The entertainment world is in a spiral, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cirque du Soleil has temporarily laid off 95% of its staff worldwide – some 4,679 people who worked for the 44 shows around the globe (Cole, 2020). Feld Entertainment, the parent company of the former Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus has also halted performances of Disney on Ice, Monster Jam, and other productions, also announcing its own rounds of layoffs (Jones, 2020). Cruise lines have halted their own operations, putting fly-on acts, production casts, technicians, and stage managers out of work (Patteson, 2020). Freelancers are also on the proverbial ropes, with thousands upon thousands of artists and other W-9 entertainment professionals finding themselves without work in the face of travel advisories, restrictions on public gatherings, and other rulings that run counter to our livelihoods in the interest of public health and safety (Facher, 2020).

This is unprecedented in our lifetimes, but has the entertainment industry ever taken such a massive hit in the face of public illness? To answer that question, we turn to the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Poster from a Chicago theater outlines flu regulations during the 1918 pandemic. Source: Smithsonian.Origins

The 1918 influenza pandemic, known as the “Spanish flu” (much to the chagrin of Spaniards of the day), was the most severe pandemic in recent history. First identified in the spring of 1918, it quickly tore its way across the world and infected approximately 1/3 of the global population – killing 50 million people worldwide (CDC, 2020). This disease killed more people in a single year than the Black Plague of the 14th century – ending the lives of more Europeans and Americans than had died in the First World War by a factor of ten. This disease was incredibly infectious and could kill a person the day they were infected with the disease (Cullen, 2007).