As any Montague or Capulet could tell you, some people are pretty passionate about names. And so it is with theater/theatre. (Basically: Theatres feel spelling it that way signals they are more in line with European traditions.)
John F. Fisher, president of the Shubert New Haven — a tryout house in Connecticut that’s hosted over 600 pre-Broadway shows, including such world premieres as “Oklahoma,” “South Pacific,” “My Fair Lady” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” starring Marlon Brando — said he’s followed the debate for years. The Shubert closed in 1976 and when it reopened in 1983, the board chair insisted on changing it to -er.
“We changed it back to -re before our 100th anniversary in 2014,” John wrote. “It was originally -re.”
John said that after debating the spelling with the managing director at Yale Rep — “who favored -er as the more predominant usage” — he did some research, finding that almost all the playhouses on Broadway are theatres, not theaters.
Terence Kuch of Springfield, Va., pointed me to a passage in the 1926 edition of H.W. Fowler’s “A Dictionary of Modern English Usage.” In his entry on words ending in either -re or -er, Fowler, a Brit, noted that Americans were more consistent with their spelling. He wrote: “The prophecy may be hazarded that we shall conform in time, one word in -re after another changing to -er; but we prefer in England to break with our illogicalities slowly.”
They haven’t broken with that one yet.
Terence added: “Out of stubbornness, I sometimes pronounce theatre ‘theee-a-tree’ — but only to myself.”
Hey, we all need a hobby.
When the District’s Allan Sacks was a young man, he visited Dublin. “I remember asking the little old Irish lady who ran the B&B for a neighborhood lunch recommendation,” he wrote. “I thought she answered ‘Teeter’s,’ rolling the R. When I couldn’t find it I went back and asked her to spell it. It was Theatre’s.”
They serve food at playhouses in Ireland?
Allan said Theatre’s turned out to be an Irish pub, with wonderful food and a lovely proprietress who was very kind to the awkward young American.
Dennis Van Derlaske of Woodbridge noted that it makes sense that the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater is spelled with an -er. After all, wrote Dennis, “the military uses this spelling in their ‘theaters of operation.’”
Glen Behrendt of Silver Spring pointed out the mixed message at the Olney Theatre Center. “They split the difference on British vs. American spelling!” he wrote.
I asked Olney’s director of marketing, Joshua Ford, how come.
“In a sharply divided America, we at Olney Theatre Center pride ourselves as an institution that can bring people together whether their differences are ideological, generational or spelling,” he wrote. “However you spell it, we think you’ll love our production of ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ which opens Nov. 8 and runs through the New Year.”
Nice plug, Joshua! And of course, what really matters isn’t how you spell theater, it’s that you experience it. We in the Washington area are blessed with an abundance of fine actors; directors; playwrights; set, lighting, prop, sound and costume designers; stage combat coordinators; stage managers and choreographers. Do yourself a favor and see their work.
A Capital idea
All this theater talk reminded me of the great Pringle-shaped arena that once stood hard by the Beltway in Landover: the Capital Centre. Why not Capital Center?
I asked Jerry Sachs, who was president of the Capital Centre. He said that before the Cap Centre was built, Abe Pollin, his wife, Irene, Jerry and other executives spent two days flying around the country in the private jet of builder Jim Clark, checking out other arenas.
Said Jerry: “Irene Pollin came up with the thought: ‘Why don’t we name it the Capital Center?’”
To which Jerry responded: “Let’s be fancy and make it -re.”
As Jerry told me: “We were going to be a different kind of arena, therefore we deserved a special name.”