A man shouting “Heil Hitler, Heil Trump” during a performance of “Fiddler on the Roof” in Baltimore smelled of alcohol and told police he was motivated by his hatred of President Donald Trump.
Anthony M. Derlunas, 58, told an officer he “had been drinking heavily throughout the night” before the outburst at the Hippodrome Theatre on Wednesday night, according to a police report.
But before details of the police report became public in the early evening, the incident rattled many already anxious about a recent spike in anti-Semitism and hate crimes in Maryland and nationwide.
Audience member Rich Scherr said the outburst, which happened during intermission, sparked fears of a shooting like the one in a Pittsburgh synagogue last month that killed 11 people.
The man, later identified as Derlunas, had been seated in the balcony and began shouting “Heil Hitler, Heil Trump.”
“People started running,” Scherr said. “I’ll be honest, I was waiting to hear a gunshot. I thought, ‘Here we go.’”
Samit Verma was seated in the balcony when he heard shouting and saw a man holding his hand straight up in a Nazi salute, he said in an email Thursday. Ushers rushed over to the man while audience members quickly made their way out of the theater and into the hall, Verma said.
“The people around me appeared to be quite shaken by the incident,” Verma said in the email. “There were some people in tears.”
According to the report, Derlunas said that the final scene of the play before intermission had reminded him of his hatred for the president, which is why he shouted. He was confused when people around him became angry. The officer deduced “that his intention was to express his dislike for President Donald Trump.”
Baltimore Police were called and security escorted Derlunas out a few minutes later, a police spokeswoman said, and the show continued.
According to the police report, Derlunas was “calm and compliant” during the interaction and returned to a hotel where he was staying with his girlfriend in the area. Witnesses told The Baltimore Sun that the audience applauded as the man was removed.
Police issued a stop ticket to the man, but he was not arrested, police said. A stop ticket is the least severe measure police can take when responding to a complaint, followed by citations and arrests. Stop tickets do not carry any fines or other penalties and do not require follow-up from the recipient.
“As reprehensible as those words are, they are considered protected free speech because nobody was directly threatened,” police spokesman Matt Jablow said in an email.
Derlunas, who could not be reached for comment, was permanently banned from the Hippodrome. He has no record of criminal violence.
“More should have been done,” said Dana Vickers Shelley, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.
While such speech is protected under the First Amendment, the man could easily have been charged with disorderly conduct for the act of disrupting the play, Shelley said. Instead, he was given, she said, “what sounds like a ticket for jaywalking — or less.”
“Fiddler” tells the story of a Jewish family as it faces persecution in tsarist Russia. It’s based on “Tevye the Dairyman,” a series of fictional stories by author Sholem Aleichem, originally written in Yiddish. The play opened Tuesday and runs through Sunday in Baltimore.
The outburst occurred during intermission, immediately following a scene that depicts a wedding interrupted by a pogrom — an attack on Jewish people which can range from destruction of homes or property to outright massacre.
For some, it was an eerie moment of life imitating art. Audience member Theodore Casser said the incident made the following act all the more poignant for him as a person of Jewish faith.
“It is a story inherently about Jews being made not to feel welcome, and here is this bozo who decided to express that he felt we should not be welcome here either,” Casser said.
The Pittsburgh shooting remains fresh on the minds of many. Witnesses there said the gunman shouted “All Jews must die,” before opening fire.
Scherr, 49, said it was hard to focus on the play after the outburst.
“My heart was just racing,” he said. “I didn’t even really pay attention to the second act.”
In a statement, Hippodrome officials apologized to patrons and said they would not tolerate such behavior. They emphasized that a full team of security is always on-site during live performances to check bags and screen patrons, as well as monitor cameras throughout the venue.
“Our venue has a proud tradition of providing shared experiences to people from all walks of life, right in the heart of this wonderfully diverse city, and we intend to continue that tradition in the spirit of bringing people together, not dividing them,” the Hippodrome’s statement said.
Uniformed police will be stationed at the Hippodrome for the remaining “Fiddler” shows through Sunday, Jablow said. Their presence was not requested by the theater, he said.
Jablow also said police did a background check on the man who shouted the salute, and found that he wasn’t a threat to public safety. Police are not monitoring him further, he said.
Hippodrome President Ron Legler declined to comment.
A spokesman for the “Fiddler” company said the incident was an “an unfortunate and isolated event” in an email Friday.
“The safety of our company and audience members is always a top priority and every local venue we work with has measures in place to ensure the safety of all theatergoers, staff members and performers,” spokesman Mahaley Jacobs said in the email. “The performances will go on as scheduled and we look forward to bringing this remarkable production to audiences across the country.”
Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said the incident was concerning to the Jewish community, and he understood why theatergoers worried the outburst could have signaled the start of a more violent episode.
“We’re all very sensitive and concerned in the wake of the recent shootings,” Libit said. “Shouting that seems to be the equivalent of shouting ‘fire’ in a theater, or shouting ‘bomb.’”
Emily Wilson has tickets for an upcoming performance of “Fiddler” this weekend. News of the incident alarmed her but would not deter her from attending, she said Thursday.
After the show concludes in Baltimore, the company is scheduled to head to Pittsburgh for performances Nov. 20-25 at the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts.
The United States has seen a recent surge in anti-Jewish incidents, including the October shooting in Pittsburgh.
Anti-Jewish incidents reported to police in Maryland jumped 47 percent in 2017 to 78 incidents, according to a Baltimore Sun review of records. That was amid a 35 percent increase of overall hate or bias incidents reported to police statewide last year.
Earlier Wednesday, a swastika and anti-black graffiti were found in a bathroom at Goucher College in Towson.
7:15 p.m.: This story was updated significantly after the Baltimore Police Department released their report about the Wednesday night incident at the Hippodrome Theatre.