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Joan Rivers' Broadway lights dimming: The complicated controversy

Joan Rivers shows her star power next to

Joan Rivers shows her star power next to her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame during her induction ceremony in Los Angeles on July 26, 1989. Credit: AP / Doug Sheridan

To dim or not to dim. Has there ever before been such a question?

The dimming of the marquee lights on Broadway -- a memorial tradition not known for raucous controversy -- became the unlikely spark of an international pop-culture incident when The Broadway League decided Sept. 8 not to dim for Joan Rivers, who died Sept. 4.

You know the story. Readers of newspapers in Australia know the story. Social media know the story -- in fact, it was even part of the story before an outraged petition (#Dim4Joan) was launched on Twitter to get the honor for Rivers.

Briefly: Hours after the League, the trade organization of theater-owners and producers, announced that Rivers' limited stage career did not meet the criteria for dimming, Jordan Roth, president of Jujamcyn, owner of five Broadway theaters, went rogue and announced that all five would dim for one minute Tuesday at 6:45 p.m.

Early Tuesday morning, Disney said it would dim the New Amsterdam, home of "Aladdin," after which the Roundabout's three theaters, the Wilbur in Boston and many Off-Broadway houses were set to dim -- even, as Deadline.com dryly noted, ones who didn't actually have marquees.

What seemed like moments later, Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the League, released a statement that basically said the group caved to the pressure. "Joan Rivers loved Broadway and we loved her," the statement read. "Due to the outpouring of love and respect for Joan Rivers from our community and from her friends and fans worldwide," Rivers would get her moment on Broadway -- the theater's equivalent of a flag at half mast.

End of story. And yet, considering the outcry about this one, there is surprisingly little information about the tradition. St. Martin, who declined to be interviewed for this column because, according to a League spokeswoman, she needed time to get "a bit of perspective," told Playbill in 2010 that nobody knows how the gesture got started.

We do know a committee makes the decision and that deliberations are confidential. As St. Martin prophetically said four years ago, "What we don't want is any lobbying."

We do know that dimming did not predate the electric light. There was no ritualistic blowing out of candles and relighting, though I read that the entire country was asked to dim its lights when Thomas Edison died in 1931.

Time magazine dug up some useful history before Eli Wallach's dimming last June.

It says the first time Broadway was moved enough to create a gesture to reflect its grief was in 1952, when Gertrude Lawrence died while starring in "The King and I." She died on a Saturday, the Tuesday performance was canceled and house lights all over the rest of Broadway were dimmed for one minute at curtain time -- which was 8:30 in those days.

Broadway didn't dim its lights again until Oscar Hammerstein died in 1960. Unlike the Lawrence ceremony, which took place inside the theaters, this time the lights outside -- including the streetlights -- were turned off.

The next tribute wasn't until Alfred Lunt died in 1977. Obviously, dimming was a symbol of distinction to be saved for theater royalty.

But today's America loves prizes, which means that lots more people -- actors, playwrights, producers, composers, designers, restaurateurs and even a critic or two -- have been welcomed into the exclusive posthumous club.

Nobody was likely to object to dimming for Harold Pinter, Ruby Dee, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Lynn Redgrave, Natasha Richardson or Elaine Stritch, even if some did not devote their lives entirely to the theater.

Eyebrows were raised, however, when Elizabeth Taylor was so honored in 2011, even though she had just a mixed success in "The Little Foxes" in 1981 and was terrible in the 1983 horror-show of a revival of "Private Lives" with Richard Burton. Still, her heroic AIDS activism and her work in movie adaptations of major plays may have justified the vote.

Many Rivers' fans have pointed to James Gandolfini, for whom lights were dimmed last year for a theater career that consisted of a Tony-nominated performance in "God of Carnage" in 2009 and two minor roles in the '90s.

Fuel for the Rivers' case also included Robin Williams' recent dimming, even though, except for stand-up shows, his Broadway contributions were limited to a criminally unappreciated performance in "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" in 2011 and a really awful "Waiting for Godot" in 1988.

Rivers was a huge champion of theater and spent at least as much time on Broadway stages as Gandolfini and Williams did. Discounting the four performances as playwright and star of something called "Fun City" in 1972, she was a replacement mother in Neil Simon's "Broadway Bound" in the '80s and, most significantly, she co-wrote and delivered a Tony-nominated star turn in "Sally Marr ... and Her Escorts" in 1994.

Though it lasted just a few months, I thought this biographical comedy about Lenny Bruce's mother was brave and engaging, flawed but an altogether admirable piece of work. Rivers based it on years of taped conversations she had with Marr, whose struggles as a woman, a comedian and a survivor were more than superficially similar to Rivers' own. And that was long before we could see the eerie resonance in a play told in flashback while Sally was on a hospital gurney in a coma. As Rivers wrote it, Sally talks to keep herself amused so she won't die.

Ultimately, we don't know how recipients of dimmed lights are chosen. Celebrity? Hipness? Someone producers and theater-owners liked? Has the broadening of criteria (however mysterious those criteria are) cheapened the dignity and value of this testament to quality lives in the theater?

Oh, and can anybody even see the lights dim when more and more shows open while it's still daylight? And how can Broadway pretend to coordinate a simultaneous expression now that different theaters have different curtain times?

And while we're asking, does anyone pay attention to who gets picked and why? Does anyone really care?

For a while, at least, lots of people seem to care.

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