Thursday, October 19, 2006
Peanuts…Cracked and Munched During Death Scenes and Arias
By ROGER M. GRACE
Peanuts, now commonly consumed at such places as circuses and fairs, were in the 19th Century gobbled during theatrical and musical performances.
“If all the peanuts that are crunched and munched at American theaters and concerts, during the affecting scenes and the softest passage, were placed in one heap,” the Placerville (Calif.) Mountain Democrat advised on June 29, 1878, “the pile would measure 1,492 miles in circumference at the base, and the apex of the pyramid would go through the sun and stick up a mile and a half the other side.”
What we’re talking about are not Planter’s peanuts in small cellophane bags. This is the 1800s. They’re in shells, the cracking of which makes noise.
Use was sometimes made of the peanuts, however, without cracking them.
The 1952 book “Golden Age of the New Orleans Theater” by John S. Kendall notes that decorum was maintained at one particular theater around 1835 “through the announcements prohibiting peanuts” set forth in the programs. The book says that the objection to peanuts, “usually harmless articles,” was simply “that they were not always brought to the theater to be eaten, but to be used as missiles to emphasize the audience’s adverse opinion of the players.”
Such use of the peanut was by no means confined to New Orleans. While the term “peanut gallery” is well known to those of us who viewed the “Howdy Doody” show on early TV—the gallery being a small, on-camera bleacher-like seating section for kiddies—there’s an older meaning. The term “had been applied since the 1880s to the upper balcony, or ‘cheap seats,’ of a theater, from which unshelled peanuts, the ‘popcorn’ of the time, were thrown at unpopular actors or characters,” according to Robert A. Palmatier’s “Food: a Dictionary of Literal and Nonliteral Terms,” published in 2000.
More often, of course, peanuts were used as a snack. Kendall’s book related that the Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, a German nobleman who visited New Orleans in 1825, said in describing his visit to a theater in that city:
“I found the boxes and the galleries thronged. In the pit there were few spectators, and these consisted of sailors and countrymen from Kentucky, who made themselves quite at ease on the benches, and cracked nuts [peanuts?] during the finest pieces of music.”
The custom was one which, he said, “I have noticed in all the English theaters” in the U.S., adding that it was one “from which my tobacco-chewing neighbors in the boxes did not refrain.”
(The bracketed insertion was Kendall’s.)
Peanuts were sold in opera houses. Weldon B. Durham’s “American Theatre Companies, 1749-1887” (1986) makes note of an entrepeneur in the 1890s who, years before, began “his career as a Cleveland schoolboy selling peanuts and candy in the gallery” of an opera house.
A dispatch from San Francisco published in the New York Times on March 28, 1860 noted the distinctive characteristics of attendees at a Chinese opera: “They never applaud, and they eat no peanuts.”
A two-line ad in Newark, Ohio’s Daily Advocate on Dec. 7, 1892 proclaimed: “Fresh roasted peanuts at Seven Concert, Friday night at the Opera House.”
But chomping on goobers during a performance came to be viewed by some as rude...perhaps on a par with blabbing away on a cell phone in a restaurant nowadays.
The Wisconsin Daily Patriot on Nov. 2, 1860 reprinted from the Buffalo Herald a call for theaters to initiate house rules, including…
“Pop corn and lozenge boys will not be allowed to pass among the audience during the performance....The sale of fans and peanuts are absolutely prohibited.”
A column in the Portsmouth (Ohio)Times on March 11, 1893 opined:
“But one thing I maintain, peanuts were not made to be eaten in opera houses, and the one who persists in that pastime does so at the peril of his social standing.”
A letter to the editor appearing in the Atchison Globe on Oct. 20, 1883 complained of “the incessant crack, crack, crack of peanuts” at a local opera house, and went on to protest that “when this devilish pastime is through with, then comes the fiendish delight of grinding the shells under foot.”
A column in the San Antonio (Texas) Daily Light observed on Sept. 13, 1888 that “[t]he fellow who eats peanuts in a theater while a performance is in progress may be safely set down as a chump” of the first order.
What about eating peanuts in courtrooms? That’s the topic next week.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company
MetNews Main Page Reminiscing Columns