Father was plastered. Around seven, he had called, slurring, from the Clock, a cocktail lounge downtown, and demanded a ride home. Mother had taken too much Valium to drive. Learner's Permit in hand, I headed downtown to pick him up. Double parked on Wisconsin Avenue, I waved him down. He sloped to the driver's side, in no condition to take the wheel. “Slide over,” he commanded, pounding heavily on the window. Oh, he was mightily pissed. His face was flushed; his mouth was twisted into a snarl. He'd jeopardize both our lives if he got in. For the first time, I had the nerve to refuse him the keys. I drove us home. I was sixteen. It was as though Father, who we had been surrendering 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 adolescent to adequately come to terms with the wild, impractical, somewhat lurid thoughts and desires my brain was generating. That night, without asking, I simply took the keys, and drove my friends Brian Anderson and David Merkel to the Oriental Landmark Theater, a Grand Prewar Temple to Cinema in downtown Milwaukee. It was only a 25-minute drive from 13014 West Needham Drive to 2230 North Farwell Avenue. For the next two years, I practically lived there. I have had a profound attachment to the place since the first moment that I entered it.
I’ll never forget how the place smelled. Freshly popped corn and stale cigarette smoke filled the lobby with its fragrance. Onstage, the wet dog musk of moldy fire curtains combined with the ancient aroma of long-settled dust. The air, high up in the huge balcony that yawed heavily over the orchestra like a sumo wrestler’s ceremonial sash, had the arid taste of steam-heat in the winter, and the slight tang of refrigerated moisture on sultry late summer evenings.
The Oriental provided us 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. It was the crucible in which I first began ginning up what Gore Vidal calls one’s “sacred story.” Hormones and an unshakeable belief that in some specific way I had something unique to offer the world provided the cocktail of raw material. Our English teacher, 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—tomboyish, 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.
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 on the site of Farwell Station, a horse and streetcar barn 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.
Failing, 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. They chose the films that they showed themselves until 1976, when 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 now forgotten, once nearly-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, after its vaudeville years had long passed, the Oriental occasionally served as 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 genteel shabbiness, 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 ‘75 Ford Granada.
Communion in the Dark, the sitting around a campfire telling stories to explore the unknowable, remains one of the chief reasons I compose operas. François 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 August 1978 evening that I fell in love forever with the Oriental 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 Max Steiner to Richard Strauss, from the moment 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 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 dicey 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.
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 Federico 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 the settings in Fellini were intentionally artificial so that they would appear on film as hyper-real. Opera.
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’s name. 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 fly 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 Weibbier with a slab of lemon in it: all the roles, from Joan Crawford to Sterling Hayden, were clearly gender-swapped. Paired with an even higher-camp classic starring a beautiful young prizefighter of a James Garfield, a leonine Crawford, an exquisitely rumpled Oscar Levant, and Isaac Stern's hands, it made for a swampy, soupy, delightfully sentimental evening at the movies—an impossible film to forget, and one I’ve seen a hundred time.
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 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 moved me more, I'm afraid, than the crisscrossing of young fingers in the dark. 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, who nearly went for it.
I didn't just visit or even inhabit the Oriental, I infiltrated it, climbing into the organ loft, sleeping on the stage, haunting the projection booth, canoodling in the balcony, and spelunking the tunnels. Any movie would do in my Cathedral of Dreams, because, if the media can be the message, sometimes the venue is the vision.
It was snowing lightly—little feathery, inhibited flakes that seemed shamed at having arrived as too-early guests, when Mother met me at the airport. I’d returned to Milwaukee for the Christmas Holidays. “Here,” she said, handing me the keys, “you drive. I have some news for you.” Once in the car, she broke into a fit of deep coughs that drained her. “That’s a bad cold,” I observed. “Yeah,” she agreed, “bad.” I turned the key in the ignition, and guessed, “You’re finally going to leave Dad and move to Paris?” She twisted her head toward the passenger window and looked out. The window was steamed up. “No.,” she said, and turned back to me, giving me that sudden, dazzling smile. It always killed me. “There’s a Hitchcock double feature at the Oriental tonight,” she said, brightly. “Let’s go.”
That night, during intermission, Bernard Herrmann’s music for the final few minutes of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 played. Mother reached for my hand and, as we both stared at the blank screen, she 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,” she predicted, “get on with life, and die.”
“I’ll come home to take care of you,” I said. “Christ, no,” she said. “Do. Not. Come. Home. I want you to get on with your life. Get. Out. Of. Here.” The music stopped. The lights dimmed. We held hands as the Main Title for The 39 Steps began. We watched the entire thing, holding hands like high school kids. She’d obviously chosen the Oriental, of all places, to share her news because she knew that I felt safe here; she’d timed her news to coincide with intermission so that I’d have the entirety of the second film to begin digesting it. By the time the lights went up after the second feature, I had recovered enough to ask, “What’s next?” Pulling on her coat and arranging her scarf around her neck, she looked pensively into the middle distance. “Ice cream, I’d say,” she said.
In town to direct a new show for the Skylight Music Theater, I took my wife Gilda for the first time to a matinee at the Oriental. The old place's magic coursed through me as we stood in the lobby and breathed in its faded, funky, faux opulence. As an organist fumbled loopily through an awful medley from Carousel, I shared without embarrassment the precious treasures of my youth. I introduced her to the golden-eared onyx lions flanking the broad staircase as we climbed to the low-slung, sweeping balcony, the Buddha’s, the stage area with its massive dimmers, the dust hanging in the air just as it should. “I can’t explain it, I just can’t,” I said, as we walked, hand in hand, up the main aisle. “I love this place the way I love Yaddo. It’s what Allan Gurganus wrote … you know, ‘some essence quorum of our souls’ intensities’.” Gilda nodded. “This place,” I continued, “is in my spiritual DNA. I feel as though I spent entire hours here suspended in that ‘chanceful,’ formative state where anything could still happen, safe, but questing; still a child, but on the cusp….” I stopped. She smiled. “I know, honey,” she said. “It’s what you and Gardner had Amelia say to her baby— ‘Anything is possible’.”
The organist stopped playing. “Show me where you and your mother sat,” she said, tenderly. Gilda had led me to within a few rows of where Mother and I had sat that cold winter afternoon in 1981. “Um,” I said, looking away from her slightly so that she wouldn’t see the tears that accompanied the smile on my face and gesturing. “It was just … over here.” I placed the fingertips of my hand under her elbow, indicated with the other hand a nearby spot, and walked her the few feet. “We’re here,” I said, not believing it. “Well,” I laughed, “if this isn’t exactly the spot, then it should’ve been. How about here?” My God, I thought, as Gilda sat down and shook her hair in just that way and my heart leapt up and I couldn’t help it I just choked and smiled and shook my head with love and awe and gratitude as she turned and flashed me the same sudden, sunny, dazzling, lopsided smile Mother used to. Gilda was more glamorous than Rita Hayworth, every bit the artist Mother had been and more. A vibrant, powerful woman in her prime, Gilda turned to me and—moving far, far past transference to transforming sorrow into joy in a heartbeat—remarked, “Honey, it’s like your mom said: ‘It’s a poem about rebirth’!”
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.
This essay originally appeared in the Huffington Post on 6 December 2013 in an earlier iteration. You can read it there by clicking here.