The battle between laugh-lined adults like myself and their inner child with its flawless skin is at its most predictable on October 31st. This unblemished child begs us to play dress-up and try on modified versions of our personalities that otherwise we keep hidden throughout the year. Hardly a day goes by when I’m not tempted to break out my witch hat and wear it around the neighborhood, so I understand the satisfaction garnered from disappearing into another character’s mind and body for 24 hours. I lived in costume for the first decade of my life, so Halloween was never the special green light holiday that is was for everyone else, permitting extravagant wardrobe choices without the fear of judgment (okay, I do judge the “Sexy Mustard Bottle” people, but just a little). Instead Halloween was simply a day that I didn’t get asked, “So who are you today?” I can still hear the pompous tone that dripped from a relative’s voice when he asked me that question at every family function . . . fortunately we were never forced to gather together to celebrate Halloween, or I may have hit him with my broom.
The red makeup of past Halloweens still lingered on my shower curtain. Its glue somehow still had the strength to keep a silver eye jewel posted proudly on my bathroom medicine cabinet. And that black leather tie purchased only for the purposes of a Halloween costume found itself into the regular rotation. Surrounded by this mini-museum of Halloween personalities, my core began to shake. The pressure was building in my toes and advancing towards my eyeballs. Something new was about to erupt, and my lack of control was both frightening and intriguing.
A few party invitations had come my way, but they remained in my Inbox, unopened. As October evolved into a month-long celebration of baseball, Halloween, and public drunkenness, San Francisco overflowed with a sea of pleasure-seeking hooligans. “Throw a stone; hit a Mr. Hyde” became the town motto, while back at my laboratory, it was a poor, suppressed Jekyll striving to burst from within me. The white-collar shirt was pressed; the grey tie with its pale red stripes met the belt of the black trousers; a maroon cardigan and a long, black overcoat guarded against the cold that still hovered after the day’s rain. The most petrifying costume of my years frightened only one person, and he was staring back at me in the mirror – this year I dressed up as an adult for Halloween. At times Dr. Jekylls may feel unwelcome in this city, but no matter; I was taking him to the Symphony.
The stage was completely bare, save for the tremendous organ that was front and center. Had I looked closer at the website when I purchased my ticket, I would have noticed that the evening’s film was not to be accompanied by the entire San Francisco Symphony but by only one man and his organ. And yes, had I looked closer, I would have used the word “only” with a bit of an eye roll, a disrespectful snafu over which my cheeks redden when I think about it now. Indeed it was but one individual who sat below the movie screen at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco that Halloween night. Who knew that inside one man lurks the mystical power of many? After a grand overture that included “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” for the nostalgically rambunctious Giants fans, I sat mesmerized for 80 minutes, as organist Todd Wilson danced alone with John Barrymore.
Music truly functions as the railroad tracks of silent film. The actors may board the train looking impeccable with their black eye makeup and perfectly pursed lips, but without the music, that train would have nowhere to go. First published in 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, found its way to the large and small screens as well as the stage and radio. In 1932 Fredric March received an Academy Award for his portrayal of the curious doctor; in 2007 James Nesbitt frightened BBC fans in the miniseries adaptation that followed Dr. Jekyll’s only living descendent; and in 1920 John Barrymore stepped into the man’s . . . um, men’s shoes. And goodness, that Barrymore face was a natural treasure. During Jekyll’s first transition into Hyde, the makeup was minimal, relying on the actor’s ability to do his job and do it well. The screen time for both hair and makeup increased as did Hyde’s, and title cards guided those audience members who were less familiar with the story. Surprises were in store for those around me, and I recalled the Symphony’s performance of Psycho (1960), when I found myself gasping at the gasps of the audience. Apparently my Jekyll is a tad snooty when it comes to old movies.
Captivating are Barrymore and his title cards, with their deliciously evil illustrations, but it was the mood swings of the live organ on stage that brought these characters to life. Perfectly timed to the movements of each actor, the ripples and shakes of Mr. Wilson’s organ emerged faultlessly as improvised, allowing every shadow hiding behind every corner the opportunity to jump out at his audience during their most Jekyllish moments. As I sat hypnotized by every moment of the film and its organ escort, perhaps a couple of temporary laugh lines became permanent, as my Jekyll cackled at his escape into the darkness of the theatre, an escape from the Hydes outside dancing down the streets.