About two or three years ago — the exact moment is unclear — a remarkable milestone was reached in Los Angeles theater. After a decade of being warned, cajoled and begged to do so, all audience members finally began checking their cell phones in earnest before shows started. Suddenly silence fell upon houses across L.A., and the sound and fury that followed erupted where it was supposed to — onstage. I’m of two minds about cell phones in theaters. On the one hand, their owners — like those suffering from chronic coughing jags — can inspire a murderous rage in me when I’m reviewing a play; on the other, the phones’ disruptive noise appeals to a kind of schadenfreude because it confirms my view that even theater lovers are tragically flawed human beings.
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So it was only a matter of time when my own phone went off in a theater.
It happened one Sunday night when I’d arranged to meet a friend at the John Anson Ford Theater. Earlier in the day I’d turned on my new Samsung BlackJack, a Christmas present from my wife. I’m one of these people who seldom use a cell phone, period, let alone a so-called Smart Phone with Internet access, e-mail accounts and GPS capability. The phone was like one of those Swiss Army knives that have too many blades — it did everything but make toast, and at first I resisted letting Sandra buy it for me, but over time I succumbed to the promise of technology.
One of the nice things about cell phones is that most plans let you call long distance for free on weekends, so that afternoon I fired up the sleek black rectangle that looked like a small wedge of shiny obsidian, and called my mother in Petaluma. After I spoke to her, I looked at the phone and wondered what I could do with it next. There was the GPS navigator, whose robot-woman’s voice could guide me as I later drove to the theater. But that would be lame — the Ford was almost on a straight line from my home. Instead, I just watched the Samsung logo fade away as the big LCD screen blacked out to save battery life — the phone was “sleeping.”
I met David at the theater, where he pointed out a placard reading, “Please — No text messaging during the show!” I nodded approvingly, turned off my phone and took a seat. After what seemed well past 7 p.m., though, I asked David if he had the time, because I needed to record the length of the play for my review.
“Dunno,” he said. “I turned off my cell phone.”
He wasn’t wearing a watch and neither was I. I took out the BlackJack and hit the power switch. Even if they started the show now, I thought, they’d preface it with someone from the company coming out to greet the audience, describe its season program and, of course, ask everyone to please turn off their cell phones.
The moment my phone’s screen lit up, the house went pitch black and fell completely silent. Except, that is, for my phone, which boots up with sharp streaking noises, like the ones you’d hear coming from F-14s flying over Dodger Stadium on Opening Day. Immediately I pressed the On/Off button. Nothing happened. The BlackJack continued to boot up, and I knew that the next sound coming from it would be a Microsoft Windows tone. The question was whether someone would appear on the empty stage and begin speaking in time to cover up the beep that was coming.
Bip! went the phone. To me it sounded like a car alarm going off in my seat. The stage remained dark — apparently this was going to be some avant-garde kind of play — and the BlackJack’s screen competed with the Exit sign for being the theater’s brightest light source. As an actor in a black turtleneck finally appeared onstage, I continued to hold down the On/Off button, to no avail. I now knew two things: The BlackJack had evolved its own consciousness and could not be shut off. Worse, it was not in silent mode. Far from it. As a second dark-clad figure took the stage and began speaking, I tried to remember what kind of ringtone I’d set the phone to. I calmly reasoned that no one calls me on the cell anyway, or at least, never on a Sunday. And I also knew that I’d programmed it to be answered by pressing any button, so in the one-in-a-million chance someone did call, I wouldn’t have to find the Answer button in the dark. All I had to do was sit there, watching the play until intermission, my index finger poised over the Smart Phone’s keyboard, ready to strike.
The phone rang. I almost jumped out of my seat, but at least this settled the question about my ringtone — it was called “Old Phone,” and sounded like the echoey bell-ring once heard from phones at police stations or hospitals. It was the loudest ringtone invented and it was going off in my hand. I immediately began feigning a coughing fit — that was a noise, I rationalized, that was more acceptable in a theater than the cacophony my phone was making. I was able to silence it by hitting a random button. I stopped coughing. A few seconds later a mocking chime rang out, announcing a missed call. I had overlooked this bit of malevolence from the BlackJack. By now some people were turning around in their seats and, though it was dark, I knew what their expressions would be — the kind of sneer I had perfected from years of turning around in my seat toward oblivious teens or befuddled seniors when their Motos or Razrs had gone off.
The play continued, and, putting the phone in my pocket, I began to relax. Until it rang again. This time more people turned in my direction.
By the time I pulled the phone from my pocket the call had gone through, and so I now had to find the Hang-up button to disconnect the disconcerting voice. Each time I frantically pushed one of the rice-grain-sized buttons, a different bip or beep sounded. Finally I hit what I thought was the right one.
“Hello? Hello?” a woman’s voice called out, astonishingly loud. I had pressed the Speakerphone button.
“Can’t you remove the battery?” David hissed, clearly agitated.
I tried, but locating the battery door was like finding a secret panel in a slippery sliver of — obsidian. All I could do was start my fake cough again, trying to cover whatever new bleep, bip or beep was about to come out of my demon cell phone.
Intermission, like the restorative dawn in a horror movie, eventually arrived. David and I slunk out of the theater and examined the phone. I demonstrated to him how it was impossible to turn it off. Then I removed the battery and placed it in a separate pocket from the phone. I began to reconstruct what went wrong. The woman who’d called me during the play was my mother — somehow, as I’d sat there with my finger hovering over the keyboard, I’d unknowingly touched the redial button, calling her for the second time that Sunday. After I’d hastily hung up on her she’d called me back, sensing (all too correctly) that something was amiss.
When the play resumed, I’d occasionally check one pocket or the other, irrationally making sure the battery was still separated from the phone. The next day I brought the BlackJack back to the phone store and proved to a clerk that it could not be shut off without removing the battery. I got a replacement that works fine, although now I shut it off before I even step into a theater. And if I want to know the time and have no watch, I just turn around and keep asking strangers — until the lights go out.