L.A. Theatre Under Quarantine: 1918

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Written by Julio Martinez

 

On April 26, 1564, in the parish register of Holy Trinity Church, at Stratford-upon-Avon, the vicar, John Bretchgirdle, recorded the baptism of one “Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere,” better known as William Shakespeare.  A few months later, in the same register, the vicar noted the death of Oliver Gunne, an apprentice weaver, and in the margins next to that entry had scribbled the words “hic incipit pestis” (here begins the plague). That same year, the epidemic took the lives of close to a fifth of the town’s population. Shakespeare lived his entire life in the shadow of the Bubonic Plague. But such outbreaks did not rage on forever. With the help of strict quarantines and a change in the weather, the epidemic slowly waned. However, after an interval of a few years, in cities and towns throughout the realm, the plague would return. It was early recognized that the rate of infection was far higher in densely populated cities than in the country. Those with the means to do so escaped to rural retreats, though they often brought infection with them. Civic officials, realizing that crowds heightened contagion, took measures to institute what we now call “social distancing.”

 

Theater folk, dependent on the hoped-for adulation of large audiences in order to make viable their creative efforts, have throughout history been victimized by the unregulated ravages of pestilence. “Social distancing” proved a death sentence for many of the public theaters in London–which routinely brought together two or three thousand people in an enclosed space—when they were ordered shut. As a shareholder and actor in his playing company, as well as its principal playwright, Shakespeare had to grapple throughout his career with these repeated, economically devastating closings. There were particularly severe outbreaks of plague in 1582, 1592-93, 1603-04, 1606, and 1608-09. Theatre historian J. Leeds Barroll III concluded that in the years between 1606 and 1610—the period in which Shakespeare wrote and produced some of his greatest plays: King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest—the London playhouses were not likely to have been open for more than a total of nine months. How did this affect the writing of his plays?  According to Stephen Greenblatt is in his May 7, 2020 New Yorker article, “In Shakespeare’s works, epidemic disease is present for the most part as a steady, low-level undertone, surfacing in his characters’ speeches most vividly in metaphorical expressions of rage and disgust. For instance, Mercutio, mortally wounded in the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues, rages, ‘A plague on both your houses’.” 

 

The Spanish flu pandemic descended on many houses when in mid-September 1918 cases of influenza began appearing in the Los Angeles area. At first, the disease attacked seamen aboard a naval vessel that had arrived at Los Angeles Harbor. On September 28, officials at the Naval Reserve Station placed their installation under quarantine, quickly stating that the move was merely precautionary, as no cases yet existed. Actually, the first civilian cases in Los Angeles appeared on September 22, although influenza was not made a reportable disease in California until September 27. Amongst the first cases were 55 students at Polytechnic High School, at that time located on the corner of Washington Blvd. and Flower Street in downtown. Publicly, City Health Commissioner Dr. Luther Milton Powers only described the Polytechnic cases as “alleged influenza.” Privately, he advised Mayor Frederic Thomas Woodman that the city should prepare an active campaign to limit or control the influenza epidemic that was just starting to develop. 

 City Health Commissioner Dr. Luther Milton Powers

Mayor Woodman responded by appointing 11 of the most respected Los Angeles physicians to form a Medical Advisory Board to support Health Commissioner Powers.  When the new advisors met on October 10, businessmen and various state, county, and local health officers, including those from Pasadena, Long Beach and other adjacent cities, joined them. The next day, on October 11, Mayor Woodman declared a state of public emergency. The City Council confirmed the health department’s legal right to issue a closing order and passed an ordinance giving Powers authority to act in the emergency. The health commissioner then ordered schools closed and banned all public gatherings, including dance halls, live theaters and movie houses, the wearing of “influenza” masks in public, as well a daily disinfection for all transportation vehicles, effective 6 p.m. the same day. The list of closed venues was more or less what other local and state health officers across the United States had closed. However, because of its burgeoning film industry, Los Angeles also had two novel bans: the filming of mob scenes was prohibited, as were any crowds that gathered to watch street scenes being filmed. 

 Dr. Powers’ Health instructions to the public, printed in L.A. Times

Legit theaters in Los Angeles were particularly devastated, except for the Community Players of Pasadena, which was formed in 1917 and performed their first production at the Pasadena Shakespeare Clubhouse. In 1918, the company moved to the Savoy Theatre in Pasadena (87 North Fair Oaks Avenue), which became the official base for the group, becoming the Community Playhouse of Pasadena, populated by The Gilmore Brown Players. In spite of limited facilities, the Playhouse gained community support, which saw them through the worst days of the flu pandemic. The community theatre organization quickly grew, helping the theater to outlast Spanish flu, eventually raising the funds to build what is now the Pasadena Playhouse at 39 South El Molino Avenue, completed in 1925. 

5th and Broadway on a typical Saturday night a week before the theaters closed down

Theaters in the more densely populated downtown L.A. area did not fare as well. The city’s most successful space, the Palace Theatre (home of the Orpheum Circuit) began 1918 with the outlandishly provocative Eva Tanguay (the “I Don’t Care Girl”) who regularly sold out the Palace’s 2800 seats.  She was followed in February by the zany Marx Brothers, who also enjoyed a successful run. But by fall 1918, the influenza epidemic had reached Los Angeles. Hundreds per week died in Los Angeles. Many theaters were forced to close at the peak of the epidemic in October, including The Orpheum.

Dorothy and Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

In mid-October The Evening Herald noted approvingly that “Theatrical Folk Back Up Health Officials.” By November 7, theatre and cinema owners harnessed the power of live performance to make their case for equal treatment for all local businesses. Frank A. McDonald, president of the Theatre Owners Association, and 25 of his colleagues attended a city council session wearing white influenza masks and “appealed not to open theatres, but rather to close up everything else as tight as the theatres… He deplored the fact that department stores, cafeterias, parks, and other places where people still gathered, were allowed to be open, while churches, schools, and theatres were closed.” In those times, before the Great Depression, the New Deal, and expanded Federal and state social services, there was no contemplation of a government bailout nor an expectation of one. Businesses and individuals knew they were on their own.

   

 Critics of a total city-wide close-down regarded the mask as being of “doubtful value” or simply “a pure fake.” One doctor went so far as to say masks were “as filthy a thing as a big long mustache.” Merchants believed masks would frighten away customers and ruin the Christmas shopping season. In response to the frequent and open violations the police took quick action. In a series of simultaneous raids of every downtown hotel lobby on November 8, police arrested 400 individuals violating the ordinance on masking. Many were arrested with a cigarette in hand and a mask hanging around the chin or not even being worn. Within two weeks of passing the masking ordinance, however, the number of new influenza cases reported dropped from 7,164 to less than 600. As influenza historian Alfred Crosby wrote, “rarely has evidence in support of a scientific hypothesis been more overwhelming and more deceiving.”  

Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford (who had been ill from the flu) and Douglas Fairbanks in a photo ad celebrating the end of the pandemic and the reopening of theaters in Los Angeles

Later that month, the question of the ban’s Constitutionality and the fact that the number of new cases reported in the city had dropped to under 300 gave them new hope.  Discussing the matter in light of the decline in cases and the legal rulings, the city council voted to “prepare and present” an ordinance repealing the ban. This gave Mayor Woodman a chance to exercise his skills of arbitration. On November 18, the assembled Influenza Advisory Committee, Powers and Frank MacDonald, president of the Theater Owners’ Association met in order to resolve the issue. In early December, health authorities decided to end the ban on theater operations and the rejoicing in the paper and in the public was palpable. Although many actors (including the Gish sisters) were still seriously ill or would soon become ill (Mary Pickford among them), the Los Angeles Times reported December 2 that L.A. theaters, which claimed to have lost a million dollars a week ($17.1 million in today’s dollars) during the seven weeks of closure, were to reopen. The “funless season” had ended. Los Angeles experienced a lower epidemic death rate than many other American cities: 494 deaths per 100,000 people. By contrast, San Francisco – which acted slowly and which relied heavily on the purported protection of gauze face masks to stop the spread of influenza– had an excess death rate of 673 per 100,000.

 The Hollywood Bowl in 1919

Live Theaters in Los Angeles did not have the audience pull that the movies houses enjoyed with their stockpile of films. Stage actors needed rehearsal time to generate performance ready material.  The Theosophical Society, which had no stage background, decided in December 2018 to mount a production of The Light of Asia, a pageant based on Edwin Arnold’s epic poem on the life of Buddha, which required a large cast and dancers. They staged the work at the 800-seat Krotona Institute in Beechwood Canyon, utilizing Ruth St. Denis and her dance team. Hungry to see live theater again, L.A. audiences sold out all of its 35 performances.  Surprised that they had a hit, the Theosophist folks searched for a permanent amphitheater for large-scale pageants. Renaming themselves The Theatre Arts Alliance, they come upon an acoustically perfect natural glen in an area along Highland Avenue known as Daisy Dell. At a cost of $47,500, The Alliance bought fifty-nine acres of what became the site of Hollywood Bowl in 1919.  Live theater was back in town.

Julio Martinez

Julio Martinez

Julio pens the weekly LA STAGE Insider column for @ This Stage Magazine, as well as the monthly LA STAGE History column. He is a recurring contributor to Written By (the monthly publication of the Writer’s Guild of America) and is the TeleVision columnist for Latin Heat Entertainment. On air, he hosts the weekly Arts in Review program for KPFK 90.7 FM. An active journalist for over 30 years, Julio’s articles and reviews have appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine, Daily Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, L.A. Weekly, Stage Raw, Backstage West, Westways Magazine, and Drama-Logue Magazine, among others.