Exactly 100 years separate the 21st century’s global entertainment industry and the final year of the 1918-20 Spanish flu pandemic and its effects on the international show-business scene. There’s a world of difference between then and now, but at its core, modern entertainment shares a surprising number of similarities with the showbiz of that era.
On Variety’s first cover in 1905, among the banners adorning the pillars of showbiz were “vaudeville,” “burlesque,” “parks” and “fairs.” By 1918, “picture houses” (movie theaters, in modern parlance) had become big business, but such “amusements” required person-to-person contact, usually in close — and often fragrant — quarters. Commercial radio was just being born, television was still a fantasy and home entertainment options were mostly limited to sheet music and DIY musicianship or phonograph machines.
Movies were booming, but exhibition was, as it is today, susceptible to the ravages of an airborne virus. Vaudeville drew tens of millions of patrons per year. Think of it as television, except you had to go into a crowded theater filled with patrons, performers, musicians and animals to watch it. That business is gone, but live theater — what we at Variety like to call “legit” — remains a booming business, especially in New York and London. It has taken a devastating body blow — as it did in 1918 — with the closure of theaters in such entertainment capitals as London, Paris and New York. The Broadway season is especially affected, as the lockdown edicts have arrived just as an array of important new shows were about to bow to qualify for Tony consideration, including the official opening of the musical “Six” and previews for “Flying Over Sunset.” Other shows whose openings were delayed include “Company,” “Hangmen,” “The Lehman Trilogy,” “The Minutes” and “Mrs. Doubtfire.”
The U.K.’s Olivier Awards has announced plans to name its winners without an actual ceremony, and the Tony Awards ceremony has been postponed indefinitely.
The “parks” and “fairs” business of 1918-20 has morphed into a new pillar of entertainment: magnificent, patron-packed family-entertainment theme parks. With the Disney properties and others shuttered from Asia to Anaheim, that multibillion-dollar-a-year sector of show business may be suffering the single greatest damage to its business model.
A vast sports entertainment business, undreamed of in those years, sprang up over the decades built on a steady stream of live events and telecasts, with passionate fans in the stands adding excitement. That stream has abruptly dried up, and with it, a major driver of TV ratings and revenue. But the popular sports of that earlier era — college football, baseball and boxing — all boomed in the 1920s, after the pandemic subsided. Fans were still fans; they still are, and are likely to return when their sports do this time, be it in six months or a year.
The music business of that era and today are, due to COVID-19, sadly in sync. Now as then, it relies on live entertainment for recoupment and profit, and so is vulnerable to total disruption and financial upheaval. The business is already reeling from the closures of Coachella, SXSW and Stagecoach, as well as the shuttering of Las Vegas and the postponement of headliners’ tours. There’s no way to compensate for or avoid the overall systemic shocks of the revenue losses. One recently published estimate puts that number at $20 billion.
Entertainment in 1918 was almost exclusively a shared experience. Today’s technology, including social media, streaming, AirPods and iPads, all can bring music to your place of sequestering. But no technology has replaced the human need for shared moments. Human contact, the buzz of interacting with a crowd absorbing the full force of music, and the communal experience of occupying time and space with strangers, have no virtual counterpart. We are still, all of us, in this shared showbiz world of entertainers and audiences, very much together.
Unfortunately, that need to gather and share is a clear and present danger to world health. If today’s countermeasures “flatten the curve,” that will reduce deaths and suffering. The trade-off is that a flatter curve is also a longer one. It will extend the time that people must refrain from gathering. Let’s hope sequestering and the arrival of warm weather end this nightmarish pandemic so we can survey the damage and begin the recovery soon.