One of the notable aspects of early Mormon statements about entertainment and media is the focus on discouraging the reading of novels and “light” literature, while other forms of entertainment, notably theatre, were encouraged. Brigham Young acted in Nauvoo, encouraged the early performances in Salt Lake City as early as 1853, and even promoted plays and attended the theatre himself. He announced the construction of the Salt Lake Theatre and vigorously pursued its construction until its completion in 1861.
However, by the turn of the century, Church leaders were also warning members about the theatre, as well as the nascent film industry.
By 1910 Joseph F. Smith had been president of the Church for nearly a decade. He had already guided the Church through the difficult Smoot hearings and the final painful transition away from polygamy. He also saw the rise of moving pictures and the rising popularity of the theatre, both of which may have colored his views. Here is his editorial for the March 1910 Improvement Era:
Clean Dramatic Amusements
by Joseph F. Smith
Amusements people will have. It is needful and right that these should be provided. Giving the people proper dramatic entertainment was an early desire of President Brigham Young. This idea was at the basis of the building of the Salt Lake Theatre, a playhouse many years in advance of the community, when it was first erected. He encouraged dramatic art among the people, and was ambitious to make the stage a means of social uplift and intellectual development. Like dancing, which he and the authorities of the Church after him permitted, the drama was to be a means of betterment for the person through recreation, entertainment and amusement. It was to be clean and elevating,—the theatre a place where you could go for high class enjoyment, and even where you could ask the blessings of the Lord upon what you learned and thought and saw. “Those who cannot serve God with a pure heart in the dance, should not dance,” said President Young on one occasion. Not with decent people, at least. Then again: “If you wish to dance, dance, and you are just as much prepared for a prayer meeting after dancing as ever you were, if you are Saints.”
These words apply also to the theatre, and, in fact, to all our amusements. When we seek recreation anywhere it should be in this spirit,—not alone in dances, summer outings, and private or public parties, but also in the theatre.
In order, however, to maintain this spirit in our social and amusement circles, choice of our associates, to some extent, and a guarding of our actions, in a degree, are needful and very important. This is quite as true of the theatre. There is as much need of our choosing plays as of choosing books, friends, and associates. If one accept an invitation to a party, or a home evening, or a dinner, one must first know from whom the invitation comes, and if it turn out that the source is low and infamous, the society coarse, and the food and drinks unfit, one must, in justice to his character and physical welfare, refuse the entertainment. Equally so with the theatre. There is as much need to exercise good taste in choosing matter for our entertainment in the drama, as in choosing honorable society and pure food. It must be said with regret that much of the entertainment offered to us and our children on the stage and in the amusement hall, these days, is morally and intellectually unfit.
What was recently said at Denver, in a sermon by Dr. Vosburg, applies with force in Salt Lake City, and perhaps in the western cities and settlements generally. He spoke on the “Undressed Drama,” and in the course of a scathing sermon said:
It is an undeniable fact that a large proportion of the plays offered at the theatres today are intellectually imbecile and morally degrading… Just as high toned moral and spiritual teaching creates better citizens, so does the undressed drama make worse citizens, and become the logical feeder of the red light district. It is a curse to civilization, an enemy of the home and of mankind.
The Denver News agrees with him, and declares that he does not overstate the case, for a large part of the plays which are offered today are “hurrahs for the tenderloin, glorifications for the scarlet woman, proclamations that dramatic art depends upon an absence of decency, and as nearly as possible an absence of clothes.” The drama of the day and the prevailing moving picture and vaudeville shows, it may be added, are as untrue to life as they are indecent. “They picture the dive as the home of wit, instead of being the abiding place of dullness.” They paint “happiness growing from the soil that nourishes half our suicides, and defy not only every law of decency, but every fact of life—and indeed to do the one they must do the other.”
The managers and players seem to have forgotten that decency pays, or else public taste is so low and degraded that this statement is no longer a fact. There is more reason to believe, however, that the public take what is provided for them, and that decency pays, even in the theatre, if it were given a reasonable chance. It pays in hotels, in resident districts, in the better walks of life, where the vicious and evil are not tolerated, why not in the theatre?
But if managers and players still persist in presenting either unfit subjects, or fit subjects in an unfit way, why there is only one remedy, and that is for the people to withdraw their support, and patronize only such plays and playhouses as are clean and whole-some. This can be done by their making selection, as one would select a friend, an associate, or a book.
Degrading plays, it is true, should not be permitted in the theatres and amusement halls of the Latter-day Saints, but if for any reason they gain entrance, the people, by a system of investigation and choice, should shun them, withdraw their patronage, and let them as severely alone as they would spoiled food, or coarse, vile associates.
The character and value of the play and the entertainment are well given by President Young in the opening sentence of this article. They should be clean, refined and uplifting. Can you, if you are a Latter-day Saint, apply the test that he gave to dancing to what you have seen and heard and thought and learned in the play and entertainment? Can you ask the blessings of the Lord upon your efforts to obtain recreation, entertainment and amusement from them? If so, they are clean and sweet and worthy of your patronage; if not, they are neither fit for you nor your children. But it is your duty to choose before you accept them, or permit yourself or your children to attend.
Improvement Era, v13 n5, March 1910
In many ways this editorial could have been published in the most recent Church News. Both its warnings and prescriptions are similar to what we have been told for the past 50 years — with perhaps the exception that there is no mention of any rating system (the current rating system for films dates to the 1960s). Is it just coincidence that cautions against the theatre were added at the turn of the century, the same time as one of the most significant shifts in Mormonism?
Why did it take so long for theatre to be included? It could be, of course, that the nature of the plays performed changed significantly — that the works of American theatre became less acceptable to the Church. More likely, though, is simply that it took longer for the Church to lose control over what was being performed. Through at least 1882, when the Walker Opera House opened, the Church-controlled Salt Lake Theatre was the major and virtually the only venue in Utah. In addition, the coming of the railroad to Utah put Salt Lake on the national circuit, which was controlled by New York booking agencies instead of the Church. By the 1890s, despite the loss of the Walker Opera House to fire, theatre was a major entertainment in Utah, and the major newspapers in Salt Lake, the Deseret News, Salt Lake Tribune and Salt Lake Herald all devoted special pages to the theatre.
It seems most likely that this loss of control led the Church to caution its members about the theatre as well as other forms of entertainment. But I have to wonder what other factors might have been involved in the reaction of Church leaders to the theatre.