The Theater Business and Its Discontents in São Paulo, Brazil, 1900-1916

Aiala Levy

This paper examines the rapid expansion of São Paulo’s theater business between 1900 and 1916 and the reactions that this process incited within the city’s assembly halls.  In doing so, I seek to understand the real and imagined function of business in the city’s cultural and social development.  I begin by explaining the emergence of a Paulistano entertainment industry in three phases, tracing the diversification and then concentration in theater ownership and management.  I then analyze discursive and legislative responses by the city’s civic leaders as they felt their grip on theaters weakening.  I argue that in a society newly urban, the formation of a native entertainment industry posed a unique conundrum for its critics: on one hand, local business was encouraged in order to maintain economic growth, but on the other hand, commercial theaters were viewed by many as culturally corrupting and thus detrimental to a developing city.  To diffuse this tension, Paulistanos increasingly turned to government regulation, in this manner setting the foundation for what would become Brazil’s first municipal Department of Culture and Recreation.