The Battle Against Cell Phones

The Battle Against Cell Phones Playbill offers a sampling of pre-show announcements about ringing cell phones.

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Ringing cell phones in theatres have formed a bond between audiences and actors — everyone loathes them!

There was a time when actors had to put up with little more than coughing and chatter. Playwright and director George S. Kaufman once asked a couple having a discussion during a performance to speak louder. He couldn't quite hear their conversation, he explained, because the actors were making so much noise.

Most of today's shows use a straightforward message: "Take this moment to turn off your cell phone, etc." But there are others who are taking their cue from Kaufman that rudeness can effectively be battled with wit. Shows are starting to add more inventive touches to their announcements:

Prior to performances of Grey Gardens, cast member John McMartin's voice is heard: "No matter how tuneful the ring on your cell phone or pager, please turn it off. This is a musical — we already have songs." At Talk Radio the plea is followed by "Have you turned them off? Are you sure?"

In her most recent Broadway engagement, Dame Edna encouraged people not to turn off their phones. That way, the Housewife Megastar noted, if a phone rang, the offender could be identified easily — and "thrown out onto 45th Street!"

Following intermission at Douglas Carter Beane's The Little Dog Laughed, Hollywood agent Diane (Julie White) informed the audience: "You must know that in the theatre, second acts tend to start off with a bang, an event, or a recap. Or a reminder to turn off cell phones. Now, we don't have a problem with cell phones in the theatre in [L.A.]. We've simply stopped doing theatre altogether. Choices were made."

Journey's End, a West End import, didn't have a verbal announcement. Preceding the play were different ringing sounds that built to a crescendo. Seems that's how the announcements are done in London. People are presumed bright enough to get the idea. Rarely is heard a human voice (which, of course, speaks to British reserve).

Legally Blonde, a musical about a beautiful sorority girl attending Harvard Law School has a female voice delivering the message: "Hey guys! Could I have a sec? This won't take long. So okay. The show's about to start and it would be totally helpful if you could turn off cell phones, sidekicks, you get it. Oh, and ditto for no-go on cameras or video — if anything shows up on YouTube I am going to come after you and I am so not kidding right now. Today's show is conducted by James Sampliner who, P.S., is totally hot in that John Mayer scruffy sorta way. Have fun!" That prepares the scene.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee works the announcement into the performance. The actress playing the narrator/emcee Rona Lisa Perretti, follows the opening number by saying, "Hello. I'd like to take this moment to ask you to please turn off all cell phones and other distracting devices."

Hairspray uses the voice of deejay character Corny Collins to tell the audience that the show "takes place in Baltimore in 1962, a time before there were cellular phones and beepers, and we hope that we can travel back to that time where there would be none heard during a performance." Following intermission, Collins reminds the audience, "It's still 1962, so turn off those cell phones!"

A similar announcement is made by Man in Chair at The Drowsy Chaperone as part of his opening speech in the darkened theatre.

Stephen Sondheim's and Nathan Lane's 2004 musical, The Frogs incorporated a cell-phone message into the opening number. Nathan Lane and Roger Bart sang, "We'd appreciate/ Turning off your cell phones/ While we wait . . ." They paused, and a cell rang. "Unbelievable," said Bart. "And sadly ironic," added Lane, producing a phone from Bart's toga. Bart took the call: "No, this isn't really a good time." Crossing the stage to get better reception, he asked, "Can you hear me now?"

This past season's Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me was a bit more confrontational. In the opening number, "Another Curtain Goes Up," the chorus warned people to turn off their cells because "That usher knows Tae Kwon Do!"

Carol Channing and husband Harry Kullijian recorded one of the most amusing messages, which preceded the Off-Broadway musical, The Musical of Musicals! The Musical. Awaiting the start of the show, they were heard chatting. Harry claimed that he never takes his cell phone to the theatre, "because they would ask us to turn it off." Unwrapping candy and using cameras are mentioned, and Kullijian remarked that, during the 70 years between when they met in high school and when they finally married, he never saw Carol onstage. She claimed not to be surprised: "You come from Modesto, California. They don't know anything that goes on in the world."

How do so many actors manage to stay focused and not allow the cacophony of cell phones to interrupt their performances? Players have a Higher Power in their corners, and every time a cell rings, an angel is in the wings to help them.

This piece appeared in the 2007 Tony Awards Playbill at Radio City Music Hall.