Things That Go Chirp in the Night

Special Features   Things That Go Chirp in the Night
 
More than three years after the New York City Council passed a law banning the use of cell phones in theatres, has anything changed?
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The recent brouhaha over the news that certain Broadway theatres now allow patrons to take noisome and fragrant foodstuffs back to their seats had one positive aspect to it. It momentarily diverted ardent theatergoers from their number one bugaboo: cell phones.

The distraction didn't last long, however. Though Crunch 'n Munch may top future lists tallying bad audience behavior, the silvery gadgets serviced by Verizon, T-Mobile and Cellular One remain the touchstone by which all poor manners are measured. Cell phone rings interrupt the majority of Broadway performances given every day. They chime. They buzz. They play snippets of popular tunes. They inspire the shusher in every patron. They provoke the scold in many actors. And they evoke mass groans more dependably than the announcement of a subway delay.

Contemporary cell phone haters have one weapon to cling to that victims in the early days of the aural plague didn't: the use of cellular phones in theatres in New York City is now illegal, and has been for more nearly four years.

The law states, in part, "No person shall use a mobile telephone in a place of public performance while a theatrical, musical, dance, motion picture, lecture or other similar performance is taking place." It was introduced by City Councilman Phil Reed, who at the time represented the Eighth District of Manhattan, and was backed by 20 other Council members, including current City Council speaker Christine C. Quinn. Though Mayor Michael Bloomberg vetoed the bill at the time, calling it unenforceable, his veto was overridden by a Council vote of 38 to 5 on Feb. 13, 2003. The law went into effect 60 days later. The victory, however, was apparently hollow. By almost all accounts, cell phone abuse in theatre has only increased. "I hate to say it, but no, things haven't changed," said Roy Harris, a busy stage manager who most recently worked on The Clean House at Lincoln Center Theater. "I asked Blair Brown, Jill Clayburgh and John Dossett [the stars of the show]. They all said no. One thing that is sort of different is other people are much more vocal toward other people whose phones go off. They express their anger."

"Probably it's gotten worse," said Alan Markinson, the house manager at Broadway's smallest and most intimate house, the Helen Hayes, "because now every child seems to have a cell phone."

"People have become more belligerent," asserted Mim Pollack, head usher at the Vivian Beaumont and business representative for Local 306 of the Broadway Ushers union. "They'll say, 'The show hasn't started yet' or 'I'm not on the phone, I'm just checking messages!'"

Even Reed, who left the City Council in 2006, had to admit that, on the surface of things, little has changed. He stressed, however, that the mere existence of the law has acted as a deterrent in unchartable ways; in short, that theatergoers now police themselves. "It's like when we got radar to detect speeding," he argued. "I happen to think there's more compliance because there's a knowledge of the law."

Others aren't so sure. "I'd like to say that behavior had changed, but I'm afraid it hasn't," said Jim Boese, a vice-president at the Nederlander Organization, Broadway's second-biggest landlord. Asked why, he echoed Bloomberg's old complaint: "It's really a question of enforcement."

Reed grudgingly agrees that enforcement is the Achilles Heel of the cell phone ban. "You have to find somebody to complain to about the cell phone," he explained, "and they have to come and someone has to witness the thing and blah, blah, blah." Surprisingly, though, he points the finger of blame not only at negligent mobile users but also at theatre owners and producers. A little-known section of the law instructs that "the owner, operator, manager or other person having control of any place of public performance" must notify theatergoers that cell phones are prohibited through a public announcement. Frequent theatergoers are familiar these pre-curtain addresses, but Reed says the responsibility is often shirked.

"Most of my experience is they don't make an announcement," he contended. "In terms of compliance, it's no more than 40 percent." Reed is also unhappy with the option in the law that allows producers who don't wish to make an announcement to notify the audience of the ban through posted signs or—as is more common—program inserts.

"Many shows are averse to doing the announcement. They think it takes away from the mood," said Boese. Harris adds, "Some directors don't want to spend a whole evening admonishing the audience. I've heard two directors say this." Reed dismisses written notices as ineffective and their allowance under the law as an unhappy compromise and "a bit of foolishness."

Cell Blocking Blocked

When the law banning cell phones in theatres was passed, many patrons assumed theatre owners would follow it up by equipping their buildings with jamming devices which would render all mobiles dead. This has not happened, and for a good reason: such jammers are currently illegal in the United States.

The prohibition on cell blocking is ordered by no less a body than the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC considers such obstructions a violation of the Communications Act of 1934, which "prohibits any person from willfully or maliciously interfering with the radio communications of any station licensed or authorized under the Act or operated by the U.S. government." The core of the argument against jammers is they amount to property theft, since the cell phone owners have paid good money for access to a signal. Those who flout the FCC law stand to be fined $11,000—a fortune next to the pitiable $50 fine allowed by the City Council ban. (Nonetheless, the black market for jammers does brisk business and thousands of devices are sold every year.)

Such is not the case worldwide. In 2004, the French government's culturally sensitive industry minister Patrick Devedjian, backing up a decision by the Telecommunications Regulation Authority, gave the go-ahead on a motion to allow theatres, cinemas and concert halls to install mechanisms which would jam cell phones. The one proviso is that the hardware permit emergency calls to get through. The French are currently working to perfect the technology.

Certain American citizens think the French have it right and are pushing to get the FCC law changed. In 2006, at ShoWest, a motion picture industry trade show, the president of the National Association of Theaters told the audience, "I don't know what's going on with consumers that they have to talk on phones in the middle of theatres... We will actually petition the Federal Communications [Commission] to remove the block [on jamming cell phones]."

Some have noted that the FCC ban does not rule out "passive" cell phone jamming, such as inserting metal plates in auditorium walls. But, since Broadway houses are landmarked, such architectural meddling is not a viable option for theatre owners. (However—Broadway theatre owners planning interior renovations, take note!—there are types of paint and wallpaper that can play havoc with communications.)

The above options don't prevent some theatre professionals from harboring jamming-related fantasies. One person interviewed for this article said he had heard, on more than one occasion, producers scheming to smuggle jammers into theatres.

So What to Do?

With users not heeding the law and jammers out of the question, what then, if anything, can be done to eradicate the metallic crickets of Times Square?

Theatre professionals have various ideas, though none of them are very convincing in their potential effectiveness or applicability.

"It needs to be continually and continuously emphasized," said Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of the Shubert Organization. "Maybe if there was more publicity," offered Harris. "This is my wish: every theatre would enforce the law at each performance for one week. Literally go down and take the person out of the theatre. Maybe word would get out." And Markinson mentioned his personal approach: "In my theatre, I basically have my ushers remind people [not to use their phones] and I myself go into the house and remind them. We don't allow it anywhere but in the lobby."

Others think clever announcements do the trick. At one recent Broadway show, there was no spoken warning, but merely a pre-performance recording featuring dozens of ringing phones. Theatregoers got the message.

Pollack, who, as a career usher, would seem to be most in tune with the problem and its possible cures, can think of no solution. If the LED zipper, program inserts, audio announcement and nudging of ushers—methods all used at the Beaumont—don't do the trick, what will? "My reaction has always been if your life is that important, maybe you should not go to the theatre," said Pollack.

Its ineffectiveness notwithstanding, the law remains a popular one, earning approving nods whenever it is mentioned in conversation. Its existence may end up being the only consolation the aurally offended theatre lover has. Reed—who said, like it or not, the cell phone ban will very likely be mentioned in the first line of his obituary—remembered, "The Mayor vetoed that law and we overrided it. Every time I was in a room with him, he'd make some comment that it was a stupid law. And I'd ask everybody in the room who thought it was a good law and 95 percent would raise their hands. And I'd turn to him say, 'Well, Mike, I won!'"

(Robert Simonson is Playbill.com's senior correspondent. He can be reached at rsimonson@playbill.com.)

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