Proust's Popcorn: The Oriental Landmark Theater

This essay originally appeared in the Huffington Post on 6 December 2013. You can read it there by clicking here.

PROLOGUE 

The author visited the Oriental Landmark Theater in Milwaukee in spring 2013.

The author visited the Oriental Landmark Theater in Milwaukee in spring 2013.

Last week I was in Milwaukee to attend production meetings at the Skylight Music Theater for my latest show. It was my first visit to my hometown in nearly a decade. A late night stroll down memory lane took me past the Oriental Landmark Theater. For old times’ sake, I bought a tub of popcorn and entered the cavernous old house, not knowing (or caring) what was being shown. As my childhood friend Brian Anderson once astutely observed, “If the media can be the message, sometimes the venue is the vision.” As I settled into the seat, breathed the familiar musty odor of the place, the perfume of fresh popped corn, the vaguest whiff of sweat, the blank screen came to life not with a film, but with a Proustian melange of the following observations and memories.

THEME and VARIATIONS

I was sixteen. Father was plastered. I’d been sent by Mother to pick him up at a cocktail lounge on Wisconsin Avenue. In no condition to drive, he pounded on the driver’s side window. “Slide over,” he commanded. For the first time I had the nerve to refuse him the keys. I drove us home; it was not pleasant.

It was as though Father, who we had been losing as a family to drinking and depression by dribs and drabs over the course of my childhood, had finally made himself into the Man Who Lived Downstairs. Music alone couldn’t yet fill the emptiness I felt, and I was too sheltered a suburban Midwestern adolescent to adequately come to terms with the wild, impractical, somewhat lurid thoughts and desires my brain was generating.

My first pilgrimage to the Oriental Landmark Theater, a Grand Prewar Temple to the Tenth Muse—as the Italians refer to Cinema—in Milwaukee that evening, provided me with a refuge, a chance to see grown up movies, of which many our parents would never approve, a place to dream, to share Communion in the Dark, to play. Brian put it beautifully: “We didn’t just visit or even inhabit the Oriental. We infiltrated it, climbing the organ loft and spelunking the tunnels. Any movie would do.”

In writing about the Oriental do I not succumb to what Gore Vidal in Screening History described as “the American writer’s disease, the celebration if not of self, of the facts of one’s own sacred story?” The Oriental was the crucible in which I first began ginning up mine. Hormones and an unshakeable belief that in some specific way I had something unique to offer the world provided the cocktail of raw material.

Diane C. Doerfler in spring 1979. (Photo: Cilento)

Diane C. Doerfler in spring 1979. (Photo: Cilento)

An English teacher named Diane C. Doerfler provided the catalyst. Doerf, as we called her, was an inspirational teacher, a planter of seeds. I recall her now as I saw her then—gamine, a lovely combination of Katherine Hepburn and Jeanne Moreau, seemingly something of a Transcendentalist, personally elusive. She began the year by etching in a quick rat-a-tat-tat of chalk on the board LIFE = ART. Then, she paused, turned back to us grinning like a Siamese cat, scanned the room, purred, “Well, what do you make of that?”

Thanks to the movies I saw at the Oriental and the books that Doerf gave me, my world was enlarged at the expense of myself, enabling me to grow into and desire access to, the world at large. When I told Doerf I intended to move to the east coast, she presented me with the volume of John Cheever’s short stories I have to this day: “Read these,” she said, throwing me a rope. “He and Updike seem to get it right.” Only a few years later I would befriend the writer Susan Cheever at Yaddo. I imagine Doerf would be pleased to know that I told Susan about her gift.

Later, when I taught music history, albeit in reverse chronological order, among other things, at Bard College, I emulated Doerf’s teaching style. My students maintained diaries. Exams were open-ended. The more connections they could make between seemingly unrelated concepts and themes, the higher they scored; this rewarded associative and assimilative thinking, because students who thrived on regurgitating facts and dates always scored far below the ones who thought creatively. Most students hated it.

The lobby of the Oriental Landmark Theater in spring 2015. (Photo: Daron Hagen)

The lobby of the Oriental Landmark Theater in spring 2015. (Photo: Daron Hagen)

Designed by Gustave A. Dick and Alex Bauer, the themes of the Oriental’s decor are in fact East Indian, with no traces of Chinese or Japanese artwork. It is said to be the only standard movie palace ever built to incorporate East Indian decor. Opened to the public on 27 July 1927 as the flagship of a chain of 47 movie theaters operated by John and Thomas Saxe, Irish brothers who began as sign painters at the turn of the century, the 1800-seat Oriental incorporated elements of East Indian, Moorish, Islamic, and Byzantine design. It included three eight foot high chandeliers adorned with images of the Buddha, eight gleaming black porcelain lions flanking a massive tiled ceremonial staircase to the balcony, hand-painted frescoes of Turkish scenes, dozens of custom draperies, and literally hundreds of elephants—elephants everywhere, from the bathrooms to the 1920s smoking lounges to the remotest corners of the balcony.

Faltering, after fifty years of continuous operation as a traditional movie palace, it came into the hands of Robert and Melvyn Pritchett, Milwaukee brothers and electricians who acquired it in 1972. In 1976, they agreed to a proposal by the Landmark Theater (then Parallax) chain to take over programming.

There were six enormous Buddha statues—three on each side of the broad orchestra—adorned with glowing “rubies” in their foreheads, smoldering green eyes, and dim orange pools of light that warmed their ample tummies from below that remained on until the marquee was shut off, the work lights extinguished, and the lonesome ghost light turned on. The Pritchetts clearly loved the palace, and tolerated my adoration to the point where, on several occasions just before locking up for the night, they allowed me to perform the ritual.

The Oriental also boasted a shallow orchestra pit suitable for a vaudeville-circuit-sized ensemble of about 25 players, access tunnels, storage rooms, dressing rooms (with smeared autographs of once near-famous performers still on the walls), and a spacious stage with the original rigging still in place, and an organ’s pipe loft. During my day, the organ was in disrepair. Now restored, every Friday and Saturday before the 7 PM show, the plush sounds of the Kimball Theatre Pipe Organ—the largest of its kind in a theater in America and the third largest in the world—introduce the film before the instrument sinks into the pit.

For a while, the theater was also a live performance venue—I saw Laurie Anderson there. The Violent Femmes got their start by standing in one night as the opening act for the Pretenders. When I knew it best, the Oriental was still a calendar house, a place where adult things happened. It had danger implicit in its darkness, its smoky smell, in the avant-garde and erotic films on its monthly bill of fare. In 1978 a double feature set you back $2.50—well within the budget of a teenage refugee from the suburbs in possession of a probationary driver’s license and his mother’s car.

Communion in the Dark, the sitting around a campfire telling stories to explore the unknowable, remains one of the chief reasons I compose operas. Truffaut’s La nuit américaine explores the theme of whether making art is more important than life for the people who make it. First seen at the Oriental, this film led me to a comprehensive engagement with Truffaut’s films over the years, which climaxed in meeting him at the end of a retrospective of his work at the Regency Cinema, a second-run house on Broadway near Juilliard, in 1986. When I began Shining Brow, which explores this, I asked Paul Muldoon to make this one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s foremost concerns: “Can a man be a faithful husband and father,” asks Wright, “and still remain true to his art?”

Suspending the audience’s disbelief being the first step in making art, I made conscious note of the strategies filmmakers used to do it. During those years, I assembled the psychological and emotional skill set required for coping with life as a creative person. I couldn’t help watching films critically; I was keenly aware of the artifice, and loved it. The venue was a refuge, but the films were not an escape.

The Oriental was a calendar house in those years whose bill changed every other day. (Photo: Daron Hagen)

The Oriental was a calendar house in those years whose bill changed every other day. (Photo: Daron Hagen)

That August 1978 evening the double bill was Casablanca and To Have and Have Not. Although it would be years before I understood that is only a single step from Steiner to Strauss, from the moment Max Steiner’s grand Warner Brothers Fanfare began, I was enthralled—more by the music than the images and narratives. Steiner’s godfather had been no less a musical force than Richard Strauss; his piano teacher was Johannes Brahms, and he took composition lessons from Gustav Mahler. These men took their work seriously: as the saying goes, “there was also a movie going on.”

The large and appreciative audience knew the film, hissed the villains, and cheered the great lines. It was the first time I ever felt surrounded by an audience so in tune with the rhythm of a script and set of actors that they literally sighed in unison. A few folks mouthed the dialogue along with the actors. Men wept openly during Rick’s breakdown scene; people stood up when partisans at Rick’s began singing La Marseillaise in an attempt to drown out the Nazis singing Die Wacht am Rhein; couples consoled one another when Rick and Ilse parted.

It transported me. During the intermission, I began prowling around the theater, which already felt like home. (The only other place that has affected me in exactly this way is the artist colony Yaddo—more about that later.) My parents were on their own Revolutionary Road in the suburbs, their lives together unspooling. Mine was rapidly expanding here, in the semi-darkness, among the threadbare velvet seats, the mildew-perfumed draperies, the dodgy wiring, illuminated only by “emeralds”, “rubies”, and a shaft of light slicing down from the projection booth to the broad, off-white screen with a blemish in the upper left hand quadrant.

The second feature began: Ernest Hemingway’s story, adapted by William Faulkner, directed by Howard Hawks, with Humphrey Bogart and ... Lauren Bacall. “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? Just put your lips together and ... blow.” The frisson I experienced was real. Seeing the film thirty-five years after it was made, I could not in my wildest dreams have imagined that I would one day meet Bacall—well, fall at her feet, anyway—on a stairway at the Dakota on my way to a lesson with Leonard Bernstein.

Twenty-six days later, I brought friends to see Toshirō Mifune in Hiroshi Inagaki’s great Samurai Trilogy. There were only about thirty people scattered around the theater. The first of countless games of hide-and-seek was played out in the soaring balcony; the illusion that we were alone in the vast screening chamber became, during the third hour, a reality. No doors were locked and we got into everything: the dressing rooms, the tunnels, and the service closets. I watched Musashi’s duel from behind the screen, lying onstage on my back with a sand bag beneath my head, my fingers interlaced at the nape of my neck.

That October, I was given a tour of the projection booth during the screening of Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits and 8 ½. My epiphany came during the latter, when I realized, watching the screen through the same hole (the “fourth wall”) that the powerful projector was throwing the image through, that all of the settings in Fellini were intentionally artificial so that they would appear on film as hyper-real. Opera.

A group portrait of the Legend Yearbook staff -- denizens of the Oriental -- taken in spring 1979. (The author is fifth from the left.)

A group portrait of the Legend Yearbook staff -- denizens of the Oriental -- taken in spring 1979. (The author is fifth from the left.)

The next week West Side Story continued to counterpoint my evolving young thoughts. I’d seen the film on television, of course, and had spent fifth grade walking to and from Linfield Elementary School singing the tune of Maria, substituting Jean Wilson’s name. (I didn’t learn until Marni Nixon herself told me 25 years later over drinks in New York that it was not Natalie Wood’s but Marni’s that made me fall in love with Maria.) However, I had never seen the Jets swoop across a three-story tall movie screen. The boys leapt; so did my heart. The hair on my arms stood up. We were being invited not to buy into the idea of a bunch of tough street kids dancing but to witness their spirits flying through the air.

The Oriental provided my first introduction to serious camp. The double bill was Humoresque and Johnny Guitar. (Truffaut famously referred to it as a “phony Western.”) The film was to me like Weiβbier with a slab of lemon in it: all the roles, from Joan Crawford to Sterling Hayden, seemed clearly gender-swapped. Paired with an even higher-camp classic starring a beautiful young prizefighter of a James Garfield, a leonine Crawford, a rumpled Oscar Levant, and Isaac Stern’s hands, it made for a swampy, soupy, delightfully sentimental evening at the movies—one impossible to forget.

Lower camp was also on the bill. The Oriental is the world record holder for a current and continuing film engagement. The Rocky Horror Picture Show has played as a midnight film since January 1978. I was one of the original regulars. I dressed the part for a dozens of showings, danced the Time Warp, brought bags of rice, toast, squirt guns, newspapers, and so forth, knew my lines (“Dammnit, Janet!”) and delighted in the lovely community of genuinely joyful people that has made the Oriental the U.S. record holder for a continuing engagement of the film.

On 8 December 1978, during a double bill (East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause), I held hands with a date (Carol Hallanger) for the first time. Leonard Rosenman’s sophisticated modernist scores (he studied with Arnold Schoenberg, Luigi Dallapiccola, and Roger Sessions) for these back-to-back knockouts floored me.

Uan Rasey’s incomparable trumpet playing on Jerry Goldsmith’s stunning Chinatown score (released in 1974, but already in rotation at the Oriental) drove forcefully home for me the fact that a single perfect theme ideally performed can carry the tone of an entire motion picture or (as I learned later) opera. 

Interior of the Oriental Landmark Theater. (Photo: Landmark)

Interior of the Oriental Landmark Theater. (Photo: Landmark)

Eleven days later, more film noir: I saw The Third Man for the first time and immediately determined someday to turn it into an opera. In fact, I pitched an updated adaptation of the Graham Greene screenplay in 2006 to Speight Jenkins, Intendant of Seattle Opera. Lime’s entrance, the bemused, amused anti-hero reveal of a very handsome young Orson Welles, about whom I was already something of an aficionado, is entirely operatic, hand of author. It is hard for me now not to have in mind beside it the much later anti-hero reveal of Welles in Touch of Evil, a movie that heavily influenced the tone and structure of my operas Bandanna and (especially)  A Woman in Morocco, which in execution is essentially an homage to my theatrical awakening at the Oriental.

In 1981, I took my Mother to the Oriental to look at a Hitchcock double feature. During intermission Bernard Herrmann’s music for the final few minutes of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 was playing. Mother reached for my hand and, as we both stared at the blank screen, told me that she had been diagnosed with a particularly nasty form of inoperable lung cancer. First, there would be chemotherapy. There would be a rally. Then she would “get bored” of dying, get on with her life, and die. “I’ll come home to take care of you,” I said. “Christ, no,” she said. “I want you to get on with your life. Get out of here.” The music stopped. The lights dimmed. We held hands.

EPILOGUE

There’s a splendid, self-sufficient egoism in being young. Closed about with unearned affection from parents who will love you no matter how selfishly or casually you behave, you’re free to indulge independence and individualism.

Becoming an adult is realizing alone-ness, understanding how tenuous the integration of lives really is, and facing the unpleasant necessity of having to earn affection. You’re not born into other people’s lives, people who will love you immediately and irrevocably; pamper your whims and love you for them or despite them. This is a sober fact that’s shattering to comprehend, but it makes an individual sooner than the cocoon-like, womb-like protective existence of adolescence.

Love is lost so easily: you can’t strangle it by putting it on a golden chain, expecting it to understand it’s free to move only a few feet in either direction. Nor can you pick it up and fondle it only when your fancy so pleases. You treat it gently because it is volatile, owes you nothing except if you prove there’s been a continuous effort to earn it. Then you’ve crushed out ‘selves’ into one ‘self’ that’s the basis of all sympathy and human understanding. Love is selfish-but you must never be, for fear of losing it.