who played a lead role across the alley, when Ryder became ill.

“At each performance,” a journalist reported, Hampden dashed from one theater to the other, changed his make-up, “went on as a Russian, and then, ten minutes later, dashed back ... and reappeared as a romantic American. And each week, the Ryder salary was sent where it was most needed.”

COVID-19 seems unlikely to fade to “ugly memory” anytime soon, and with many closures projected for months yet, the toll on the performing arts will be great. When Salt Lake City theaters finally reopened in 1918, managers promised renovated houses, top-notch ventilation systems, and “features to make ... patrons forget the many weeks of darkness.”

Today, a local company, testing the waters with a coronavirus-themed show, promises similar safety measures. I admit, as much as I miss live theater, the only shows I’m watching for now are from my living room. (BroadwayHD, anyone?) I take hope in the possibility, though, that in the wake of this pandemic, theater will not only help us forget the weeks of darkness but also ensure we remember them.

Elizabeth T. Craft

Elizabeth T. Craft, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of musicology at the University of Utah. She has recently published articles about the musicals of Lin-Manuel Miranda and the film Yankee Doodle Dandy, and she is currently writing a book on Broadway legend George M. Cohan.