Thursday, March 20, 2014

Theater

Nostalgia is making an unexpected turn off the main road.  This becomes more apparent yet when the main road is in a place unfamiliar to you, a place foreign enough to make a person driving with you ask, "Why did you turn here?"

If you are alone and you turned, you do not even have to ask yourself the question; you know why.  Something out there reminded you of something in the past.  A place.  A thing.  An atmosphere.  A person.  You were back "there," in that place, that thing, that person, that animal.  You were back in that strange vehicle of nostalgia where you are the you of "now," looking down upon the you of then.  

Your favorite classroom in the entire College of Creative Studies is 160B, located across the aisle from the west entry to The Old Little Theater.

 As the whims of scheduling would have it, 160 B is in use until your six o'clock class begins.  Often, when you are early, you step into the darkened mysteries of the theater, sometimes sitting in an audience seat, other times mounting the stage to look out into the rows of empties, seeing yourself, with some irony, as Lear or Alan Arkin, or Christopher Walken, perhaps as the you who happens to be occupying you at the moment.

This small, dark, intimate theater reminds you of at least two of your inner selves, the teacher or the storyteller.  On a good day, there is little difference between the two in that you believe the teacher, if he is to have any chance at all of being effective, has to become his material for the day.  He has to embody the nuances you find in the work under review, even if it is not so much a specific work, such as, say, Madam Bovary, and more an abstraction, such as character or revision or suspense.


 If the storyteller does not, on a good day, embody the story, radiant from the yearnings and subterfuges of the characters, then the good day has been not used well, needs to be brought back in revised form.

Being in a theater, even as you were this past Saturday night, when the story and performances were only mediocre, reminds you of the workplace and milieu you have chosen.  Your vision of your task is to transport the classroom into a theater,to urge your characters away from pages and out onto a stage, which radiates with its inherent possibilities.

Your earliest practical memories of the epic potentials for theater were brought to life in a Spanish Colonial Revival-style building, as white in the afternoon sun as you'd ever seen white.  This was the famed Carthay Circle Theater, 6316 San Vicente Boulevard, mid-town, Los Angeles, where you sat in awed wonder to watch Snow White.  The Carthay Circle extended beyond your scope of imagination; you felt wrapped in story and the unutterable details and effects of it.  


Once, when you were taken to see a film there, called The Rains Came, your father urged you to remember to sit under the protecting lip of the balcony because the persons sitting close to the front, where you liked to sit, were sure to be drenched during the scene where the rains indeed came.

You also saw The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind inside that fabled theater, and then, in an even more memorable context, years later with a group of friends, when Around the World in Eighty Days was offered.  Williams, Pruyn, and Montalbano, all well-employed, thought nothing of the price of a ticket and a beer or two afterwards.  At the time, you'd been reduced to re-percolating coffee and scrounging the wastebasket for cigarette butts.  But that morning, a special delivery letter arrived from your agent, Forrest J. Ackerman.  Not one, but two checks, thanks to a well-known magazine's taste for Western stories.

Much as you regarded The Carthay Circle Theater, there was only one you considered home, the Fox Ritz on the south side of Wilshire Boulevard, a scant half block east of La Brea Avenue.  The Ritz endeared itself to you for reasons well beyond the Saturday special, a double feature plus a cartoon and an episode of a serial.
 Extending from the balcony level, which also housed the restrooms, a gleaming, wide banister traversed the distance, an ornate, polished expanse of mahogany, seeming to be designed with young boys in mind.  You were sent home three times from the Ritz, in tears, your refunded money a reproof in your pocket, because of that banister.  In spite of admonitions from the manager and ushers, you were drawn again and again to that banister, inventing excuses to visit the restroom in hopes of one more opportunity.  Your favorite seat, about half way down the commodious amphitheater, aisle seat on the right, facing the screen.

When for some reason The Ritz did not feature a film to your liking, there was, closer to hand on the north side of Wilshire Boulevard at 5515, another theater, also done in the art-deco style, The El Rey.


The El Rey, a single-story edifice, had no banister and, thus, less of a cachet for adventure.  Nor did it matter much that the manager, who reminded you more of a funeral parlor employee, would from time to time pick out certain of his younger clientele to award free boxes of popcorn.  The El Rey was in effect boring, even if the movies were good.  You had stratagems for some adventure, such as spilling a cup of sugar on the cement floor if the movie happened to be a Western or set in a desert.  Amazing what effects a size six foot could get, drawing itself across the gritty sugar.  On two occasions, you were well satisfied with the effects to be had from accidentally spilling a bag of marbles during a tense scene.

Yet one other Wilshire Boulevard theater, then known as the "Fox Wilshire," intrigued and engaged you to the point where, even though it had a banister, you were somehow motivated to greater degrees of respect.


The Fox Wilshire was in the 8400-block of Wilshire, thus just enough to qualify for Beverly Hills.  It, too, had an art-deco appearance, inside and out, to the near point of you, in your youth, pulling the word rococo from your grab bag of vocabulary.

Part of your fondness for this ever-so-much more formal interior was not so much its recipe of feature films as the number of times you attended performances with your sister.  By mutual agreement, you had favored seats, this time adjacent an alcove-like indentation caused by the presence of a pillar, supporting the balcony.  It was here that your sister schooled you on the Three Musketeers candy bar, in essence three pieces of candy as opposed to the two of your preference for the Peter Paul Mounds bar.

There were numerous other Los Angeles theaters you found to your liking, notably a chain called The Hitching Post, which pretty much ran through six or seven Western films a day, and where you and those like you, were advised to check your cap guns at the box office.  

Not to forget the immortal Grumman's Chinese in Hollywood or the other rococo theaters on Hollywood Boulevard, The Pantages and the Egyptian.  Nor indeed the Esquire on Fairfax Avenue, adjacent to Canter's Deli, where you would accompany your grandmother to watch the Yiddish movies and  The Old Time Silent Movies, also on Fairfax, and, back to Wilshire, The Four Star and Regina.

These theaters all call out to you across the bridge of time, reminding you of the moments before the lights dimmed and the trailers and coming attractions ran.  Those were short, brief moments when you felt a lump of expectation stirring around within you that was every bit as precious as the stories you were about to experience.  In many ways, this is the same lump you feel wherever you happen to be when the material you think of as an idea or a dramatic nudge comes over you.

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