Showing posts with label theatre. Show all posts
Showing posts with label theatre. Show all posts

05 February 2017

How to Vanish a Car


by Leigh Lundin

Previously, David Edgerley Gates mentioned the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge. That brought back memories of the theatre and a sports car. Don’t worry, I can connect the two. I can even tell you how to spirit an automobile out of a closed parking lot.

Brockton Historical Notes
of major importance
  • 1896, Brockton became the first city in the country to abolish railroad grade crossings.
  • 2011, Brockton doubled the city's Santa Claus hat-wearing record.
(source: Wikipedia)
In the 1970s, I lived in the scenic town of Brockton. For those who might not know Eastern Massachusetts, Brockton’s an industrial site south of Boston, having neither the charm nor historical significance of surrounding settlements. Brockton was named after a British Army officer, Isaac Brock, known for ignoring United States sovereignty, kicking Detroit’s ass in the War of 1812, and never setting foot in the village named after him. Naming the hamlet after one of our nation’s enemies was considered a step up since previously the burg had unimaginatively borrowed the name of a neighboring town.

Once known for shoe production, Brockton’s major output has been Brockton Girls.™ As explained to me, Brockton girls are known for their toughness and making roller derby dames tremble and cry like third graders. Seriously. It should be noted that no wussy member of Daesh/ISIS has ever tangled with a Brockton girl and lived to tell about it.
[Brockton letters of complaint should be addressed to Velma@idontcare.com]
This cultural background should give you an idea why I liked visiting Cambridge, Boston, Plymouth, Buzzard’s Bay or pretty much any place other than Brockton.

The Cambridge Culture

After David Edgerley Gates’ article, he and I exchanged notes about the Orson Welles. I asked if he remembered the Exeter Street Theater, my other favorite movie house. David wrote:
Orson Welles Cinema
I started writing movie columns for the Cambridge Phoenix in late 1970, which is when the Orson Welles, WBCN, and the Tea Party were just getting legs. Boston Tea Party was one of the two big clubs that headlined live bands, aside from theatrical venues. It was started by a guy named Ray Riepen from Kansas City, who also began ’BCN and the Phoenix. Ray brought in a guy named Harper Barnes from St. Louis as editor of the Phoenix. and it was Harper who hired me. I was at the Welles a lot over the next three years or so, the theater, the restaurant, and the film school– there was some talk about my doing a course (film appreciation, something along those lines) but we never firmed it up.

I remember the Exeter well. My family took me when I was little because it was basically a high-end art house and by myself later. That's where we saw Olivier’s Richard III.

My neighborhood theater was the University in Harvard Square (later renamed the Harvard Sq.), sometimes the Brattle, and very occasionally the Eliot, which was further up Mass. Ave. past Porter Sq. and the Sears, so North Cambridge and off my turf. I took the subway downtown all the time, probably from the time I was 8 or 9, to the theaters on Washington St. A misspent youth.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

The Orson Welles, the Exeter, and the Brattle were everything the local Cineplex wasn’t. They offered film festivals and celluloid that had withstood the test of time.

My date loved noir and particularly Bogart. If Bogie hadn’t died when she was about seven, Wendy might have arm-wrestled that bitch Bacall for him.

My car at the time was a Saab Sonett III, which looked like a baby Corvette in peculiar green. It was a cute little car. The sobriquet ‘Sonett’ had nothing to do with music but came from the Swedish phrase “Så nätt!” which translates “So neat!”

Saab Sonett III

Despite the fact its roofline came only to my belt buckle, the car easily accommodated my long legs. It attained much better gas mileage than my Land Cruiser and Saab’s front-wheel-drive made for good road-handing. But…

It had frightfully expensive mufflers that rusted out between car washes. With its little Ford V-4 engine, I could buy off-the-shelf Pinto and Mercury Capri parts, but changing the Nº 1 spark plug meant loosening the damned engine mounts. Worst of all, it was a crash magnet. Bostonians are infamously terrible drivers (think citywide dodge’em bumper cars) and they seemed to target the little machine.

The Sonett Saves the Evening

Near the Orson Welles Cinema was a large walled parking lot next to a dry cleaners where I usually parked. This particular evening, we attended a Warner Bros. film festival of World War II propaganda cartoons, Bugs Bunny takes on Hitler, and the like.

The parking lot looked unusually empty, but I didn’t pay particular attention. We strolled to the theatre, enjoyed the show and left around midnight. When we arrived at the parking lot, we were shocked to find a heavy chain across the entrance.

What the hell? Then we saw it: On the back wall hung a sign that said the lot closed when the cleaners closed. After so many years, it seemed selfish to ban visitors from a public lot after hours, but it was their property and perhaps they’d endured problems we didn’t know about.

Damn. I inspected the chain, secured by sturdy bolts. The threads hadn’t been peened down and simple wrenches could have undone them, but I carried no tools in the car. We were nearly an hour away from my house in Brockton and more than an hour from Wendy’s home in Plymouth– 45 miles. A taxi wasn’t feasible. We weren’t even close to a hotel.

We debated options, none of them good. We might have found a pay phone, but we were desperately short of change. No cell phone of course… early mobile phones were just hitting the market, briefcase-size units affordable only to the wealthy.

A fun evening appeared ruined. Worse, we looked forward to a miserable night if we couldn’t find a motel.

And then an idea struck. The back of the Sonett featured kind of a hatchback with a floor covered by heavy carpet. I pulled out the carpet and the floor mats as Wendy climbed in the driver’s seat.

She let in the clutch as I positioned the carpet and mats over the windshield and roof. I raised the chain… it cleared the hood. Wendy eased the car forward. I hefted the heavy steel segments to bypass the wipers. The car inched ahead until the chain met the floor mats covering the upper windscreen. The links tightened. I forced them up.

The car crept onward. The chain, now taut, remained an inch short of clearing the glass; it had maxed out. Still pulling up on it, I put my body weight on the car, cursing the heavy-duty shocks I’d installed.

But as Wendy edged the Sonett ever forward, the swept-back windshield and my muscling the chain up while forcing the car down brought the steel links up to the roofline.

Carefully, ever carefully, its fiberglass top protected by the carpet, Saab slid under the chain. And then…

The worst had passed. We were on the down slope. Now it was a matter of protecting the paint and rear window as the chain slid away.

Whew! We were ebullient, exuberant, joyful to be on our way, but grateful and well aware of our blessed luck and fortunate outcome.

Even so, we would have loved to be flies on the wall (or pigeons on the pavement) when the mean parking lot owners returned and found the vehicle missing. They must have scratched their heads wondering how we spirited that car out of a walled parking lot.

What magic tricks have caught your fancy?

08 July 2014

Friends & Influences


by Stephen Ross

In the late summer of 1988, I spent a week living inside a novel. I was staying with a friend (Albert), who himself was staying with a friend (Victoria), at a dilapidated farmhouse on the edge of a town that didn't seem to have anyone in it or even a name. There was a school house, closed for the summer (or maybe forever), and a general store that had a CLOSED sign in its door (also probably forever). The town was about forty minutes out of Hamilton, in a direction I couldn't tell you.

A long dirt track led up to the farmhouse through fields of corn, and Victoria's landlord, the farmer of said corn, who I never saw, apparently had a limp and only ever came to collect the rent after dark. Apparently, he'd turn up, like a character out of Dickens, clutching a lantern, his raincoat damp with the rain, even if it hadn't rained all week.

I was starting a screenplay (at that time of my life, I had wanted to be a screenwriter). Albert was writing a new play (he was a reasonably successful playwright), and Victoria was learning lines for two different upcoming productions (she was an actress). Victoria and Albert are not their real names. There was also a cat at the farmhouse, whose name I don't remember at all, and for the purposes of this telling, I'll call William Makepeace Thackeray.

Victoria and Albert were both ten years older than me; and Victoria probably a further ten on top of that. If a movie could have been made of that week, I would have cast George Sanders as Albert, Ida Lupino as Victoria, and in the part of "me" that confused-looking bystander who is always the last one to get the point and run when the foot of Godzilla slams down.


A condition of my staying over, as a guest of a guest, was to paint the living room -- in any color I liked. The farmer had left behind some leftover buckets of paint: beige and yellow. I painted the living room in a curious shade of sunshine. The front hallway, by contrast, had been painted (by Albert, a month earlier) entirely in black (walls, ceiling, and floor) and he'd trimmed it with a band of silver foil. It looked like the inside of a packet of cigarettes.

The days of that week were largely made up of writing; rehearsing, in the case of Victoria; and additionally in my case, an hour or two of painting. The evenings were given over to discussion and alcohol. Albert and Victoria were professional drinkers. I was (and still am) a mere amateur at that game. The paint fumes kept us out of the living room, and our nights were confined to the kitchen.

The kitchen was the heart of the house: a bare wood floor, off-white paint peeling off the ceiling, and a blue brick fireplace, which had been bricked up a decade earlier on account of the aged chimney being a fire risk. Irony in blue. Commanding the center of the room stood the kitchen table: a wide, worn, bare wooden artifact that had probably been in the farmhouse since it had been built (circa. 1920). It was the type of table on which you just knew a dead body had been laid out, many farmers' stubby fists had been slammed in anger, and more than one couple had made love. The kitchen was also William Makepeace Thackeray's bedroom.

Dinners were conducted like Pinter plays: non sequitur remarks and sullen pauses. Lots. Of. Pauses. With only the sound in-between of crickets in the twilight through the open window.

By the end of the first bottle, the three of us had largely returned to humanity and the conversation unfailingly moved onto the theatre. Ponderables, such as: What if Hamlet had been a decisive alpha-male? What if Martha and George had actually been happily married and really did have a son? What if Godot had turned up? And of course, memories of productions past (such as the murder mystery where the door jammed at the beginning of act two and the cast had to enter the cozy drawing room in London by coming out of the fireplace). I had my own share of those stories, having worked on and off in amateur and semi-professional theatre since I had been a kid (it was how I had come to know V and A).

On the third drunken night at the kitchen table, we got into a long discussion on narrative, and by about 3 a.m., we had drained six bottles of red and had distilled the discussion down to this: What is the most important thing in a story? Any story -- be it a play, a book, or a movie?

Moments of poetry was Victoria's response (an actor's perspective). And she backed up her claim with empirical evidence. An hour's worth of it.  

Structure was my answer. A couple of years earlier, I had embarked on a very long learning curve of story structure (I'm probably still on it) and structure at that time was foremost in my mind.

Get the hell out of my room was William Makepeace Thackeray's answer.

At around 4 a.m., Albert, who had been hitherto staring drunkenly at the bricks of the fireplace, slammed his fist down on the table. Having gotten our attention, he lit a cigarette (he already had one smoldering in the ashtray). In addition to playwright, Albert was a theatre director and, drunk or not, he knew exactly how to direct his audience.

"Characters," he said. "That's what's it all about. The characters are the only thing the audience or the reader cares about. It's the only thing they're interested in or that matters to them. They might recognize the odd passing moment of poetry, they might be peripherally aware if a plot has a solid structure, but what will stay in their minds long after the curtain closes, the end credits roll, or the book is closed, are the characters."

William Makepeace Thackeray mounted the table, strolled its length with bored indifference, examined a leftover slice of bread, and then dismounted.

Albert continued: "A story is viewed through the filter of its characters; it is only through them an audience experiences that story. It is a vicarious interaction."

I'm paraphrasing him from memory, of course, but the sentiments have long remained in my memory, to be revisited and re-examined at odd intervals. And honestly, it took me 20 years to fully appreciate what he meant. Movie director François Truffaut once said (again a paraphrase, because I don't remember exactly where I read it): What is behind the camera is not important; it's what is in front that is.

I lost contact with Albert and Victoria over the years. Albert was probably the closest I ever got to having a mentor. His knowledge slid off in chunks, and I followed him around for a while picking it up. Friends are curious things. Some stick around, some vanish. You can never tell. A great friend this year a year from now could be a distant memory. It's the friends that leave their mark, that induce changes to your sails and alter the course of your life that you never forget. Sadly, sometimes, they're not even aware they've done it.

Somebody asked Jean-Luc Godard why a character in one of his movies suddenly walks off and never makes a return appearance. He answered: Because life is like that.

Be seeing you!