FLINT - I attended a Broadway show with my family recently. I hadn't been to one in about 20 years.
The experience hasn't changed much. The atmosphere is still magical. The performers and the staging are still first rate. Broadway itself is still as weird and exciting.
One thing is different, though. To see how, enter my eyes for a moment:
To my immediate right is a morbidly obese man. He is so big he spills over into my space, which ought to be against the law. He is wearing shorts and a t-shirt that says, "I am the (blanking) man," thereby proving his shirt incredibly wrong. Next to him is his daughter, who looks about seven. Clearly, "the man" has never taught "the man's daughter" what a whisper is because she asks him questions out loud in a normal tone of voice throughout the entire performance.
In a hushed theater, a normal tone of voice sounds like a shout. This is so distracting that I am tempted at one point to say to him, "Do you mind?" but I don't because I'm pretty sure the answer would be, "No, I don't mind at all." Also, she stands - for nearly the entire show. She is able to do this because we are in the back row. Also because there are laws against pitching children off theater balconies.
In front of me is a large group of teenagers from Germany, Belgium or Austria. I can't tell which. What I can tell is that Europeans are just as rude with cellphones as Americans. All show long I am blinded by sudden bursts of smart phone light pyew, pyew, pyew - that momentarily blind me. It's like being photographed by a gang of paparrazi who specialize in harassing the utterly non-famous. Several of them seem to be playing "Angry Birds." Several are tweeting. I spend most of the show fantasizing about conking their heads together Three Stooges style until cartoon tweety birds circle their thick, stupid skulls.
They are not even close to being the rudest people in the house.
Four seats to my left, next to my 15-year-old daughter, who purchased a special dress and spent an hour getting ready for her first Broadway show, is an old woman, who seems to have come alone.
She, too, has cellphoneitis, which is the inability to not check your messages every 30 seconds. I am both annoyed and impressed.
Annoyed because no matter how often it happens, you can't help but turn your head when a light pierces the darkness in a theater, and that breaks the spell a good performance casts over you. And impressed because she looks about 80. My mom is about 80 and said to me recently that she wasn't sure she knew how to send me a fax from her home computer, which puzzled me - why would she want to do that, after all? - until I realized she meant she didn't understand how to send emails, even though we've shown her 12 times. She is otherwise, I should note, smart as a whip and sharp as ever. There's just something about older folks and technology.
In addition to her phone, the old woman also brought with her a plastic grocery sack of snacks and drinks, which she crinkled throughout the evening. I was astonished. Since when, I thought, did they let people bring food and drinks into a Broadway theater? You're not even supposed to do that at your kid's school during a three-hour, off-key performance of "Oklahoma," when god-knows you could use the distraction and the sustenance.
The same goes for cellphones and dressing like a slob. The last time I visited Broadway, cellphones were the size of briefcases and few people had them. But even if they were as common as they are today, I can't imagine theaters allowing them in the door, much less tolerating their use.
And when it came to attire, didn't theaters used to insist that you dress up a bit? If you showed up in workout shorts, a tank-top and sandals, wouldn't they have said, "Sorry, you can't come in, this is Broadway, not a tailgate party"?
Maybe theaters have just given up, figuring you can't fight the tide and that the money of the rude and the standardless is just as green as anybody's.
If so, I think it's sad. I'm as casual as they come, but even for me things have gone too far. As a society, we need to class it up a bit.
You can do your part. I suggest starting small. Next time you go to a play, wear your very best t-shirt. The one without the curse word on it.
EDITOR'S NOTE - Andy Heller, an award-winning columnist for The Flint Journal, appears weekly in the Daily Press. He graduated from Escanaba Area High School in 1979. For more of his work, visit his blog at blog.mlive.com/flintjournal/aheller. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.