Feb 23, 2024

Is New York, New York Turning into Peoria, Peoria?

Matinees start drawing younger crowds

By Ed Goldman

It’s no secret that the majority of New York city residents, with the notable exception of Native Americans, are immigrants or descended from same. Most alight there from Europe, Africa, Asia and the “other” Americas (Central and South). A few pop in from Australia and some, likely seeking a warm bowl of pho, travel here from Antarctica. 

On a seemingly separate note, a recent Wall Street Journal story suggests that more and more New Yorkers of all ages are sneaking out of their offices in the afternoon to attend matinee theatre performances. The revelation has convinced me that even if New Yorkers think they’re yuppies or members of an alphabet-letter generation, deep down they all just aspire to be senior citizens from the Midwest.

Edgy Cartoon

Only the neon lights are bright…

It won’t be long before they eat supper at five (rather than “dinner at eight”), eschew night-owling and become early birds. They’ll start watching “the late news” at eight-thirty p.m. God only knows what time they’ll get up to watch The Farm Report and Sunrise Semester.

In another era—like, a few minutes ago­—people in New York City, the little island from whence I sprang in the middle of the last century, went to the theatre in the evening. Plays and musicals didn’t even start until eight p.m. Afterwards, they’d have dinner at Sardi’s, meaning they crawled into bed (whether it was theirs or someone’s they met at the bar in Sardi’s) sometime around two a.m.

This was the life I once dreamt of. I was raised on black-and-white movies set in Manhattan in which the stars lived in Art Deco apartments whose living rooms’ square-footage competed favorably with that of a Jumbo Jet hangar at LaGuardia Airport.

In that world, which often focused on theatre itself, people visited each other in those magnificent apartments at three in the morning, often gathering around the grand piano to sing a few show tunes. They apparently had no neighbors below, above or to the sides of them. Either that or the neighbors were just as affluent but conveniently hearing-impaired.

Theatre matinees, in that mystical time, were for good-natured elderly tourists visiting from Des Moines, the kind who walk down a Broadway street with their necks craned upward to take in the skyscrapers and, metaphorically, at least, a heightened lifestyle. Nights were for young couples or sophisticated middle-agers to hail cabs, tip doormen (they were always men), hand their hats and sables to coat-check girls (they were always girls), sip martinis and champagne then head to the theatre in time for the overture (if they were taking in a musical, opera or ballet). If they were going to a proletariat drama, usually by Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller or John Osborne, they’d have to arrive before one of the play’s actors, in character, began declaiming from within the audience. This was very big back then. It was supposed to make the audience feel deeply about the character’s (or characters’) ensuing dilemma. Almost all of the playwrights were white and many of the dilemmas dealt with their allegedly deep concern for minorities and social justice.

Occasionally, you’d have a play about white people that was set in rural climes to establish that white playwrights in New York City really understood what life was like in the poverty-pocked Appalachians and the Ozarks. I think the writers were offered special courses in regional dialects, which mostly consisted of dropping the “g” from their gerunds.

Well, according to the WSJ, my reliable guide to the zeitgeist—for younger readers, this is sarcasm, not “Oh, like, really?!”—things have changed on the “Great White Way” (is Broadway even still called that? Man, we have got to talk).  

I’d write more but I’m late for the Sardi’s early-bird dinner.

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Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).