Archive for the ‘Classics’ Category

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Click here to read Part I.

 

I fall asleep. Or do I pass out and pass back in? Do people pass in, like they tiptoe into a room? I guess hazily that we touched down and came back up somewhere over Las Vegas, so that first pill must have worked.

 

“Did it?” Judy asks, still sitting next to me but with greater distance between us. We no longer shared an armrest in coach but now each of us has our own – somehow we had moved up to the first class cabin. I have no recollection of taking such a status leap or, in the process, transferring my rattling knapsack down what a potentially resentful aisle. Like denying a memory before someone produces photographic evidence, in those first few moments I would have sworn on a stack of Judy albums that our arms still remained locked in battle over an armrest back in coach. But here we are, Judy Garland and little old me, soaring over Las Vegas on the first anti-anxiety pill that I have taken for its intended purpose.

 

“I passed out for, what, ten minutes? I ask her. “That’s gotta be some kind of record for my sleeping on a plane. Draining the consciousness out of a plane ride is a dream scenario.” I lean back into my roomy seat. “That, and flying first class with Judy Garland,” I add, unable to delay the precious moments between thoughts and words.

 

And yet she doesn’t take the compliment, no doubt immune to gay men gushing over her after so many years, at times, sadly, by way of a marriage license. After decades of living next to the gay track, I suppose she has to make an effort just to notice the train . . . the rambunctiously flaming train, emitting rainbow-colored smoke that was probably good for the environment. I knew it well, for recently I began to feel like just another faceless passenger.

 

Planes, trains, contraltos.

 

Gotta get off, gonna get

Have to get off from this ride

 

“You never told me what happened on the Valley of the Dolls set,” I tell her, shifting into “tabloid reporter” mode, listlessly filling in the plot holes for myself.

 

“The truth is what you choose to believe,” she whispers coyly, popping another is-it-a breath mint. But like any good reporter, I do not accept that kind of answer, especially from someone whose mind and words I love to pieces.

 

“Oh don’t give me that crap, Judy,” I hiss with an eye roll. Heavens, I never thought I’d take such a tone with her and surprise myself with such an outburst. I pivot back to the compliment, giving the approach a second try. “You’re smarter than that.”

 

She turns and looks out her window. “She’s smarter than that,” Judy echoes to the clouds outside. And she was, for it must have been only a day or two out of infancy when she learned the harsh ways of the stage and the harsher personalities that appear on, behind, above, and below it. On-the-job training at its most brutal – at an age when I was cheating on spelling tests, Judy Garland was seeing the business side of the The Business.

 

She turns her head back towards me, her body still pointed towards the window. “Okay, kid. If I’m so smart . . . ma’am, a scotch and soda, please.”

 

Finally, a flight attendant appears to give our necks a break. Definitely breath mints.

 

“If I’m so smart, why didn’t I make it to 50? If I’m so smart, why was always I broke the harder I worked? If I’m so smart, how did . . .” She stops. “Oh, you’re right; I have more answers than you have excuses.”

 

She is feisty but not restless. Good God, where was her drink?

 

“You’re not afraid that you’re going to choke on these pills, are you?” she asks. “They’re flea-sized, for Heaven’s sake.”

 

“No, of course not. But you’re avoiding my question. C’mon, tell me about the Valley.”

 

“You have a favorite truth already, and what’s wrong with that one?”

 

“Is that what happened?” I ask. “The way that Patty Duke said? Did the director purposely keep you waiting in your dressing room, hoping that anxiety would pave the way for some addiction to come knocking?”

 

Addiction.

 

There it was. The word I dread. Pills equaled addiction equaled loss of control equaled rock bottom equaled asking for help equaled codependence. And other than flying, there is nothing worse than codependence. Am I right?

 

Gotta get hold, gonna get

Need to get hold of my pride

 

The scotch and soda arrives as the word “addiction” floats above us, pushed down by those plane air vents that drive everyone mad. Although Judy had ordered only one, the flight attendant puts down a second one in front of me.

 

“Patty talks a good game. Her acting . . . well . . .” She gives the thought a half-smile. “And is that what you’re searching for now, before popping another one of those flea pills?” she wonders. “A director to take direct responsibility for you?”

 

“It worked for you. Or, at least for your legacy.”

 

“Darling, I got fired. Or I quit seconds before the bastard fired me; I can’t remember which.” Pinky in the air, she breaks ground on her cocktail. I’m surprised it took her so long.

 

“Well sure.” I admit. “In a perfect world, I’d throw an entire bottle down my throat before every flight and knock myself out. Hell I’d do it before every bridge crossing or before leaving the house to face the crack heads of San Francisco. But I choose not to conquer anxiety with science. I do it the old-fashioned Jewish way – ignore the problem and never talk about it, until eventually it doesn’t exist. Compared to pills, don’t tell me that’s unhealthy.”

 

I hope for a full smile from her, and I get one.

 

“Perhaps moderation is the key,” Judy admits, raising her cocktail and giving a modest cheers to no one in particular. I still haven’t touched mine, and she’s noticed.

 

She looks at my drink, the ice slowly watering down its potency, and I see a light bulb flicker above her head. Either she’s just had a revelation, or she’s ringing for the flight attendant in preparation for round two. “You know what your problem is,” she starts, clang, clang, clanging the ice cubes in her glass and pointing it at me. “Your problem is that you don’t think you deserve to relax.”

 

When did I get, where did I

Why am I lost as a lamb

 

“That’s not true,” I argue. “I think I deserve to relax. I just don’t feel it. I can’t get my body to catch up with that nagging part of my brain that keeps shrieking, ‘Relax!’ Thinking and feeling – huge difference there, ma’am.” I hope she’s buzzed enough to let me get away with a touch of sass.

 

“Don’t start with that ‘ma’am’ business, like I’m your aging neighborhood drag queen.” Didn’t think so. No way Judy Garland gets buzzed from one drink (but then again, those breath mints), especially a drink ordered on an airplane. Seriously, first class? I expected more from you.

 

But she’s on to something, and she’s not sure where her thoughts (or drinks or mints) are leading us. She sets down her cocktail and inches her body in my direction. Gently she puts her tiny elbow on that armrest that’s still obsessing my thoughts, her tiny hand supporting her tiny chin. Her gaze drifts over and then behind me, out the window on the other side of the aisle.

 

Suddenly I get butterflies. They start in my stomach and fly up into my chest and out of my mouth like a hiccup and land on my left shoulder where all my stress gathers due to a broken arm of my childhood. Stress and butterflies swarm to the same location – the body is such a puzzle.

 

Chin on elbow means serious business. On this plane ride to who knows where, Judy Garland was about to tell me something that was going to change my life. It’s that magical movie moment when, with 15 minutes remaining, the damaged character delivers a life-altering lecture to the I-have-my-act-together character, ultimately revealing that it’s the latter who needed guidance all along. Formula? What formula?

 

I prepare myself, and in those few precious seconds, I am ready. I am ready for the letters and words and sentences of Judy Garland that will change how my brain and body communicate and react. Her words will unblock that blockage forever, leading me to the tiptop of Mount Happiness, where a beautiful man in a loin cloth (probably named Bart) was waiting for me with his devoted love and a glass of rosé and the key to my dream house where I would find an indoor pool, a private screening room, and winning lottery ticket that I would donate to a cat shelter (let’s not get too selfish). All of this is about to happen right after she says whatever glorious words are gathering speed on the runway of her multitalented tongue.

 

“Y’know,” she sighs. “I never got to do a cover of that Dolls theme song.”

 

Excuse me?

 

That’s all I get? No mountain. No key. No loin cloth (Bart, by the way, would have known every single word to every single song on the Judy at Carnegie Hall album, including the words that she forgets). But that’s what she gave me. A missed opportunity to cover a song from a dreadful film that she quit working on, or got fired from almost 50 years ago?!?

 

I am let down by this scrawny Buddha of mine; devastated; far from over the rainbow; crushed and defeated . . . for about five seconds. Fuck it.

 

I reach into my bag and take a second pill with a sip of the second scotch and soda that she has already made her own. I mirror her pose, my elbow a tad fleshier than hers. Those front teeth of hers announce the rest of her smile, and she knows what I was about to do, probably before I know myself. I start her off, singing the first few lines.

 

Gotta get off, gonna get

Have to get off from this ride

 

She stands up and takes it from there. What else could she do?

 

Gotta get hold, gonna get

Need to get hold of my pride

When did I get, where did I

How was I caught in this game

When will I know, where will I

How will I think of my name

 

Sure, my voice lives in a slightly seedier neighborhood than hers, but I refuse to pass up an opportunity for a little duet action. I stand up join in.

 

When did I stop feeling sure, feeling safe

And start wondering why, wondering why

Is this a dream, am I here, where are you

What’s in back of the sky, why do we cry

 

Looking back, I thought we sounded good together, and it’s not like the flight attendant was rushing over to shush us. Okay, first class, maybe you’re not so bad.

 

Gotta get off, gonna get

Out of this merry-go-round

Gotta get off, gonna get

Need to get on where I’m bound

When did I get, where did I

Why am I lost as a lamb

When will I know, where will I

How will I learn who I am

Is this a dream, am I here, where are you

Tell me, when will I know, how will I know

When will I know why?

 

The plane touches down and knocks me awake. I feel sleepy and confused, like I was about to take a final exam the morning after I pulled raging all-nighter dancing at the Cat Club. I hum the theme as I walk up the jetway, a survivor of yet another scenario into which I put myself willingly, unsure if it would end in my fiery demise. But I arrived, and I know that love was waiting outside at the curb to pick me up.

 

In the end, Judy Garland was right. Judy was right, and I was wrong – even in moderation, Valley of the Dolls is a truly dreadful movie.

 

What’s in back of the sky

Why do we cry

 

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“I have to travel how far? To climb what? To reach where? The valley of the pills? Oh, Valley of the Dolls.”

 

My ears were popping already. I hate flying.

 

“I had Jem dolls and She-ra dolls when I was a kid. Do those count? I bet they relieved anxiety, and I didn’t have to take them with water. Anxiety relief and drought awareness. I was such a responsible kid.”

 

“And your Judy doll was where?” she asks from the seat next to me.

 

“I didn’t have one, Miss Garland,” I admit. “But when I watched The Wizard of Oz, sometimes I wore Mom’s black pumps and carried a mini basket with a mini Pound Puppy in it, if that counts.”

 

“Count, count. Does anything count, you keep asking,” she says.

 

Keep asking? How long had we been talking? How long was this flight?

 

Is this a dream; am I here? Where are you?

 

“My doctor brought up the idea of pills when I told him I was afraid of flying.” I think I was asking her a question.

 

“Pills, darling. What kind?” How and when did Judy Garland become my pharmacist?

 

“Lorazepam, I think it’s called. The name reminded me of Gonzo, that blue Muppet with the banana nose. Everyone and their mother told me not to drink on those pills if I try them, or I’ll . . . ”

 

“End up like me, darling?” Judy smiles. Her imperfect front teeth seem to nudge themselves far out in front of her face, but not at all unattractive. Humanity is so enticing when it appears in a creature of such immaculate talents.

 

“From what I read, I think most doctors mention Janis or Jimi Hendrix,” I say, as she glances over me, scanning the aisle for the flight attendant. “My ‘Piece of my Heart’ is decent in the shower, but I’m no Janis. And I always thought heroin was her pleasure.”

 

With no attendant in sight, her gaze drifts back to me, and before she can accuse, I blurt out, “I mean, of course I sing all of yours first.”

 

What, like I’m going miss an opportunity to suck up to Judy Garland? How often do you end up liking the person sitting next to you on a long flight? Judy Garland was to be my conversation pill, and she always takes effect quickly.

 

When will I know; where will I

How will I think of my name?

 

“I get panicky when it comes to pills,” I breathe in and admit. “I’ve seen addiction up close, and I’m terrified of becoming an addict or going through any of the crap that I saw when it happened to others. I don’t want to lose control.”

 

She eyeballs the aisle again and without looking at me says, “Yes, you do.”

 

Excuse me? Angry. I get a little angry. I get a little angry with Judy Garland who is sitting next to me on a plane with a destination that is still unknown.

 

Is this a dream?

 

“I do? You think I want to lose control? I get on the Oakland Bay Bridge every day to leave San Francisco, and when I get in the car, I put on the song that I want to be listening to if I happen to die that day. If the bridge blows up, I want to be listening to a song that I love, not the morning talk radio with their ‘Hipster versus Geezer’ call-in games.” I’m getting angrier. I’m getting close to shouting, as close as I’ll allow myself in a public place, or anywhere, really. I stop and look up and down the aisle myself.

 

In a low voice she begins to ask, “Who are you . . . ?”

 

“Never mind what song I’m listening to!” I interrupt, even though her question calms me slightly. “I’m thinking that if the terrorists chose that morning to come after the liberal, green, free-love loving hippies and hipsters with their billions of dollars and ridiculous trigger warnings (we’re all such victims, pass me a pill), that I want to be listening to one of my favorite songs if I die on the commute to a job that bores me to tears. I do this on the bridge. I do this on BART . . .”

 

“The who, darling?” Judy asks. “So you have a boyfriend? Not sure I enjoy his name all that much, but if . . .”

 

“No, no BART is the Bay Area subway that goes under the water. And since it’ll make my ears pop seconds before I’m killed in an underwater tunnel, the music is crucial.”

 

“Still, dreadful name. Sounds like a placeholder name in a cartoon script.” She takes one last look up and down the aisle before reaching for her purse. I hear the subtle yet familiar rattle before her hand meets her mouth, and she swallows dramatically.

 

“I’m sorry not to offer, darling. Breath mint?”

 

“Nice touch,” I tell her, the anger subsiding. “Can I get back to me?”

 

“Oh, had we left you? I had no idea.” Okay, I loved her again.

 

“I get on BART (Judy rolls her eyes), and I’m convinced that the day has come when they decide to blow up the tunnel and kill thousands of heathens with one stone. On planes I grip the armrest so tightly turning takeoff or (god forbid) turbulence, that I’m afraid my knuckles will start bleeding. I look around and realize that I’m sitting in a flying murder weapon, and you think this sounds like someone who wants to lose control?”

 

She looks at me puzzled, an expression not unlike the ones that I used to give an algebra pop quiz in middle school. Why are they quizzing me on things I haven’t learned yet?

 

Still clutching her purse, she pulls out a cigarette. A cigarette after a breath mint? Eh, who am I to judge? After an exhale to the ceiling (they were polite smokers in her day), she shifts her tiny body weight so she’s facing me with her entire being, which isn’t much. It’s the itty-bitty Judy Garland Show Judy who’s daintily sitting next to me. I think I hear “You Go to My Head” start to play through the earphones that sit in my lap, but I ignore it. Why does that thing start playing randomly when it’s been sitting turned off for hours?

 

“Your bridge. Your car. Your train. Your DART (I don’t correct her) Your bay. Your death. Why, may I ask, are all the terrorists after you in particular, darling? If you sounded this way and were on pills, I’d have little to no concern for you at t’all. But if this is how you are without pills, maybe you should try one.”

 

I can’t contain my smile. I always smile when someone exposes a trait or behavior that I thought I kept hidden from the world. And I both love and hate that she knows it.

 

Judy leans in a bit more, and I focus not on her teeth but on those eyes. “You’re trying to stay in control in situations when your own only guarantee is that you have absolutely none. You try so hard that you even set the score to the disaster scene. I bet you have a playlist ready for morning.”

 

How will I think of my name?

 

“Oh no, you do, don’t you, darling?” She leans back, perhaps debating whether to poke me with her cigarette. “Which ones are . . .”

 

“Many,” I promise quickly, “but ‘The Man That Got Away’ has always been at the top of the list.”

 

“Fine.” Phew, she’s satisfied and can get it together enough to continue. “Of course you want to lose control. What else is there to do at a time when you have zero chance of gaining it? It’s the trying that makes your knuckles bleed, darling. That, and you need a good moisturizer.”

 

She places her hand on mine. Judy Garland – singer, dancer, actress, therapist, beautician.

 

“You watched Valley of the Dolls recently, didn’t you?” she asks, changing and not changing the subject.

 

“Yeah, one of my publishers is about to release a 50th anniversary edition of the book, which I’ve still never read. I watched it the night my doctor brought up the idea of pills.”

 

“It’s a dreadful movie, isn’t it?” She is starting to fish; I can tell. We all know tales of her preproduction history with the film.

 

“I guess it made its point pretty quickly. k.d. lang’s cover of the theme song was in the first and last episodes of Nurse Jackie, so with that and the book, it’s been on my mind.”

 

Judy’s face lights up. “Edie Falco, I like that gal.”

 

Obviously I agree, but I’m a tad startled by her praising another actor. It was like the bad girl in detention admitting that she loves the homecoming queen’s performance in the school play. And talk about control – show me a scene when Edie Falco is not in complete control. Judy locked horns with director in the business, and probably maimed a few, but I can’t imagine a director ever taking issue with Edie Falco, onset or off.

 

So Judy Garland knows who Edie Falco is, but she doesn’t know that BART is a subway train, not my boyfriend? Although I’m still unsure of this plane’s destination, I am sure that I need my hallucinations to be consistent in their knowledge of modern day life. I reach for the rattling bag underneath the seat in front of me, wondering if there’s a pill for such a thing.

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Click here to read Part II.

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At times I don’t want to think about it; I don’t want to know; I don’t want to be wrong, and I don’t want to be responsible for the next step if I’m right. With the death penalty in and out of our recent news cycles, t’was perhaps not a coincidence that I Want to Live! (1958) ended up doing time in my mailbox. A potpourri of Oscar winners and should-have-won’s spruce up my Netflix queue, and until now my exposure to Susan Hayward’s winning performance was limited to only a brief mention in The Golden Girls. It was time to knock off this one, but after its arrival, bizarrely it sat on the couch for weeks, quite out of character for me. Sometimes it’s not just a popcorn-in-hand, tushy-on-couch kind of movie.

The film tells the stories of Barbara Graham, her murder trial, and a potential execution by gas. Although I was meeting Barbara for the first time, something kept me on the outside of I Want to Live!, admiring not the first-rate performance but instead the frame around it. A bit more wear and tear on the poor “Rewind” and “Pause” buttons this time around, because throughout the film I found myself thinking, “Ooo I liked that shot,” distracting me from following the uncomplicated storyline. Usually I become so enamored with a character or the actor playing her, that I commit the unforgivable crime of overlooking the artists behind the camera. For it was Addison DeWitt who taught us that, at least in the theatre, their function is merely to construct a tower so that the world can applaud a light which flashes on top of it. Eloquently put, yes? Addison was kind of a prick.

Yes, let’s tip our hats to the cinematographers then and face the topic head on – I don’t know where I stand on the death penalty. As I age, my emotional reaction to social issues, political situations, and amount of mustard on my sandwich is harder to predict, much less control. If god forbid a trillion times the death penalty personally touched a part of my life, how on earth could I predict what kind of emotional response I would have? Can I take a firm stand on such an issue when it’s happening to someone else? The ability to see both sides and neither side of an issue is a blessed curse, and every time that happens, my brain commences its automated shutdown process . . . ooo, I liked that shot. And in this case, those exceptional shots kept me safely disassociated from an unthinkable issue and an endless “what if” game – what if we execute her and she didn’t do it? What if we let her go, and she did do it and does it again? What if we lock her up forever, and she feels no remorse? What if we lock her up forever, and she’s innocent? Before Wicked, did we indeed have all of the facts in the case of Water versus Wicked Witch of the West? Did she deserve to be liquidated simply for wanting her dead sister’s shoes back? Other than air pollution via skywriting, what were her real crimes? What if Oz police started to target green-skinned women? What if mistakes are made legally, and the mistake itself becomes the process?

Mulling over something as incompressible as the death penalty, I distracted myself with the technical elements of the film (again, not to be disparaged), which proved the safer escape vehicle. When a piece of art forces its audience to scrutinize and come to terms with their own feelings on such dilemmas, we can hardly classify it as a flaw; I knew that one day I would revisit I Want to Live!, perhaps at a time when the news gives me less to escape from and more to hope for . . . now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go to my local bookstore and lay myself down on the Personal Growth table.

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Academy Award for I Want to Live! (1959): Best Actress in a Leading Role

Add I Want to Live! to your Netflix queue.

In the packet sitting on my trunk that also functions as a coffee table, only a single cookie remained. Within five days, I was rejected for not one but two jobs and mutually decided with a very nice gentleman that future dates were no longer necessary. In the face of personal and professional rebuffs, I give myself about 12 hours to slosh around in hopelessness before it’s time to put down the cookies and embrace that backbone we were told comes with “being a man.” At moments like these, when I become desperate for a male role model, usually I turn to Katharine or Bette (Davis or Midler, pick a broad), who taught me more about male strength than any man ever could. But as I wandered towards the DVD shelf, allowing myself no time to browse, my hand seized The Boys in the Band (1970), originally a play that was adapted into a film starring its original cast members. Hiding away that final cookie in the cupboard and instead bringing to the couch a bowl of overly priced blueberries, I was ready to visit the boys once again. But thirty minutes in, I turned them off and decided instead to take a stroll down Elm Street.

A true diehard fan of the Nightmare on Elm Street series knows to queue up the fourth installment when one yearns for not only true campy horror but also the enchanting time period when the 80s became a little grungy before the 90s took hold. At the end of the fourth film, Alice, the young virgin hero of the piece, backflips her way down a church aisle and starts wailing on Freddy Krueger, who, at this point in the franchise, has developed a wicked sense of comic timing. Anger turns to rage in young Alice, but with every ferocious punch she delivers, Freddy meets them all with laughter. It’s a delicious fight scene with a gooey ending that reminds all thirtysomethings of how blessed we once were when we turned on our VCRs.

Following an urban family of friends who gather for one’s birthday, The Boys in the Band transforms quickly from zingy one-liners to the brutality of a truth-telling slumber party game, if all the slumber party guests were downing vodka and smoking weed. Sounds fitting for my particular mood that evening, one could say, at least in the allotted 12-hour period. So what the devil happened that night? First it was a beeline towards The Boys in the Band followed immediately by a second for A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)? Was it the campy comparison between the two that kept me from settling in? Perhaps it was the lack of an attention span that plagues us all? An unplanned theme night with characters that focus on proper nail maintenance?

I couldn’t put my unmanicured finger on it until days later when I was watching a documentary about The Boys in the Band. While listening to some of the critics who found both the original play and film offensive and glorifying gay stereotypes, I understood why I went back to Alice’s final showdown with Freddy, and the questions seemed to scroll across my living room wall like the showtimes at a movie theatre (remember those?). Living in a century when everyone is offended by everything, and voicing outrage may get one’s name in the headlines, I began to wonder . . . when should I voice my opposition and march down the streets with signs and petitions, and when should I simply laugh at those who offend me? Is one course more astute, more mature, or more reasonable than the other? Could I one day possess the level of emotional tenacity displayed by Freddy Krueger and laugh in the faces of pain and rejection?

Oh, I was always a Freddy sympathizer – teenagers are monsters.

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While mulling over The Boys in the Band and scribbling down notes about “gay” this and “don’t label me” that, I began to feel stirrings of anger that perhaps mimicked that of the 1970s audiences. While I may not feel the deep anger – and perhaps even deeper fear – that some may have felt at the time, I try to understand it. There were indeed lovers of both the film and the play from all neighborhoods (lines around the block, I hear), and I will forever envy those who saw the original cast perform in New York. But those who give negative reviews tend to roar when they give them, drowning out the courtly tones of those who shower something with praise.

One reaction to the play that stuck with me was that it gives audiences the green light to disrespect gay characters. Okay . . . I see where you’re coming from, sir, and I hear you, but did we have respect for George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Speaking only for myself, I’d have to say no, I didn’t exactly look up to them with respect and admiration. Am I wildly entertained by their drinking and verbal abuse of one another? Oh, absolutely! George and Martha may have shattered the image of the happily married man and woman, but we had to live with that stereotype for years before the world was ready for that earsplitting shatter. And some people, gay and straight, man and woman, liberal and conservative, just didn’t like it. Period. One day I’ll summon the courage to write about why I never cared for Citizen Kane (1941), but here’s the thing – at least I’ve seen Citizen Kane. If you have only heard that The Boys in the Band’s portrayal of gay characters is offensive, full of trigger words, and will cause you loads of distress and hurt feelings, I urge you to be brave enough to see it first and then decide. I’m talking to you, Basic Instinct spoilers. You know who you are!

Ultimately I come away from this film with more questions than conclusions. Why, I wondered, couldn’t those who were offended by The Boys in the Band laugh at it instead? How could they not appreciate the humor and wit of these characters, as they go from loving to hating each other and back again in a matter of drinks and hours? Then I found myself thinking, “Because, you spoiled little so-and-so, you can’t even begin to imagine the fear that festered inside certain members of a 1970s audience.” It’s 2015, and we’re in the early stages of a time when gay neighbors are becoming just neighbors and gay parents are just parents. It wasn’t just a different country when these boys came out; it was a different universe. Timing is everything, and when we take an objective, honest look at humanity, a single fact emerges – no one can be as emotionally mature as Freddy Krueger.

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Add The Boys in the Band to your queue.

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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.

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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.

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Time goes by so slowly . . . at least this week. In a few days one of my closest of the close friends flies in to join me at my beloved San Francisco Symphony. Once again I took the liberty of freelancing for the Symphony’s marketing department and convinced an out-of-towner to join me on my third viewing of The Wizard of Oz (1939). Convinced that someone should write a children’s book about our friendship, my friend and I constantly exchange movie quote texts and articles from The Huffington Post that put a “cheer up, Charlie” spin on our days, hiding the deep sadness that life has put 1,500 miles between our cities of residence. Yes, we measured; we’re that close.

Showing up on my Internet machine recently was an article posted by a publisher that I happen to work with during my nine to fiver. Although I could appreciate both its style and content, deep inside of me was the ornery old businessman who stubbornly kept my mind in the office. This grumbly old man refused to let down the work wall and appreciate a clever little article about Mary Poppins and her former employer. In place of humor, the sight of the publisher’s name only fueled my fury over how habitually they missed deadlines for the selling season on which my team was already working. I began to wonder how on earth I would be able to slot their titles into a Children’s catalog that has already been paginated or how many months it would be until they sent cover images that we could feed to Amazon and Barnes & Noble. From a harmless article sent to me with the best and most loving of intentions, I felt nothing but work frustration – the flower in my lapel had been torn and withered in my coat. My top hat had been punched and placed back on my head. Over time I had let this publisher turn me into Mr. Banks.

Ever close your eyes in an attempt to banish a thought from your mind? It doesn’t work.

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The story of P. L. Travers and her frustrated efforts of transitioning Mary from page to screen have become well known through the film Saving Mr. Banks (2013), for which Emma Thompson should have received an Oscar nomination. Yes, that evening I would have sent Cate Blanchett home with the gold for Blue Jasmine (2013), but a Thompson nomination was deserved and would have been kindhearted of the Academy. Seriously, bring the Kleenex for that ending. I am no expert on the history of Ms. Travers and Mr. Disney’s relationship, so I can’t speak to the film’s accuracy, but for me it provides a broad background for those who are unfamiliar with Disney’s struggle for a film adaptation. An added bonus was Emma Thompson’s Travers finding Tom Hanks as irritating as I do these days, hence my ruffled Oscar feathers. If you have never seen Mary Poppins (1964), first please send me your parents’ phone number so I can have a little chat with them – and don’t give me that “we didn’t rot our brains with television” hogwash – and then please stop reading. The ending of Mary Poppins is an incredibly sensitive subject for those of us who idolized both the character and the actress that sang her to life. You have been given your spoiler alert, and you may now choose for yourself. I’ll be here when you get back, and Mary, who celebrated her 50th anniversary this year, certainly isn’t going anywhere. Why would she leave? What possible reason would Mary have for abandoning us?

Let us begin with the end. Mary Poppins (1964) was the first unhappy ending to crawl across my screen and slap me with the cold, cruel hand of disappointment. Mary arrives gracefully dancing on the wind like she owns it and breathes both life and magic into the Banks household. Successively Mr. Banks becomes a devoted father and husband; his children, with the help of Mary and Bert, come to have a new understanding of their father’s demons; and Mrs. Banks . . . well . . . no major changes for Sister Suffragette, but her daughter’s daughters will adore her. Happiness could not possibly reach greater heights for the Banks clan in the film’s finale, while, only a few blocks away, Mary prepares to open her umbrella and fly over the kites of familial love that decorate the London skies. To rational adults and perhaps the more mature younger viewers, this ending is indeed a happy one, as a family is united, a father’s cold heart is melted, and otherwise ignored children are flooded with the love of now attentive parents. As an inarticulate six-year-old, all I could think is, “Happy shmappy.”

My blue umbrella had a handle that somewhat resembled a cat (or was a squirrel?), and in no way did that shade of 80s blue couple with the purple plastic beach bag in which I placed a scarf, a hand mirror, and Mom’s black pumps with the little bows. I would not have the guts to wear red until I was out of college, so the scarf was a blue that absolutely conflicted with the umbrella, but no matter – I knew what my $1.99 drag queen outfit represented, and with no competition surrounding me, not only was I secure and confident in my Poppins accouterments, I also had no misgivings of Mary’s guaranteed approval, if only she could see me. However strong my devotion to wardrobe and attempt at mimicking the elegant accent of Ms. Julie Andrews, alas I could not change the course of events. A happy family, a mended kite, an outraged umbrella head – this extraordinarily powerful woman who donned the sass of a villain but the hat of a hero had changed the winds and left the Banks children forever. I’m sorry . . . she what?!? I should have dressed up as that umbrella head, since I agreed with his every word. If I had been more athletic, I just may have thrown my cat umbrella handle (good gravy, or was it a squirrel?) at the television. Choosing their parents over the woman who took their hands and jumped into chalk drawings? The woman who led and won a carousel horse race? The woman who chaperoned tea parties on the ceiling and a chimney-sweep dance party on the roofs on London? That’s gratitude for you, but that’s as it should be – those magical people who float into our lives and change us for the better may one day catch the next wind that takes them 1,500 miles away. But if we’re lucky, the very thought of them makes us smile and laugh at inappropriate moments, slaying the grumbly old man inside us.

Only minutes ago, as I watched Michael yell “Now!” while Mr. Banks tossed the mended kite into the sky, I felt the flower in my lapel perk up slightly, perhaps absorbing a tear or two. I can’t say for sure, but it feels like the winds are changing.

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Academy Awards for Mary Poppins (1965): Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Original Song (“Chim Chim Cher-ee”), Best Original Score, Best Film Editing, Best Special Visual Effects

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There’s a tarantula that follows me around. When scads of elongated thoughts plague my sleep, I feel it crawling up the sheets of my bed. A looming work deadline that depends on the cooperation of flakey coworkers is when I find that tarantula atop my showerhead, ready to pounce. It scurries behind me on the couch as I wait . . . and wait . . . and wait . . . for Netflix streaming to load The Lady Eve (1941) so I may continue my Barbara Stanwyck education. Even now, sitting outside at a lovely café in San Francisco on an early summer evening, lending letters and words to this tarantula brings it to life, and I sense its presence on the plant bed behind my table.

This menacing spider doesn’t appear often in the daylight, and it prefers my bed to most environments. Its presence jolts me out of that subconscious state that borders true deep sleep, but like most sanely rational people, I blame The Brady Brunch. If memory serves, despite my attempts to block such horrors, the Bunch once vacationed in Hawaii, where one of them finds a cursed tiki idol. Assumed to be a good luck charm, instead it leads to several close-call catastrophes, one of those being a deadly spider that winds up in someone’s bed. Full disclosure, if I’m off slightly on this storyline – this one of the few times when I absolutely refuse to do any form of online fact checking.  Suppose I stumble upon an image or, heaven forbid, a video of the Brady family and this repulsive creature?  Why on earth would I want feed the beast?

I have no knowledge of the tarantula’s diet, nor will I begin to research such grisly information. I do know that when my company was sold a few weeks ago and the final sliver of job security vanished, my tarantula not only increased in size and speed but also felt the need to up the frequency of bedtime disruptions. Whether it stems from a 1970s family sitcom or a deeper psychological scar, evidently my fear manifests itself in arachnid form. If we need to climb on the therapist’s couch for a moment, perhaps a useful aspect of fear is its scrawny little finger that points us towards the areas of our lives where there is room for growth . . . (insert “blow a raspberry” here). But what about those other nagging fears that told us not to swim out too far from the beach or take deliciously tempting candy from that smiling stranger? If some fears exist solely to keep us from physical and, perhaps, emotional danger, how do we know which fears serve as our friendly lifeguards and which are the stalking tarantulas?

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Horror movies. Suspense flicks. Carol Burnett in Annie (1982). They provide us with the thrill and adrenaline of fear, all without any true physical threat to our person. For decades, filmmakers in the suspense genre have used one single plotline to perturb their audiences, forcing us to shut our eyes or hide under the covers for a few extra seconds – the possibility of offing the children. Director Fritz Lang opens the film M (1931) with a group of children playing a counting elimination game while singing a song in German about a child murderer. More haunting than “One, Two, Freddy’s Coming for You” in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the tune virtually summons the murderer from the shadows, and within minutes, the latest in a series of a young victims is declared missing.

While the petrified town grows suspicious of any single man who so much as glances towards a child, the frustrated murderer whistles his own little tune, as he writes a letter to the newspapers announcing to all that he has not “finished.” A reward of 10,000 Deutsche Marks is advertised immediately following the letter, and soon both the authorities and the farmisht underworld on the trail of the whistling murderer played by the talented and abundantly eyed Peter Lorre (who, it turns out, could not whistle). Marked with an “M” on the back of his coat by one of his trackers, our murderer flees from both the good guys and the bad guys, a welcomed break in cinematic formulas. Gradually the level of suspense shifts; we move away from attempts to predict the actions of this monster and begin to wonder if ever he will be apprehended. It is during that shift orchestrated beautifully by Lang that we began to root for this villain, smashing our moral compasses with the final scene . . . in those unnerving 15 minutes, I took not a single breath.

And my tarantula? Oh, it never watches old movies.

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My apartment is dazzling. Mom was here for a few days and between meals, she relaxed in the best way she knows how – she gave this little home of mine a much-needed deep cleaning. The phrase “deep cleaning” brings back painful memories of sitting in the dentist’s chair over the span of two appointments and having each tooth and gum area poked and scraped and swabbed until my mouth sparkled. True, the blessed nitrous allowed me to meet a certain menacing needle with a temporary smile, but even a drugged grin is no match for the mental image of where, when, and how that needle would penetrate through my body and turn the soundtrack of my world into nails on a chalkboard. No one “likes” going to the dentist, and while the deep cleaning appointments were especially sinister for this guy, in the long run it turns out that they were necessary. Mom felt the same way about my bathtub. It, too, went through a couple of deep cleaning appointments along with the rest of the apartment, and now we all shine brightly having been scrubbed to perfection by experts in the field.

My goal of moving the mountain of books off of the kitchen floor required new bookcases, a purchase long overdue. If there’s anything more loathsome than a trip to the dentist, it’s the frustration that comes with the task of putting together those confounded shelves so they don’t lurch from side to side. In an email that I debated printing out and laminating before her arrival, Mom promised that she would take charge and put the bookcases together. No need for a notary; she stuck to her word, and over the course of two Madonna concerts and one Cher concert playing in the background, the shelves began to take form. As we stood up the first bookcase (yes, with that much, I would help), we saw that the unfinished side of the espresso-toned shelf was facing out. At some point during production, a portion of the shelf had been flipped, resulting in lighter shades of tan running parallel to the dark espresso tones (Target’s description, not mine), and I thought Mom was going to have a stroke.

Taking apart this beast of a bookcase and putting it back together was not an option, nor was my gently delivered “Well, I can live with it” (ooo, you should have seen her face!), so we came up with another solution . . . the shelves would have to be painted. Painted, they were, and they look fabulous. Thanks, Mom. But sometimes it happens that way; sometimes your boat simply isn’t big enough. Complications arise; sometimes they’re devastating beyond repair, and other times they arrive draped in those clever little disguises that blessings often wear. Bookcases that could have been a decorating disaster turned into an original combination of colors that now brighten up the entire room. As soon as the paint had dried and the books placed snuggly in their new home, my mind flashed on one complication in the world of film that ultimately worked out for the best. The most frightening musical scores ever composed resulted from three mechanical sharks that responded unfavorably when they interacted with water.

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All irrational fears may be blamed on composer John Williams. If those mechanical sharks hadn’t malfunctioned to such an extent that the film crew nicknamed the 1975 film “Flaws,” the tunes that announced the musically cloaked great white may have existed only the head of Mr. Williams. The opening scene in which a young lady swimming at night is thrashed around and pulled underwater by an alternating pattern of musical notes is perhaps the most frightening scene in all of film history (all due respect to Baby Jane and Norman Bates). I still love my parents’ pool, the pool of my childhood where I spent hours of my life fantasizing that I was Daryl Hannah from Splash (1984), swimming through the romantic waters of love in search of New York City map. But Daryl Hannah’s ocean was friendlier than Steven Spielberg’s, who, together with John Williams, created a film that made me question whether the deep end of my pool was free from danger and indeed a safe place for recreational swimming. The Pacific Ocean was only 20 minutes away, and there was no reason a great white shark couldn’t swim up on to the beach, into a sewer drain, through the pipes down Interstate 5 (before merging on to Interstate 8), find its way into the lake near the house, transfer to another pipe that led directly to the drain in the deep end of my parents’ pool, and drag me down to my death in its gaping jaws. If that shark in Jaws: The Revenge (1987) could follow Mrs. Brody from New England to the Bahamas, we’re not dealing with any ordinary species here, and thus my childhood fear of pool sharks continues to defy the portrayed logic of adulthood.

Ultimately the flaws led to Jaws, which, in turn, led to an Academy Award for Best Original Score along with two additional Oscars (the young Mr. Spielberg did not receive a directing nomination, but I think he survived). More than 20 years after my first time to Amity Island, Jaws will never lose its grip on me – the terrifying journey of Chief Brody, Quint, and Hooper keeps me out of the ocean and in the shallow ends of the pools, where I belong. It’s only a movie, we tell ourselves, but when that growing intensity of the music and the shrieks of its victims are cut off instantly by the silence of still waters, the only sound remaining is the chattering of own my deeply cleaned teeth.

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Academy Awards for Jaws (1976): Best Music (Original Dramatic Score); Best Sound; Best Film Editing

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Life has been brimming with theatre. Both March and April have chaperoned me to plays, films, live concerts, the beautiful pipe organ of the Castro Theatre, and that man on the street attempting to cover “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling.” One lesson that I carry with me from a high school drama history course is that when one has nothing else to cheer, one applauds the performers’ courage to walk out on to the stage. My sister and I attended a local production of Evita, a soundtrack and film that we hold near and dear to our hearts. The matinée performance was perfectly fine, but regrettably Evita is cursed, and my ear expects those glorious songs to be performed in a certain way by a certain woman. That stubborn ear of mine triumphed over the logical “give it a try” attempts of my mind, and following the lament, courage was politely applauded . . . goodnight and thank you.

An equal, if not greater, challenge would be straining to hear another woman sing “Cabaret” or “Maybe This Time.” If my friends are unfamiliar with the film Cabaret (1972), fortunately they are familiar with the name “Alan Cumming.” When I sing the praises of Mr. Joel Grey and his Oscar-winning, Godfather-besting performance as the Emcee in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, my body would shut down if I entertained the thought of another man playing that role with such wizardry. And then I think of Alan Cumming – the man whom I would consider stalking if stalking was a tad less creepy and a tad more legal. Cumming has returned to the Kit Kat Klub for a new run of Cabaret, and a few nights ago, I think I convinced a chum of mine to join me on a “Life is a Cabaret” trip to New York City. But again I was thinking, “Who else could possibly play the role of the Emcee? No one could top Joel Grey, not with all the rehearsal time in the world. Oh . . . wait . . . yes, Alan Cumming could do it. Alan Cumming, and maybe Tracey Ullman.”

But Sally Bowles? How could the universe possibly allow room for another Sally Bowles?

On the 28th of March, Fortune decided to smile upon the Bay and brought back the 68-year-old Liza Minnelli to San Francisco. Taking my cue from Fortune, I hopped online and put a dear friend and me in Liza’s second row. I was going to make eye contact with that woman if it killed me. Immediately I prepared the syllabus for my prosperous friend’s Minnelli education, and by sundown a mixed CD was in her hot little hands. Hours before the concert, it warmed my heart when she told me at dinner, “I hope she sings ‘Ring Them Bells’ tonight.” She did. Devoted to her audience, Liza managed to get not one, but two standing ovations after performing “Cabaret” sitting in a chair. No, she was not running around, reaching a bedazzled hand for the skies; Liza was parked comfortably in an extra wide directors chair that she dragged all over the stage. When she finished the hallowed song, predictably the San Francisco audience erupted into applause, many of us unaware that our initial clapping had catapulted us to our feet. When we calmed down to take our seats and our breath, Liza turned to her soul mate of a piano player and asked if she could try that last note again – she knew she could get closer to the bull’s-eye of “Cabaret,” and hit it she did. We were back on our feet and had a divinely decadent evening in that second row of Davies Symphony Hall.

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For years I’ve been trying to get on the San Francisco Symphony’s payroll. Ever since I was first enchanted by their performance of The Wizard of Oz, I have returned for Casablanca, Psycho, and Singin’ in the Rain. Somehow they managed to work The Matrix into their rotation, I imagine in an attempt to attract the younger audiences. They don’t seem to have a problem selling out, but if only the Symphony would give me a phone, a desk, and a laptop (okay, I don’t really need the desk), I guarantee that I can get those young kids in there for the classic films. It is my mission in life to keep these films alive, so, dear Symphony; I insist that you help me help you help me with said mission. Why, it was only last weekend when I helped you fill four seats, two of which were from out of town.

My last three birthdays have been spent somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. My 33rd was celebrated in Seattle with another old friend from college who could whip my derrière in a game of movie trivia. When I gushed over the San Francisco Symphony’s past performances of film scores, she insisted that I let her know when the next performance schedule was posted. In the moment I figured it was one of those times when people say, “Yes, let’s do it!” just to humor me and perhaps soothe my overenthusiasm. A few years ago I underestimated a buddy of mine when discussions led to our taking a road trip to Dollywood, and I underestimated my friend in Seattle just the same. When I discovered that the Symphony was planning to perform Charlie Chaplin’s classic, City Lights (1931), the website link was on its way to an Inbox in Seattle. A couple of months later, a plane carrying my friend and her mother was on its way to San Francisco . . . for underestimating you, dear friend, I apologize.

Each and every experience at the San Francisco Symphony has been nothing short of radiant, but on this windy April night, it was a silent film that left us absolutely speechless. Every February Academy Award winners inundate my Netflix queue, and after the seats for City Lights were safely secured, I rented Wings (1927), the first film ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Although a tad lengthy, this historic feature was a new and enjoyable experience for me, as my silent film exposure is pretty limited to the world of Norma Desmond, roaming around her mansion on Sunset Boulevard. It is the music that pilots these films, pulling the strings of the actors’ every movement. When it comes to the magic of City Lights, however, we know there’s only one person back there pulling the strings of the strings.

We join the musicians in saluting Charlie Chaplin – actor, writer, director, composer, genius, control freak. And once again we solute the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony, whom we applaud for much more than their courage to walk out on to the stage.

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Full disclosure: I have very little memory of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956). On the last two Sabbath days I hunted for what those of us in publishing habitually call the physical copy (“pbook” when I’m in the office . . . feh!) of this film so I could schedule a revisit. My reliable used DVD shop is on its last leg these days, so it’s slim pickings over there. I hacked into Mom and Dad’s Netflix to see if I could do some streaming, but I knew that was an even riskier gamble to take. Two routes fruitless, the third was to explore other online options available to me, but those were certainly not to occur without a coupon or a gift card. Eventually I called off the hunt and accepted God’s honest truth – in a modern world divided between the physical and the digital, The Ten Commandments were nowhere to be found.

My search for Moses started a few days after a long weekend in Chicago. Many will agree that the bloodiest conflicts tend to revolve around religion; it’s true of world history, and it seems to be true of families. One of the greatest wars in family history involved getting me to Chicago in the glacial month of January to attend a distant relative’s bar mitzvah. Battles were fought on many fronts, and perhaps even a few were won, but in the end my troops forced to retreat, and I found myself in a window seat on United Airlines headed for O’Hare International Airport. Judaism felt like it been a part of my life three or four lifetimes ago, but it got me thinking . . .

My Jewish summer camp in Santa Cruz, CA, was being swallowed up slowly by the earth. As kids we were entertained by the fact that camp was built on a fault line, and the cabin floors were noticeably slanted. Left untouched, a laundry bag resting on the floor could very well end up on the other side of the cabin without any human interaction. Eventually the site was shut down, but not before generations of camp alumni were invited to revisit the grounds and walk around the sections that were not closed off with barricade tape. A five-minute walk from main camp was a beautiful building constructed as a Holocaust Memorial, and fortunately it was safe enough (or so they said) for us to visit. I remember walking up there alone and standing in the main room where I had spent many summer hours being educated on the rituals and customs of Reform Judaism.

The main room of the Holocaust Memorial building was primarily windowed; to the left I could see the trunks of the surrounding trees, and to the right I could see the tops of the trees. Beginnings and ends; young and old; growing and grown; I’m sure its point was drilled into my head at an age when I refused to accept any point made by a superior, but standing there that day looking left and looking right, I felt more spiritual than I have before or since. It was a connection to nature, a connection to my past and future, and a connection to the soul mates I was fortunately to have had in my life. The “camp” parts of camp were priceless, and I wouldn’t trade those days for all the Mae West DVD collections in the world. When it comes to the organized “stand now; sit now, pray now” aspects of Judaism, however, I’m afraid we have long since parted ways. And as it turns out, we were never that close. Spiritually comes in many forms, but for this guy, it never came from a scroll or a prayer book. An equally powerful moment returned years later, when Madonna performed “Like a Prayer” dressed as Joan of Arc, and for those seven minutes, I can guarantee that I was more soul than body. But would you like to know what experience has practically no amount of spirituality whatsoever? That would be Chicago in January.

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At 33 years old, my attention span in synagogue is essentially where was it was when I was a lad, possibly worse. A service that starts with a song is lovely, but to those of us who have seen the political sides of organized religion, we can’t help but snicker at an opening song that is simply a melodic repetition of the word “lie.” I’m sure the song book just leaves off the “e” in the transliteration of the soothing song, “Li, Li, Li.” Later on while the rabbi was jabbering on up there on his stage, I had a good Footloose moment and grinned slyly when I found myself examining my nails. I didn’t go as far as the minister’s daughter in Footloose and break out my nail polish during the sermon, but let’s be honest; we all know it crossed my mind. For two decades rabbis were the adults from Charles M. Schultz’s Peanuts, just an avalanche of incomprehensible noise that only they could understand. This particular rabbi didn’t seem like he wanted to be in the office that day (seriously, this guy should have been holding an “I Hate Mondays” coffee mug), but he did manage to get my attention at one point during the service – he brought up an old movie. Yes, I should have been paying closer attention in synagogue that day. I think my mind was more present when I was in Texas weeks earlier and a friend took me to church so she could take Communion. Now that was fascinating to a former-ish Reform Jew from California.

With Moses holding a gun to my head, I couldn’t map out the exact path that led us to Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments during that bar mitzvah, but there we were: temple movie trivia. The rabbi’s get-their-attention moment of his sermon called out the unresolved debate over who supplied the voice of God in The Ten Commandments. Some list Charlton Heston, while others claim it was DeMille himself who lent voice to the Almighty. Without a film credit (and who needs those, right Mrs. Hitchcock?), we can never know the true voice of God. I would have cast Katharine Hepburn, myself, but that’s just another one of Hollywood’s missed opportunities. I tuned out as quickly as I had tuned in, but for a brief moment there, the rabbi was speaking my language.

In college I was taught that a legend is a traditional tale handed down from earlier times and believed to have an historical basis. My beloved folklore professor, who looked a bit like Cecil B. DeMille, and to me, was the voice of God for three years, assigned a wonderful book that examined the Bible as one would a piece of folklore. And wouldn’t you know it; he turned out to be the author of said masterpiece. Accepting with gratitude any text he handed me and absorbing it as my religion, I powered through Holy Writ as Oral Lit, as it points out folkloristic aspects found in multiple translations of the Bible. I’m fairly certain that following the publication of certain works like these, my professor received death threats . . . God bless Your followers. I remember being at a house party in Orange County with some of those old soul-mate friends from camp around that time, and someone asked me what I was studying at school. When I mentioned the subject of my professor’s book to one young lady, she refused to continue the conversation and walked out of the room. It made about as much as sense to me as the thought of a gun-toting Heston playing the role of Moses. But it’s all just a movie, right? Right? Of course right!

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Academy Award for The Ten Commandments (1957): Best Special Effects

Add The Ten Commandments to your queue.

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While working her way through the novel for the first time, my dear friend advocated strongly to host a little To Kill a Mockingbird evening. She would provide dinner for me and a few others; in exchange I would provide one life’s practically perfect pairings – a bottle of wine and Gregory Peck on DVD. Although I had seen the film years ago but remember enjoying it, my memory of the Finch family wasn’t as sharp as I’d have liked. Regardless of their quality, once again I’m guilty of remembering very little when it comes to the books I was forced to read. Stubborn little bugger, I was.

I was well aware of Mr. Peck’s Academy Award-winning performance of Atticus Finch, every film list’s number-one hero, but when it came to the 1963 Oscar race, I was more familiar with the ladies of 1962. From the Coke versus Pepsi battles on the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? blossomed equally enticing rumors about Joan Crawford’s “Anybody but Bette Davis” Oscar campaign. As a morphine-addicted matriarch withstanding the judgments of her alcoholic husbands and sons, Katharine Hepburn reached unbelievably new highs and lows in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Eventually on Oscar night Anne Bancroft’s name was announced for The Miracle Worker, an award that Miss Crawford graciously accepted on her behalf while those famous Bette Davis eyes threw daggers. While the world celebrated Mr. Peck and Mrs. Bancroft-Brooks, toasting the good-hearted lawyer Atticus Finch and Anne Sullivan, the strong-willed tutor of Helen Keller, the remaining drug addicts and alcoholics on the Oscar ballot gathered together their empty bottles and went home with nothing.

According to a few sources, Gregory Peck did not expect to win for his performance in To Kill a Mockingbird. His money was on his good friend Jack Lemmon for his chillingly stunning performance of an alcoholic in Days of Wine and Roses. Always the shrinking violet, Bette “Baby Jane” Davis expected to be the first woman ever to win three Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role but admitted, “Miss Remick’s performance astonished me, and I thought, if I lose the Oscar, it will be to her.” Lee Remick joined the above women on the list of nominees for Best Actress for her portrayal of Jack Lemmon’s wife; a woman who matches and eventually surpasses her husband’s drinking habits. Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer were awarded golden statues for their song of the same name, but the Days of Wine and Roses couple, who gave two exhausting performances that caused me to reflect on more than I cared to, were forced to drown their Oscar sorrows.

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Do we all have the capacity for alcoholism?  Is there a “potato chip factor” we should factor in during a first round of happy hour cocktails? Along with scrunchies, slap bracelets, and eventually flannel shirts, my Thanksgiving tables were made up of mostly passive drinkers who passed out on the couch after dessert every year. You can only sell that “turkey makes them sleepy” jazz to a kid for so long, but truthfully I was relieved to see some of the more unpleasant members of the extended family settle into unconsciousness. Perhaps they weren’t particularly kind people, but as far as I remember, they weren’t angry drunks. Anger, it seemed, was reserved for the sober; the drinkers just figured out how to get away from it. Watching Lemmon and Remick dive into the roles of two alcoholics who spiral out of control, together and separately, implored me to consider my own youthful days of adulthood when life’s vices were everywhere, our bodies were indestructible, and no one gave a second thought to opening another bottle. Physical and emotional consequences were for old people who had lost some sort of battle with life’s hourglass, a battle we were winning during our days of wine of roses.

Strolling through North Beach with a bottle of Coppola Chardonnay and Gregory Peck in my bag, I made a point to walk by an old theatre where I used to work as an usher. Often I’m able to catch a few old friends between or after shows for a quick hi-there-and-hello hug and a few drinks. I ran into one old buddy that evening and bragged about the fact that I was on my way up the hill for a To Kill a Mockingbird party. His face lit up (at first I wondered if he thought I said “Tequila Mockingbird”), but then he started asking if I remembered “this part” or “that part” of that glorious film. Unfortunately I was running a bit behind schedule and still had three uphill blocks of North Beach to conquer, so I had to leave behind what may have been a wonderful chit-chat. Next time, my friend. Yes, I was on my way up that hill to a dignified, adult dinner party followed by a relaxed viewing of a classic black-and-white film. I continued down the block, and before I started hoofing it up that hill, I had a quick glimpse into my own days of wine and roses and beer and Jägermeister – a blessed little bar next to the theatre was a clubhouse to us all, and yes, there was wine. Lots of wine. And Rose was servin’ it.

When she wasn’t swamped with customers who were crazed with thirst, Rose and I had some pretty gratifying discussions. The two of us had a little five-minute book club that would meet immediately after my shift but before the bar filled up with audience members, cast, and crew from the show. Although we never had the same book on our nightstands at the same time, we were able to catch each other up quickly on what each of us was reading. When Rose was working, magically a glass of Sangiovese would appear on the bar without my ordering it . . . and when I say “glass,” I mean that thing was filled to the brim. If I hadn’t been such a gentleman, I’d have leaned down on the bar and slurped up the first few sips just to keep from spilling. Eventually the bar would fill up with new and old friends, we’d all drink until we fell off our stools and before anyone had time to pass out, we’d hop in cabs and go dancing. It was splendid; it was simple; it was a wonderful year in the toddler years of adulthood . . . and if I hadn’t left when I did, I think I may have died in the bathroom of that bar.

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Days of Wine and Roses is a dark and emotionally draining view into the world of alcoholics, addiction, love, and survival. When Joe Clay (Lemmon) meets Kirsten Arnesen (Remick) at the beginning of Days of Wine and Roses, he’s as boozy as they come, while the only addiction she reveals is one of the chocolate variety. A harmless Brandy Alexander ushers Kirsten into more and more binge drinking with her new husband, and the two begin to create a life free from the perils of sobriety. If that one cocktail could unleash a beast of an alcoholic in Kirsten, is it possible we all go through an alcoholic phase in life, a time when we could all benefit from a Step or Twelve? The dangerous edge of that cliff – Mount Mid-20s, let’s call it – was treacherous, and I was eager to peer(-pressure) over it. When you’re a happy drunk and choose to drink yourself up to that edge, nothing can touch you, nothing can hurt you, and everyone loves you, whether they do or not. Somewhere in my mind, the immortality that I felt I had been promised would allow me to fly if ever I did leap off that blasted edge. But poor Kirsten . . . she hadn’t been promised a thing, and it turns out, neither had I.

Like Dad always says, everything in moderation. I loved my time at the bottom of that hill, and I had a wonderful evening when finally I made it up those three steep San Francisco blocks with Gregory Peck in tow. Last time I checked, Rose was still going strong, pouring generous glasses only to those who deserved them. My days of wine and Rose and roses may not be behind me completely, but they have certainly mellowed out over the years. My edge was at the bottom of that hill, not the top, but today I’m able to look both down and back without regret. Cheers!

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Academy Award for Days of Wine and Roses (1963): Best Music, Original Song

Add Days of Wine and Roses to your queue.