I am a grown man who recently watched in horror as other grown men around me brazenly violated a direct order from Santa Claus.
This was at Radio City Music Hall, and the order was one seemingly beneath a man of his stature: put your phones away. I was attending the annual Rockettes Christmas Spectacular with my girlfriend for the first time in either of our lives, to finally see what exactly the deal was. (C’mon, they had a Groupon for November shows! Why not!) The show was wholesome, fun and 4D, with drone fairies, explosions, and more. But there was actually a fifth D involved that nearly ruined the experience—the absolutely DEE-ranged cell phone etiquette of the audience.
This is hardly unique to Radio City, but I had expected better in the 90-year-old venue that transports visitors back to an era when television was just invented. Clearly, some people are incapable of resisting the temptation to pollute a sacred audience space with glowing screens and content creation.
The time has come for quick and drastic action: The City must fund the expansion of phone jails.
Phone jail is, simply, a way to ensure phones stay silent and out of sight, and is already in use in schools and at big-name shows where fears of the audience recording material run high. It comes in the form of magnetic pouches that are locked by security and unlocked on the way out, though constructing an actual jail in every venue, somewhere behind the coat check where phones can be held without bail, is worth considering too.
One company, Yondr, sells the jail pouches for as little as $2 a head for large performances; they would cost about $12,030 for a venue the size of Radio City. Since this kind of behavior counts as a crime against audience sanity, and a direct assault on the city's performing artists, the money for this can come from the NYPD budget.
Unlike actual jail, this carceral expansion will bring a wave of liberation. Free from the all-consuming ability to make content, audiences will remember that the time to enjoy live performances is when they are live, and not on your tiny screen later.
The crimes being perpetrated that led me to this conclusion were subtle but nefarious. Your eyeballs can't help but look at bright rectangles when in the Rockettes crowd, especially since any of them could be one of the drone fairies we were warned might land on us. (A public safety issue!) People made long videos, shot out bursts of flash, or scrolled through pages of apps to find their camera, stopping, horrifically, to check a text or two. It had the feel of a weeknight screening at the old UA Court Street movie theater, where I once saw a man take a phone call midway through a movie, saying into the device, "No, I'm not busy." These phones are criminals, the lot of them, and they should be punished through preventative jailing.
It seems this becomes a worse problem as the average age of an audience gets older, with phone etiquette becoming increasingly solipsistic (younger people, less enraptured with the novelty of technology, would rather die than have their phones make a single noise).
"It was, like, parents, it was people in their 50s and 60s," one former Radio City usher, Elijah Crocker, told me of the worst phone offenders. "Those are the people who would be really stubborn about it."
During his tenure, Crocker found he had to scold at least two audience members per shift in his section. Extrapolated to the entire theater, that amounts to a minimum of about 100 phone warnings per show, disruptions that could be prevented by phone jail.
"They don't think about how their phone is loaded up with stuff they haven't looked at in years," he noted.
It's easy to pick on boomers for this but I will also call out members of my own aging generation, whom I witnessed flirting with this behavior last month at elder millennial megachurch—an LCD Soundsystem show. I was stuck behind a tall man taking videos of three-fourths of every song on his iPhone, right around my eye level. Halfway through "Losing My Edge," I did consider regaining my edge and slapping the phone out of his hand, yelling, "ENJOY THINGS IN THE MOMENT, DO YOU EVEN LISTEN TO 'ALL MY FRIENDS' MY DUDE?" Please, save this man, his $100 ticket, and all of our aging generations from ourselves: Phone jail.
The nativity scene during the Rockettes show, with its bright star and live animals, is when phone crimes are at their highest, Crocker told me. Spectacle wins over etiquette every time.
Let's just put everyone's phone in jail and return audiences to the now, free from the buzz of alerts and the criminal urge to post. If anyone asks about baby Jesus being born, you'll just say you really had to be there.