A look back at the 1918 flu pandemic and its effect on the performing arts

Posted on: May 1, 2020

“The 1918 influenza pandemic killed an estimated 675,000 Americans and shut down public gatherings in many big cities for weeks or months,” writes Joe Lynch in Monday’s (4/27) Billboard.com. “The issues facing the entertainment business at the time seem frighteningly familiar…. The Oct. 12, 1918, issue of Billboard described the theater business as ‘practically paralyzed’ by the pandemic…. A Georgia state fair was allowed to take place as long as ‘everyone entering the grounds would be compelled to wear a flu mask.’ … Everyone from the American Federation of Musicians to Actors’ Equity Association to an Oklahoma union of movie projectionists navigated the contractually nebulous waters of getting their people paid…. The 1918 pandemic did subside, though at different paces per region. Boston, one of the first east coast cities to darken its theaters, was also one of the first to reopen…. Midwestern cities, which were reluctant to enforce consistent closures with the notable exception of St. Louis, were still ailing by the holidays…. The Metropolitan Opera House of St. Paul, MN, aired this grievance on Dec. 23, 1918 after five staggered weeks of postponements: ‘Members of the company are waiting here with slim prospects for a merry Christmas.’ ”