In the snows of yesteryear, far away from “don’t ask, don’t tell” or START treaties or the War on Christmas, I see the movie house of my youth, the Playhouse Theater on Chapin Street, the only one in my small hometown – except for a nearby drive-in that closed during the winter.
In the colder months, we’d get a short ride downtown to the Playhouse or crunch along the shoveled sidewalks, stepping over or through the deeper drifts, watching out for patches of ice. Sometimes during semester breaks in high school, I’d go to a double feature and, after it was over, walk down an icy, silent Main Street late in the night to where my father was closing his store and preparing to drive home.
I’ve written of the Playhouse before; its history of vaudeville and minstrel shows, the smell of antique popcorn, the black velvet darkness inside while the movies ran, the theater illuminated only by the projector’s beam and the soft, neon light of a clock hanging to the right of the screen, courtesy of a local jeweler.
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Because it was the only show in town, we saw some first-run films, but mostly caught up with the big movies after they had played in the cities – if you wanted to be the first on your block, you had to travel to Rochester to see “The Longest Day” or “Mary Poppins”; it would be months before they came around to our theater.
But holding the town’s movie monopoly had its bizarre advantages: unusual double features like “The Three Stooges in Orbit” – and “Gigi.” And because this was a small town, where everyone knew everyone else’s business and the official motto could have been in loco parentis; if the mob of kids at a Saturday matinee got too unruly, the manager would simply stop the movie, walk out on stage and threaten to call our mothers and fathers. I remember this failing only once: at a screening of a Disney movie called “Tonka,” the story of a wild horse tamed by a young Sioux brave named White Bull. Sal Mineo was hopelessly miscast as White Bull – who could blame us for going on the warpath?
One of the very first films I saw at the Playhouse was “White Christmas.” I have little memory of that initial viewing – there was a jeep in it, right? – but as the years go by I’ve grown to love its music and cozy holiday sentiment, not to mention the impossible legs of actress-dancer Vera-Ellen.
I went to see it with my mother that first time. She was a bigger movie fan than my father, and her eye was critical in more ways than one. Once, the Playhouse’s main attraction was accompanied by a short, French comedy film, much in the style of “The Red Balloon,” that classic story of a balloon that silently follows a little boy through the streets of Paris. Only, in this film, the balloon had been replaced by a soccer ball that bounced through the street of Paris.
At one point, the ball bounced through a doctor’s office. A woman in a hospital gown was lying face down on the examining table, her bare buttocks briefly exposed. My appalled mother went to the manager and had the offending three seconds snipped from the film.
Years later, we laughed about it and agreed that times were different then. And, yet, they aren’t, of course. Witness the current flap in Washington over the inclusion of an excerpt from a video by the artist and filmmaker David Wojnarowicz in a show at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery. Made in 1987 and titled “A Fire in My Belly,” the video is a poignant, fierce message of grief and anger arising from the news that Wojnarowicz’s mentor and former lover Peter Hujar was dying of AIDS.
Eleven seconds of the piece depict a crucifix over which ants crawl, a metaphor evoking, as New York Times columnist Frank Rich described it, “frantic souls scurrying in panic as a seemingly impassive God looked on.”
Outrage was expressed by William Donohue of the Catholic League, a right-wing lay organization with no official ties to the Church that seems to exist primarily as a vehicle for Donohue, propelled by his own hot air. The drumbeat was then picked up by conservative Republicans, including the incoming majority leader, Eric Cantor, who threatened the Smithsonian’s funding and described the video as “an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.” Speaker-elect John Boehner made similar threats. The Smithsonian caved instantly, and removed the offending video.
Now, first of all, the video was just part of a fascinating exhibit called “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” The whole thing opened on October 30, the day before Halloween, a month before the right discovered it, so if anyone is inclined toward taking offense maybe it should have been Wiccans, other pagans, assorted Satanists and trick-or-treaters.
I know this because, unlike I would guess virtually every one of its holier-than-thou critics, I have actually seen the exhibit. On October 30, in fact, because its opening coincided with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.” Taking a break from the masses filling the capital’s mall, my girlfriend Pat and I sought sanctuary in the National Portrait Gallery and checked out “Hide/Seek.”
In the interest of full disclosure, I used to write a television series for the Smithsonian; the National Portrait Gallery is one of my favorites of all its museums. And Pat was friends with Wojnarowicz, the artist in question, who himself was killed by AIDS in 1992.
“Hide/Seek,” according to the gallery’s web site, “considers such themes as the role of sexual difference in depicting modern America; how artists explored the fluidity of sexuality and gender; how major themes in modern art – especially abstraction – were influenced by social marginalization; and how art reflected society’s evolving and changing attitudes toward sexuality, desire, and romantic attachment.” Art talk, which translated means that the show not only demonstrates the major contributions of gay men and women to contemporary American art, but just as important, how their work was affected by years of suppression and finally, liberation.
The Wojnarowicz video was just a tiny part of the overall exhibition – which flows from Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent to Jasper Johns, David Hockney and Andy Warhol – so small that Pat had to point it out to me. I hadn’t noticed it among all the other works. But no matter. The Smithsonian was created in 1846, its purpose “the increase and diffusion of knowledge,” yet, once again. it has allowed its intellectual spark to be snuffed by know-nothings and dunderheads. Such cowardice relegates the institution to the role the Smithsonian professes to hate – “the nation’s attic,” the place where we throw history’s knickknacks, toys and worn-out ephemera, unguided by curiosity or unimpeded scholarship.
God knows, Christianity will carry on, despite this minuscule, alleged affront. To paraphrase Jon Stewart, if Christmas can survive the Roman Empire; it can certainly survive this. If it can’t, we’re in worse shape than I thought, and I’d just as soon run back to my hometown and lose myself in the comforting darkness of the Playhouse Theater. Too bad the bastards tore it down.