December 2, 2002

A Lesson or Two from London

Why is it that movie theaters trust six-year-olds to eat popcorn and drink soda in their seats, but most venues for stage theatrical productions won’t let grown adults bring in food and beverages? Am I missing something here?

I was confronted by this apparent paradox during a recent visit to London. If you’ve never been, you’re missing out on what I consider to be an incredibly simple civilized theater tradition. At the interval (intermission) ushers resembling prohibition-era cigarette girls quickly station themselves at the front of the theater aisles near the stage, as well as at about the mid-way point. For a modest pound or two (the currency not your weight) you can enjoy an ice cream treat or some other chocolate confectionary selected from the trays strapped around their neck.

The usual drinks and fare are available in the lobby and those must remain there. Yet you can still enjoy a nice refreshment all from the comfort of your seat and be served far more expediently than in any American theater.

Perhaps the British are just more well mannered (I know, well duh!?!). I’d be hard pressed to envision an ice cream drumstick food fight breaking out between the orchestra section and the balcony. Truth be told, the ice cream in the little papers cups served (think back to your grade school days) tends to be rock hard. It takes most of the intermission to chip away at it with the small spoon that makes airline plastic silverware seem like gourmet cutlery.

Another UK-inspired “aha” moment occurred while walking by a nondescript church in the heart of the city. Surrounded by a low chain fence the church was sandwiched between some retail shops on a fairly busy street. Apparently folks must see the fence as a great place to park a bike while shopping because attached to the fence in two places was a neat hand-lettered sign that said: We would be most grateful if you would kindly not lock your bicycle to the fence.

Barring the apparent grammatical challenges of the sentence (can one really not do something in a kindly manner?) the request charmed me to no end. I tried to envision the same scene in a major American city. Most likely no sign would be posted and you would only learn of the church’s intent when you returned from shopping to find your lock broken open and your bicycle confiscated. Or if by chance our local church was a bit more accommodating, its sign might read: “Please do not lock your bikes to the fence.”

So inspired by my tour of the British ways, I have adopted two minor missions for the month of December (1) question seemingly innocent rules that really make no sense no matter what the rule or where I am; and (2) add a little dose of kindness to all requests made of others. As you might expect, the volunteer usher of a local playhouse I visited this past weekend just did not know what to do with my question about kids eating candy in movie theaters. I’m sure my name has been put on some sort of local theater “watch” list.

Perhaps you might want to try the same? If you do, let’s get together for afternoon tea and compare notes. I’d be much obliged if you would kindly reserve for me a seat by the window.

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