Chicago Smoking Ban Forces Rewrite of Jersey Boys Script

When Chicago instituted a city wide smoking ban in 2005 it was met with mixed reaction; some hated the idea and others loved it with little middle ground. When R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. took advantage of a loophole in the Chicago ordinance and opened up a legal smoking lounge the Washington Post treated the company as if they skirted the law and published a critical story in its nation section under the headline "Tobacco Lounge Blows Smoke in The Face of Chicago's New Ban".

Now that an unintended consequence of Chicago's smoking ban is affecting the expression of art it is being treated as an infringement of an artist's 1st Amendment right. An indirect casualty of Chicago's smoking ban is the Chicago production of Jersey Boys. As a result historically accurate depictions of Frankie Valli and The Four Season smoking cigarettes have been replaced with toothpicks and shticks with finicky lighters. This latest rewrite on history is courtesy of the same city council that gave Chicago its much reviled and short lived foie gras ban.

Funny how it takes an absurd twist of events to get people riled up about nanny state politics after the fact.

Apparently an irate theatergoer lodged a complaint about the actors that were smoking on stage resulting in a showdown between the producers of the show and the Chicago City Council. With threats of shutting down the production and despite a search for compromises such as using herbal prop cigarettes the city council prevailed. An alderman that helped institute the smoking ban defended the decision not to allow an exemption with a second hand smoke argument and advised the producers to strike all references to smoking and smoke-filled rooms from the script.

“We worked over two years trying to pass an ordinance here that prohibited people from smoking. They just passed a law 73 to 42″ in the Illinois House that prohibits smoking statewide, said Health Committee Chairman Ed Smith (28th), who championed Chicago’s smoking ban. “We would be duplicitous if we … say it’s all right to allow people to smoke on the stage. … It’s an adversity to people who come to see those plays and the stagehands.” Ald. Ray Suarez (31st) agreed. “It would be hypocritical of me to vote for an ordinance that bans smoking in Chicago and now has passed statewide, then go out and say we’re going to give an exemption to actors smoking on stage where the cigarettes are going to be in the air” that affects theatergoers. Instead of exempting actors, Smith advised producers to modify the lines of the play to strike references to smoking and smoke-filled rooms. (all emphasis mine)

Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones had the following reaction.

The Chicago production of "Jersey Boys" has gone smoke-free in the last few days. It is as if the Four Seasons never took so much as a drag.

But in New York and London, Frankie and the boys still puff away. That's because those more enlightened cities allow artistic exceptions to their bans on smoking in public. But as the anti-smoking law is written in Chicago, no such exception is possible. And the law makes no distinction between tobacco and herbal cigarettes.

I wrote about the absurdity of this when the smoking ban was first proposed. I am no fan of smoking but to legally require that shows pretend that no-one ever smoked in the history of the world is absurd, unreasonable, damaging to the city's cultural reputation and injurious to art.

The injurious to art argument is the prevailing theme for those who oppose the ban on a selective basis. Louis F. Raizin, the president of Broadway in Chicago, echoed that sentiment.

"Shows that are coming to Chicago will no longer come because you are modifying the art that was created. If it plays anywhere else in the country and it doesn't play here as it was originally written, it's going to have detrimental effect on what we wind up seeing in the city," Raizin said.

A Chicago Sun Times city hall reporter summed up the ban as follows:

Never mind that smoking in the '50's and '60's was about as prevalent as a thug on a Jersey street corner. Chicago's smoking ban comes first.

An alderman in favor of an exemption characterized the lack thereof as equivalent to a Puritan blue law.

"When you take it out of the production, you're changing history. If you want to be true to the times, you'll allow them to smoke on stage. To do otherwise is like blue laws in the Puritan times," said Ald. Bernard Stone (50th), a former part-time actor who favors an exemption in the city's smoking ban for live theater.

These types of arguments fell on deaf ears when restaurant owners complained that they would lose customers to suburban restaurants that allowed smoking. In that case they were characterized as greedy business owners as exemplified in a 2005 CBS news article on the passing of the 2005 ordinance.

"If it's the right thing to do, why don't restaurants do it today? Very interesting. It's called greed. They want to make money," said Mayor Richard Daley.

It is not quite clear what finally forced the production’s hand but the Chicago Police reportedly had no choice but to start issuing warnings. Meanwhile the department responsible for enforcing the ban claims that they never received a complaint.

"Everybody in our smoking enforcement office is scratching their head saying they don't have any record of a complaint like that. It's possible that someone flagged down a police officer during a production.

I guess anything is possible. Suddenly free market principles and the 1st Amendment have become a defense of a pro-smoking argument. Who could have seen that coming?

Terry Trippany is the editor and publisher of Webloggin. The image accompanying this article is the official Chicago Jersey Boys logo.

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