Popcorn at the Paramount?

Used to be you played by a different set of rules at the theater.

It used to be simple: For the price of a theater ticket, you got a program and a seat at a show. Yes, there has always been a bar and a coat check, but compared to a lot of other activities, theater was remarkably no-frills—no gift shops, no guided tours, no meals provided, not even a bag of popcorn and a Coke to take inside. The art itself was assumed to be adequate compensation.These days theaters are under pressure from patrons and other entertainment options to present an ongoing wave of frills, from the mundane to the absurd. The 5th Avenue's upcoming production of Cabaret, for example, has inspired one of its partner restaurants, the Top of the Hilton Restaurant, to create the "Life Is a Cabaret" Mac and Cheese. Perhaps Sally Bowles wouldn't have ended her days as a drug-addicted prostitute in the gutters of the Weimar Republic if she'd had access to some classic Midwest cooking.It's clear from discussions with our biggest theaters that while patrons appreciate special deals at restaurants, pre- and postshow discussions, and catered preshow meals, the largest headache for both theaters and their patrons alike is parking, which isn't something that anyone can really do anything about—at least until the Sonics leave town. Several theaters, however, do offer their subscribers free or discounted deals with nearby lots, and both the Rep and Intiman send out regular e-newsletters to subscribers highlighting construction and events at the Center that could interfere with parking.Subscribers receive free replacements for lost or mislaid tickets, and most theaters offer to change which evenings you can see a show with a little warning. Another oft-requested exchange is more problematic, according to ACT's director of audience services, Harley Rees. "Very often we're asked by a patron to move another patron who's sitting next to them or near them," he says. "That confounds me. We can move them, but not someone else." Other, less orthodox requests are for opera glasses (for the back rows of the Rep or the Paramount, it might not be unreasonable, actually), and even to store luggage at the theater during the show, which Intiman's Stephanie Coen admits they've done a few times. I've repeatedly taken advantage of Taproot's offer to store the leftovers from my preshow meal in their concessions fridge.Kathryn Philbrook, the front-of-house manager at the Rep, says most of her concierge duties are calling cabs and helping people with disabilities navigate, but the most persistent request she receives that she can't fulfill is from patrons wanting to take their food or drinks into the theater. The Rep, like the 5th and the Paramount, has an agreement with a local caterer to have preshow meals waiting for patrons, "but we're just not set up to do the cleaning and maintenance that food and drink in the auditorium would require."If they follow New York trends, they may soon. Since last year a number of Broadway houses, including the Helen Hayes, the Eugene O'Neill, and all nine houses owned by the Nederlander Organization, have begun allowing patrons to bring drinks, popcorn, and candy to their seats, much to the chagrin of performers, who find the smell of melted butter and the sound of straws slurping understandably distracting. Is there any place in America where it's now permissible to ask people to undo their feedbags for even a couple of hours?It's not always clear exactly what patrons want from their theaters, as Terry Hiroshima from STG (which runs the Paramount and the Moore) points out. The extra fees imposed by Ticketmaster raised a clamor for walk-up window services, but then, she says, "there's a bit more of a tendency for patrons to be frustrated with a 'live' sale. You know, conversation needs to happen, an exchange of information and details, and it takes time."None of these innovations can do anything about $4-a-gallon gas prices or finding a responsible baby-sitter. Theater's a night out, and thus more hassle than staying in. But to me, that's always been its appeal—to visit someplace with its own rules you're expected to follow, not just an anything-goes atmosphere where teenagers can text each other (as I've seen at the Rep) and munch on Red Vines. It's a place to turn off your cell phones, stop whispering, and act like a grown-up for a little while.

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