(Roughly) Daily

“By reducing the scale of events it can introduce much larger events”*…

 

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In the Regency era (early 1800s), live theater was so popular that it regularly inspired riots. In 1809, when the Covent Garden Theater tried to raise ticket prices, audiences were so incensed that they revolted. For more than two months straight, they shouted, shook rattles, rung bells, and even brought pigs into the theater to drown out the actors. The protest was successful, and the administration gave up on the price hike.

Meanwhile, crowds packed into the “blood tubs,” unofficial performances held in abandoned warehouses and holes dug into the ground. The typical fare included lewd songs, dramatizations of shocking local crimes, and twenty-minute abridgements of Shakespeare. The shows changed so frequently that the actors tended to make up the stories as they went along. The theaters were unlicensed, meaning that both audiences and actors risked imprisonment for participating. Nonetheless, the blood tubs were so popular that they sometimes gave as many as six performances a day to audiences of hundreds, most of them children.

Clearly, people were hungry for entertainment. And in this time before Netflix and YouTube, enterprising toymakers developed a novel way to bring entertainment into the home: paper theaters. For “one penny plain, two cents colored,” you got a tiny cardboard stage about the size of a paperback book, complete with a proscenium arch, curtains, and sometimes even a paper audience. The characters were laid out on sheets of paper, frozen in dramatic poses: villains brandish revolvers capped with clouds of gunpowder, jolly sailors hook arms and dance, clowns emerge from barrels…

This short-lived children’s toy left… an enduring cultural legacy. Before Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island, before Jean Cocteau directed his iconic, dreamlike Beauty and the Beast, before Wagner composed his Ring Cycle, they each acted out their big stories on these tiny stages. As the literary scholar Monica Cohens points out, Stevenson’s Treasure Island reads almost like a paper-theater drama writ large. Pirates were an unshakeable cliché of Victorian melodrama, and the grim tales of cruelty and violence that featured on the Victorian stage were brightened into candy colors in their miniature theater editions. Likewise, Stevenson’s dashing pirates come to us filtered through a sunny lens…

In the nineteenth century, enterprising toymakers developed a novel way to bring theater into the home.  An appreciation of the Dungeons and Dragons of its day: “Paper Theaters: The Home Entertainment of Yesteryear.”

* G. K. Chesterton

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As we revel in role-playing, we might recall that it was on this date in 1951 that I Love Lucy premiered on CBS.  The chronicle of Lucy Ricardo’s (Lucille Ball’s) efforts to break into show business alongside her bandleader husband Desi (Desi Arnaz) via schemes hatched with her neighbors (William Frawley and Vivian Vance), it ran for six seasons, 180 episodes, it became the most watched show in the United States in four of its six seasons, and it was the first to end its run atop the Nielsen ratings (an accomplishment later matched only by The Andy Griffith Show in 1968 and Seinfeld in 1998).

A pioneer– it was the first scripted show shot in 35mm, the first ensemble cast, the first “three camera” scripted production– it created the template for sit-coms to come.  It won five Emmys and is regarded as one of the greatest and most influential sitcoms in history. In 2012, it was voted the ‘Best TV Show of All Time’ in a survey conducted by ABC News and People magazine.

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Written by LW

October 15, 2019 at 1:01 am

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