Until this past Friday night, I had never been to the Paramount Theatre in downtown Oakland. There’s been too much of that over the last year and a half. Too many curiosities and interesting things to explore put on hold because of the dull thud of unemployment. Such things cost money, not considerable, but also not mine to spend. I hope, oh man alive do I hope, that this’ll be remedied soon. Still, things being as they are, the nagging of my passions translates into the palpable frustrations of a movie junkie too often deterred. I’ve known all along that the Paramount was only a 15 minute drive from our house and that, from time to time, when it’s not being used to house a orchestral performance or a pop concert (the pleasant Icelandic shoegazers, Sigur Ros, recently played there), it shows old Hollywood films on most Friday nights. What I didn’t know, until this last Friday night at least, was that it also housed a mighty Wurlitzer organ. As Cathy and I walked in with some friends to find a seat, I felt, momentarily at least, as though I were vacationing on Fantasy Island.
“Boss, what’s his fantasy?”
“Ahhh, yes Tattoo, ahhh yes. That, my friend, is a man seeking repose. His fantasy is to return to another time, a time where the movie house was king. A time where, when the lights faded, the screen came alive with a magical dance of shadow and light. Tattoo, his fantasy is to, if only for a night, forget his troubles and hear a mighty Wurlitzer warming up an audience prior to a MGM musical starring Fred Astaire and Judy Garland.”
(I figure my fantasy would have fit rather nicely into the other story lines running through the episode that aired on September of ’79 entitled (really), “Tattoo: The Love God/ Magnolia Blossoms.”)
Quick digression. As a bored kid growing up in the suburbs, it’s unfortunate to admit that I wasted hours of my life watching the Saturday evening double header of “The Love Boat,” followed by “Fantasy Island.” Hours spent being spoon fed tepid hi-jinx, high fructose lovey dovey, Charo and I don’t know how many episodes of relationships on the fritz magically cured by one of Isaac the bartenders potent Tequila Hi-Balls. Bottoms up, Vicki! Literally- entire days of my young life marooned by boredom and the cheap lure of color and movement, on a island of Aaron Spelling pap. Granted, there’s a warm and trashy thread that runs through almost all of Mr. Spelling’s television debris, but it’s too meek to even be called “entertainment.” It’s something else, a vapor trail masquerading as entertainment. It’s land-fill product for a low yield of dulled Saturday Night consumers.
But all this to say that as I was entering the Paramount, I felt a giddy and grateful rush of idiot glee. The Wurlitzer’s sound is sepia-toned. It’s the soundtrack to silent films and carousels. It’s nostalgic and spooky at the same time. An old high school friend had a painting of a crying clown down in her basement. What was it doing there? Who was trying to spook the children? If the motives behind the hanging of that painting (innocent enough, I’d guess) and its ensuing reign of terror over my friend’s imagination could be translated into a sound, you’d have the Wurlitzer. It’s both sinister and silly. It’ll give you Lynchian nightmares.
Before the main feature they show old news reels (ours all seemed to be culled from 1948, the year the picture we were going to see, Easter Parade, was originally released) and a short cartoon. Ours was an old Warner Brothers Looney Tunes cartoon, and judging from the prototypical Tweety and the rickety feel of the animation, it’s probably a good guess that it was from 1948 as well. It’s a nice touch, this sensitivity to recreating the actual movie going experience of that year. Judging from the number of old-timers in the audience (an age group I’ve rarely seen represented at the local cineplex) there’s a real appreciation and desire for it too.
After the news reel and the cartoon, the Wurlitzer came back up (thanks to the histrionics of a hydraulic stage- very cool) along with an elderly man standing before a microphone, his assistant and a woman who looked like a refugee from a Jonathan Waters film. She even had a tattoo of something written on one of her arms. She was also standing in front of the concentric Decca-Win Wheel! The audience was told to retrieve their ticket stubs. The Wurlitzer player would begin, the wheel would be spun, and should its numbers match the last three of those found on our ticket stubs, we’d win prizes! If you won, you were to stand and shout, “Decca Win!” upon which the assistant would race (more a endearing nerd-waddle) through the aisles until he reached the winner. The old timer on stage would ask, “Do we have a winner?” and his assistant would shout “The number matches, WE HAVE A WINNER!!!” with a voice, the cadence and enthusiasm of which, I thought were endearingly reminiscent of Kermit the Frogs when introducing an episode of “The Muppet Show.” Somebody won a night at the Oakland Airport Holiday Inn.
The audience was there to have a good time. I got the sense that a majority of them had already seen “Easter Parade,” and given the kind of devotion Judy Garland still seems to inspire, that isn’t so surprising. There’s a puff of a plot wherein the struggling dancer and barmaid, Hannah Brown (Garland) is drunkenly chosen by the accomplished dancer, Don Hewes (Astaire) as a bet he makes with himself. He believes he can take this ordinary country girl and turn her into a star. He wants to show up his snooty and calculating former partner and love interest, Nadine Hale (Ann Miller, who shows some considerable leg for 1948). Falling in love, of course, wasn’t to be part of the equation. Alas.
Astaire and Garland break into song and dance on the stage and off. People breaking into song on the big screen is still a surprise to the modern audience, as the artifice of it is glaring and more then a little silly. But the silliness, so exaggerated in its desire to please, is usually sublime, transcending the otherwise banal plot with movement and melody. You’re caught up in a sugar rush of kinetics.
Astaire can clearly dance better than Garland, but then she’s clearly got the better voice. She’s also a better actor. Astaire’s somewhat of a cold fish as the romantic lead. He’s got the air of the dandy about him- all wit, hyper-refined elegance and distance. Where Garland’s lip and voice always seems to be quivering on the brink of sensuality, Astaire comes across as avuncular and aloof. There’s also the fact that Astaire was 49 at the time of the film and Garland was just 26. Despite that, their romance works, just barely, because so much of it develops through the singing of Irving Berlin’s lyrics and the charm of their dancing. If the movie sometimes grinds to a halt, you can bet they’re not singing and dancing. It soars during scenes like when Garland and Astaire perform the song “We’re A Couple of Swells” (here, the audience applauded the beginning of the song, welcoming the film’s most famous scene) or when Astaire busts a move in a lavish set piece that has him dancing with numerous partners before turning into a wonderful slow motion close up of Astaire dancing solo. It’s a giddy thing, this scene, like the blur of a hummingbird’s wings suddenly made individual, each dart and flutter slowed into focus.
Still, it’s ultimately not enough to ward off the boredom that creeps in and settles. A brief and hilarious scene in a restaurant where an effeminate French waiter animates the history and creation of a salad he recommends demonstrates just how deflated and obligatory everything before it has been. There’s not enough fizz. The film meanders between song and dance in search of, well, another song and dance. When "Easter Parade" ends, its overstayed its welcome but there are no bad feelings.