‘have them rolling in the aisles’ (of a theatre or of a church)

Of American-English origin, the colloquial phrase in the aisles is used in various expressions to suggest a wildly enthusiastic reaction, especially uncontrollable laughter, on the part of an audience.

The image is of members of the audience falling into the aisles—i.e. the passages between rows of seats in a theatre—in their state of helplessness.

The earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found is from A Hot Old Time, published in The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio) of Monday 7th January 1901:

'to roll in the aisles' - Cincinnati Enquirer (Ohio) - 7 January 1901

Men all but rolled in the aisles of the Walnut last night, and the shrill laughter of women seemed just as great again, as if the Rays, in their nonsensical mixture of horse play called “A Hot Old Time,” had never before been seen in that house. It was the usual welcome the Rays have received here now every season since they burst upon the farce comedy world, and made a new record in point of business which they have since been either duplicating or breaking. They have always packed the Walnut, and they are doing so again.

The form to have them rolling in the aisles is first recorded in These Days: Showing how utterly impossible it is to win public recognition by deserving it, a short story by William Slavens McNutt, published in Munsey’s Magazine (New York) of May 1922:

That night Eddie Odell seen my act and come back stage afterward.
“Sister,” he says, “you knocked them kicking! You had them rolling around in the aisles. I was scared some of them people out there was going to laugh themselves to death. You was a riot, kid!”

Records show that people may literally roll in the aisles of churches, sometimes out of boredom as reported for example in an article about William Ashley Sunday (1862-1935), an American athlete who became a celebrated and influential evangelist, published in the New Castle Herald (New Castle, Pennsylvania) of Thursday 15th April 1915:

Billy faced today the largest weekday afternoon crowd, about 6000 hearing him preach on “Casting Out Devils.” A few minutes after he started preaching at “icebox” churches and “mealy-mouther” pastors, he grew indignant when he saw a youngster distracting attention in the rear of the citadel by rolling in one of the aisles. He ordered the embarrassed mother to either keep the child in his seat or leave.
“When I see a mother letting her kid do that,” he snapped, “I always think it won’t be long before she lets him run wild on the streets.”

But people may also roll in the aisles of churches out of religious fervour, as mentioned by William Ashley Sunday about Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875), American Presbyterian minister, in an article published in The Atlanta Constitution (Atlanta, Georgia) of Monday 26th November 1917:

So marvelous was the power of God that gray-haired old blasphemers fell on their knees, others rolled in the aisles, and they cried out, “Oh, spare us!” as Finney held those old sinners over the pit of hell and let them smell the sulphur fumes vomited from the inferno of damnation below.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.