One of the many inconveniences of the current state of disease and our reaction to disease seems minimal compared with the devastating impact of the pandemic. But for those of us who perform for our income or even for enjoyment, the lack of access to a real-live audience is tough. It is not tough enough to seek opportunities to violate good public safety guidelines, but it is tough enough to make us miss the days of performing downstairs at the Magic Castle. We can imagine it is even worse for those of our profession who depend on appearance fees and meal allowances for their work at the greatest platform for our art we know.
We looked back at the way performers handled the lockdowns in the 1918 Spanish Flu. We should have guessed that John Cox would have covered Houdini’s involvement with the flu on his wonderful website, Wild About Harry. Link here.
Houdini actually contracted the flu but apparently was of sufficient strength or granted sufficient protection to survive the flu in 1918. Interestingly, that flu attacked those who were young, healthy and strong. It forced the immune system – usually stronger in young – to cause the immune system to over-react and kill the infected. John quotes information from a David Ben book that points out Houdini was at the time of the flu “middle aged” and thus part of a population that was actually safer from the flu.
We checked the medical journals reviewing entertainment’s response to the flu.
In an article titled “Lessons Learned from the 1918–1919 Influenza Pandemic in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota,” in the journal Public Health Reports in 2007. To save you the reading of the entire report, it is documented that the closing of theaters in November of 1918 was show to reduce the number of cases. The Minneapolis Tribune reported that when the closure of theaters was announced, patrons rushed to the venues for one last show, “Downtown theaters were packed last night with patrons who took advantage of their last chance to see a performance until the ban is lifted.” (“Influenza Lid Clamped Tight All Over City,” Minneapolis Tribune 1918 Oct 13).
There is a great summary of how show people handled the sudden closing of the theaters at Circus Talk. Contracts were cancelled “left and right” and so performers were tossed from the hotels and boarding houses where they were staying. Some looked for theaters that either were not affected by the shut-down or simply ignored the law and thus risked criminal sanctions. In those towns without laws or regulations, performers received poor reviews and small audiences.
We have much to learn from the past but the lessons are hard to abide.