BALTIMORE — It’s one of the most memorable scenes in the history of cinema.
In a desperate effort to escape war-torn Europe – where he has a price on his head for non-compliance – underground leader Victor Laszlo and his beautiful wife Ilsa have followed a tortuous trail to Casablanca. Anxious to secure elusive exit visas (by any means possible), which will allow them to fly to safety in neutral Lisbon, the couple are mere moments from freedom on the misty airport tarmac, when an officious character steps out of the fog and demands:
“SHOW ME YOUR PROOF OF VACCINATION!”
No, wait – what? That’s not how the story goes!?
Well, that’s how it’s going right now at one of the only theatres in Baltimore where movie fans are likely to see classic features, like Casablanca.
As of Monday, Dec 27, the Charles Theatre is requiring all patrons to show proof of vaccination. Holding said letter of transport will then allow one to settle into a pre-selected – socially distanced – seat, and relax, with double-masked ease, in the petri dish of a nearly empty auditorium.
We’re not told how many jabs or boosters are needed for admittance, but proof that one has received the ‘champagne cocktail’ is required just the same.
I was shocked, I tell you, shocked to learn I would need to play nice with Major Strasser, when I made my way to the Charles last Thursday night to see erudite William Powell and feisty Myrna Loy solve a murder in the comedy-mystery The Thin Man. The social media post about that delightful 1934 film, which I’d doubled-checked that afternoon, offered a short description, the starting time, and a link to ticket sales – but said absolutely nothing about the new house rules.
What a pointless pain in the Asta.
I wasn’t the only potential patron who was turned away that night, as I learned when I entered the lobby to inquire about possible exceptions.
“Where is your card?” one man frantically implored, as his wife dug through her purse like she was seeing its contents for the very first time.
Two beaming ticket buyers off to my left had their cards at the ready, but most (maybe a dozen) did not. Peter Lorre could have made a small fortune with his purloined papers that night.
The young communications major(?) in the ticket booth – who I’ll note wasn’t leading by example by offering to show us his card – simply shrugged when I said I hadn’t see any mention of the card mandate on the Charles’ social media event post.
“That’s the rule now,” he replied – vaguely pointing toward the small sign in the window – his voice trailing away as he peered at a dim picture of a triple-stamped card on the frantic husband’s smart phone screen.
The woman standing in line to my right had already made her own futile search of her purse. She then said to me (in an audible aside) that she was really pissed off.
“I’ve been looking forward to seeing this film for several weeks now. Yes, I could watch it on TV, but I am a fan of this era, and this is the kind of film I would rather see on the big screen.”
The woman also told me she resides close to the theatre, and could go back to her home to retrieve her card if she wanted, but bitterly added, “Why should I? Couldn’t they just take my word?”
Given the relative closeness of her mid-town home, this woman might have made it back in time for Nick and Nora’s third martini.
I, on the other hand, live far enough away from the Charles that, not only would I miss Nick’s dramatic dinner party reveal, I’d also miss the coming attractions, the latest installment of Pathé News, a hilarious Joe McDoakes short, and the side-splitting Bugs Bunny cartoon.
All while rifling through Sam’s upright piano in a probe for the required documents.
Not the best business model – regardless of how much you are paying Sam – and certainly no way to treat a special friend of Rick’s.
I know this is news to some, but – the latest positivity numbers notwithstanding – a lot of people are done with being treated like contaminated chattel. And by “a lot of people”, I’m talking about both the great unwashed and the thoroughly inoculated.
Take your earbuds out and listen to the strangers that surround you. You might be surprised at what they are quietly saying about these mandates.
You could see it in the eyes of the exasperated guy who was scrolling for “proof” on his phone, and of his wife wading through her over-stuffed purse. It was in the eyes of the miffed mid-town woman who was standing in line beside me, and the lobby employees who aren’t getting paid nearly enough to metaphorically pat-down the usual suspects.
One quick aside for those who may still be “indignation hesitant.”
As a roving reporter for the Baltimore Post-Examiner, I see every entertainment-related press release that crosses our electronic path. Without naming names (and there are literally dozens) all of the indoor entertainment venues that regularly keep us in the loop have two pertinent things in common with this story:
First ~ They have all imposed very strict proof of vax and/or testing guidelines for patrons, employees, crews and casts. In most cases now – like the Charles – it’s “no proof – no entry.”
Second ~ They have all been forced to cancel performances and/or partial or entire runs because of covid illness within their card carrying ranks.
One venue, in fact – which managed to stage live shows through most of the 20/21 season by following common sense safety protocols – only went dark because of illness after their entire cast and crew had been fully… umm… well, you know.
Seems no matter how many times you play it, it’s still the same old story.
Since my visit last week, the Charles has updated its website to reflect the “show us your papers” policy with a red box warning at the bottom of the “Welcome” page. The same holds true for Charles’ sister theatre in north Baltimore – the Senator. Conversely, the latest Facebook events announcement for this Saturday’s screening of Notorious at the Charles again mentions nothing about showing anyone at the door your coveted proof.
And Charles Theatre management wonders why people are surprised – and more than a little ticked – when they arrive for a show and are summarily dismissed.
I’ve been an ardent supporter of the Charles (and the Senator) for several decades. I was there for late night screenings of foreign films, the Living Dead saga and Eraserhead; the openings for Polyester, Serial Mom and On The Block: really too many movies to mention. But winning and keeping trust with your patrons is a perpetual two way street.
So moving forward, if I want to watch The Thin Man (or Notorious, or Casablanca) I will do so from the relative safety – and unobtrusive comfort – of my chewing gum-free living room sofa. Not just because of concerns the card may allow some to develop a cavalier attitude about their health, but more important: these onerous house rules we’ve been talking about tend to lead to the loathsome practice of “othering” our fellow man.
Too much of what is happening in the world right now has an eerie resemblance to certain aspects of Casablanca. And if you have trouble sharing this story on social media, you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about.
As for the astute individuals and outlets which refuse to sign onto this soul-crushing charade?
I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
©Copyright 2022 Baltimore Post-Examiner. All Rights Reserved
Anthony C. Hayes is an actor, author, raconteur, rapscallion and bon vivant. A one-time newsboy for the Evening Sun and professional presence at the Washington Herald, Tony’s poetry, photography, humor, and prose have also been featured in Smile, Hon, You’re in Baltimore!, Destination Maryland, Magic Octopus Magazine, Los Angeles Post-Examiner, Voice of Baltimore, SmartCEO, Alvarez Fiction, and Tales of Blood and Roses. If you notice that his work has been purloined, please let him know. As the Good Book says, “Thou shalt not steal.”