Two arms, two arms: Why are Chicago theater seats so darn cramped?

March 28, 2011

I was at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts the other night, and as I sat watching the show I felt the arm of my companion wrap around me. This was delightful, until after the show when he attributed his behavior not to affection but to his complete inability to fit both shoulders between the people to his left and me on his right. This suggests he’ll be tenderly curling his arm around total strangers any day now.

Who can blame him, though? It’s always been puzzling that the CTA bought El cars whose seats are too narrow for American tushes and shoulders, but in public transportation we’re accustomed to accommodations fit for cattle. To steal from Lily Tomlin: they don’t care, they don’t have to, they’re the CTA.

But why should Chicago theater seats be made and placed such that they’re comfortable only for the very trimmest among us? Tribune critic Chris Jones may be compact, and the Sun-Times’ Hedy Weiss phenomenally slender, but the rest of us need to sit down, too! 

And it’s not just a problem among the smaller theaters (though the absolute worst seats in the entire city are in the second floor studio at the Athenaeum on Southport, where the only way to fit one’s legs is to straddle the seat in front of you as though it were Bonnie Blue Butler’s horse). Someone actually designed the North Shore Center, and pretty recently, so normal-sized individuals literally rub shoulders with their theater-going neighbors. I’m all for community, but this is ridiculous!

Yes, I know Americans should lose some weight; but meanwhile perhaps the next theaters to install new seats would consider simply setting them a few inches further apart so there’s room for each member of the audience and all of his/her limbs. This will probably reduce the number of seats available for sale–of course that’s why airplane seats are so miserable, to improve airlines’ carrying capacity and therefore profit margins–but hey, theaters ought to get something out of their nonprofit status. Some granting agency must surely be willing to make up for the loss of the half-dozen $30 seats whose removal it would take to make most Chicago theaters even faintly comfortable.

John Malkovich would be spinning in his grave (if he were dead). I hear him shouting, “Hey,didn’t you used to be an intrepid, vigorous, radical revolutionary rock-n-roll scratch-n-sniff kick-ass Chicago audience member? It would have been beneath that person to complain about the width of seats!  What happened to you?” The sad-but-true answer: relaxed-fit jeans happened.

So let me know when your theater installs relaxed-fit theater seats. Or just ask my neighbor to elbow me from the next seat over.