Traditional Practice: Whistling in a Theater

Main Piece: 

“Okay, so the first story I’ve got is something that I encountered working in the theatre in Germany. And I, for some reason, when I don’t think about it, whistle. And I remember being in the theater and without consciously doing it I was whistling going down the halls and one of the managers pulled me aside and really reprimanded me and said that, you know, that that was really a bad thing to do. I wasn’t really sure why and then I went back and I asked someone about it and they said that was a really big superstition, and not to do that at all, and it actually goes back to when the theaters used gaslights for lighting. And if the flame went out, the only way that you’d really know that it was out was a whistling sound. And so, if someone was whistling through the halls it could really kind of cover up or hide the fact that the gas light had gone out.”


My informant grew up in America before departing to Germany for several years to sing in German operas. This happened relatively soon after college, so he was a newcomer to both the professional theatre world and German culture. My informant explains that this is a superstition that apparently extends to American theaters as well. They present it as the product of a practical concern kept up for tradition’s sake.


This is an interesting example because it started out one of two ways. Either this practice was occupational folklore at first passed between workers at a theater or it was a company or institutional policy and wasn’t originally folklore at all. However, as gaslights were faded out of theaters, this practice remained as a matter of tradition. What’s interesting is that this isn’t a superstition- there aren’t stated consequences for whistling in a theater. The reprimanding person doesn’t say that something bad will happen. It’s simply a forbidden practice because it used to be forbidden.