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The Gentrification of Amusement

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I found this article on Arts and Letters Daily yesterday


and I put it up here because it represents the first time I have ever seen anybody talk about–in print–something that has been bothering me for a while.

I’m not screamingly fond of this article for a number of reasons.  Most of all, I think he gets the point of Death of a Salesman wrong., which is not a small issue in a piece that anchors itself to that particular play.

That said, the overall point is true, and it’s not true only about theater–almost everything that was once a mass form of entertainment, cheap and available to all comers, has become pricey and out of the reach of practically everybody.

Consider, for instance, sports–attending baseball games used to cost almost nothing, even for major league teams, and seats in stadiums were readily available on the spur of the moment.

A father and son with a little time on their hands could go out to the ball park and be reasonably sure of getting a seat–and a seat that a millworker or a second assistant clerk could afford.

These days, tickets to the games of major league teams run into the hundreds of dollars for even bad seats, and good ones can easily go for five figures. 

The same is true of lots of other things–Broadway shows, for instance, now define the “cheap seats” as something in the $50 range, and movies, out where I am, cost $10 for a matinee. 

What used to be mass entertainment for a mass audience mostly made up of poor, working class and middle class people has become entertainment for the well heeled.

Even tickets to the fights are now expensive as hell and out of the reach of the man in the street.

I really did just say “man in the street.”  I must be tired.

But think, as well, about amusement parks.  In the 1950s, Disneyland was so cheap that the kids in the area used to go there to hang out every day after school.  These days, you practically have to take out a loan just for the admission, and the rides and other attractions are just as expensive. 

And think of books.

The Forties and Fifties brought the paperback revolution, where books could suddenly be had for a quarter–and not just paperback original potboilers, either.  Paperback editions of just about anything were available in any bookstore.  I used to take $15 worth of birthday money to the Yale Co-op and buy Aristotle and Jane Austen in cheap paper editions. 

These days, the minimum price of a mass market paperback is $7.99 (and not much cheaper on Amazon, never mind the shipping) and those are being phased out for more expensive trade paperback editions.

Of course, there are new forms of entertainment aimed at people without much money–all that reality TV, for instance, but that still leaves open the question of how and why what was once entertainment for the masses has become the preserve of people with serious money and a badge of upper-income socioeconomic status.

Why was baseball (and football, and basketball) a spectator sport for everyday people in 1945, but a spectator sport for the upper classes by 1980?

Maybe it’s just that it’s hard for me to believe that the content of these amusements has been so much qualitatively raised as to justify the sudden shift in social status and expense.


It’s obviously not a question of earthshaking importance, but it’s still an odd thing to have happened.

Written by janeh

May 15th, 2012 at 8:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'The Gentrification of Amusement'

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  1. Well, my first thought was that going to a ball game and watching a show used to cost money, but now it’s free–as long as you put up with the commercials and return the DVD to the library.
    Oh? Has to be live? OK. I checked in briefly with civilization–i.e. Northern Indiana. A baseball game is $5 for a blanker or lawn furniture space, $8-12.50 for a seat. A hockey game is $10-23, the Museum of Art is $5, the zoo $13.50 for an adult ($95 for a season pass for a family) and live theater is $24-31. If live theater is a little steep, Classic movies are free in a restored theater, and second-run current films are $5.00. None of this is going to break blue-collar workers.
    Oh? Has to be major league and and Broadway? THAT’s the catch: like prestige schools and famous artists’ paintings–or antiques–it’s an inherently limited thing. A larger, richer population drives up the price. Of course it doesn’t help that much of the American left thinks that the Battery and Grammercy Park mark the boundaries of civilization in North America. It’s perfectly true that everything was cheaper in Manhattan when the locals operated sewing machines instead of banks and brokerage houses–true, but not much to the point.

    Stuff you CAN make more of in proportion to the population is a more mixed picture. The $2.50 or $3.50 mystery of 1949 is about $25–better paper, better cover art, but paper on the boards instead of cloth. TVs used to cost more than cars–and not work very well. I think the overall inflation rate is about 1,000%, and if you took $150 to the local B&N, you could still do some damage. Paperbacks have indeed gone from 25 and 35 cents to $7.99–maybe three times as fast as hardcover prices–but it’s fair to point out that they frequently used to be cut. My old paperback ANALOG anthologies didn’t contain all the stories of the hardcover editions. Some of those $7.99 paperbacks have the contents of three old ones. If they all did, the price would make sense. Same thing with comic books, by the way. “Still 10 Cents!” in my youth is now “Holding the line at $2.99” with fewer pages. Admitedly the press runs are much smaller. But the paperback and comic book price rises are the same and feel related. How about magazines? And does anyone have a good reason?

    Overall, which prices do we compare? And do we compare them to mean wage, median wage, full-time wage or wage for a particular skill level? (Heinlein used to ask how long it took a journeyman carpenter to earn a kilo of the local white bread. At least it was a question which generally had an answer.)

    Short answer is I don’t know. But I look at my DVDs and CDs, my internet access and my print on demand books, and I’m not prepared to swap them for cheaper seats at a Nats game. Anyone who would?


    15 May 12 at 7:38 pm

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