Report of the Sitting Committee to Mitigate Standing Ovations in Utah:
Executive Summary: Standing ovations have been a longstanding problem in Utah, going back to the earliest days of the Utah Territory and the Kingdom of Zion. Just recently, standing ovations were the subject of a heated exchange of letters in one of Salt Lake City’s newspapers, with one correspondent alleging that standing ovations in Utah are rare, while a more astute letter writer pointed out that Utah audiences jump to their feet if the actors manage to make it to the final curtain alive.
Our report seeks to provide an overview of standing ovations in Utah, their embarrassment to the citizens of Utah, and various attempts to modify or subvert the practice of standing ovations. We end up with tentative recommendations for mitigating the practice, with suggestions for other modes of expressing appreciation, enthusiasm, and approval on the part of audiences—principally at, but not necessarily limited to, theatrical venues.
The Situation in Utah: So automatic is the standing ovation in Utah that actors and actresses around the world now refer to the Utah Spontaneous Erection. Broadway impresario Adolph Hauserfeld tells neophyte performers, “Tonight, we’ll get a Utah hard on, so don’t knock yourself out.” Performers mounting the boards in Utah barely exert themselves, knowing that Utah audiences will leap to their feet and clap like lunatics, no matter what.
It has not always been the case. Pioneer diaries and other primary sources indicate that Utah audiences in the mid- to late- 19th century were far more discriminating in their response to theatrical performances. Thespians who forgot their lines or who failed to arouse pity or terror in the hearts of theatergoers were invited to take a ride into the desert with Orrin Porter Rockwell. They never came back.
Origins of the Standing Ovation in Utah: Over the decades, scientists have posited a variety of explanations for the Utah standing ovation. Some say the practice is just one more example of the pervasive Utah inferiority complex, which drives audiences to prove their sophistication, and in the process actually prove the opposite. Of course, the standing ovation may just be an example of Utah’s “Let’s all just be nice” factor.There are some adherents to the hypothesis that Utahns, who are notorious late arrivers to the theater, are also early departers, and standing ovations provide a pretext for bolting for the exits.
Recommendations: Lost in the mists of time is the exact moment when Utah audiences became afflicted with the spontaneous standing-ovation syndrome. Around the turn of the century, there were isolated reports of attempts to stop, subvert or at least mitigate the syndrome. Lorenzo Pratt spent a night in the old Salt Lake City jail for expressing his displeasure with a standing ovation given to a three-man tap-dancing barbershop quartet. He was charged with lewdness for pulling down the trousers of the man in the row ahead of him, though Mr. Pratt claimed the act was entirely inadvertent.
We do not propose that ovations be eliminated—after all, audiences throughout human history have expressed approval in a variety of ways, whether by foot stomping, shouting, toga waving, running in place, doing the side straddle hop, tossing underwear or ululating. Any of these would be preferable to the automatic standing ovation, but it is uncertain whether Utah audiences would rush to adopt them. For the time being, we suggest that theater seats be fitted with seat belts and shoulder harnesses, or even restraining devices utilized in amusement-park rides.
In our next report, we will make a case for bringing back to the theater booing, hissing and hurling rotten tomatoes.