Monday, October 8, 2012

Remembrance of Shows Past....

While housecleaning my files, I came across a folder of programs from past performances, events and exhibitions I’ve taken in over the years. Although I only recently became more methodical about preserving these souvenir programs, I was surprised to see how far back my file went. Being a bit of a pack rat, I obviously had thrown the older items into this file when I first created the folder. I thought it would be fun to reminisce on some of the memories they brought back.

One of the most surprising finds was my discovery of the program shown in the middle of the photo below from the original Broadway run of “Beatlemania,” which I saw in 1977 shortly after it opened (the show ran from 1977-79). I would have been 15 at the time and as a huge Beatles fan (as I still am) who was just too young to have seen them live while they were still together, seeing this show was the next best thing. (Lennon’s murder just three years later in 1980 occurred when I was a college freshman in L.A.). My younger brother and I were taken to the show by our aunt. We saw the show again a year later as a surprise from neighborhood friends--it was the summer before my family moved from New York to the West Coast and during a trip into Manhattan as a last hurrah, we walked by the Winter Garden Theater to reminisce about the show when our friends whipped out the tickets for that day’s performance!

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
One of my most memorable and electrifying theater experiences is, of all things, a UCLA student production of “The Rise and Fall of Arturo Ui.” Written by playwright Bertolt Brecht, the play is a thinly-disguised black comedy depiction of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, re-imagined as a gang war for control of the vegetable produce market in 1930s America, with Hitler portrayed as a ruthless mob thug. I was a UCLA student at the time and was fortunate to be attending when there was quite a confluence of talent there, most notably actor Tim Robbins (whose Actor’s Gang Theatre Grouprelocated to my hometown in Culver City, where I have seen the actor numerous times while attending shows), but many others as well who I continue to see on film, television and stage. This was one of those performances where the power of the production transcended the confines of the stage, aided in large part by a nearly-cartoony stylized but fully formed lead performance of a talented student actor whose name escapes me now (I heard he tragically passed away a few years later of AIDS).

In the photo above you’ll see a program for the show—but it’s for a different production of “Ui.” This production is from 1999, which I made a point of seeing because of my fond memories of the earlier show. This was a much smaller and intimate production, staged by a German theater company, the Berliner Ensemble—and in the original German, though Brecht always had intended it for America. (The show was supertitled and I remember the production using the song, “The Night Chicago Died,” quite a bit.)  Before the theater opened its doors, I spotted actresses Lynn Redgrave and Jane Krasinski in the crowd milling about. As a related piece of performance art, prior to the show, an actor stood on the roof of the two-story theater building reciting from some of Hitler’s speeches in the original German. Kinda chilling.

Richard III
Prior to portraying Gandalf and Dr. Xavier on film, actor Ian McKellan was a respected British stage actor (he still is) who achieved success in Hollywood late in his career.

One of McKellan’s most celebrated stage successes was Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” which I had the fortune to see at UCLA’s Royce Hall Theatre in 1992. For this production, the play featuring one of Shakespeare’s great villains was re-imagined as a 1930s fascist drama, and McKellan was mesmerizing. Though the production was later adapted for film, the movie doesn’t come close to capturing the immediacy and urgency of the stage show. The show might have been better served had the production simply filmed the stage version.

King Lear and A Midsummer’s Night Dream
Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Henry V” made me an instant fan of the actor/director, who came out of nowhere with that film. So when Branagh came to L.A. in 1990 with his theatre company (and then-wife Emma Thompson) to perform “King Lear” and “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” in repertory at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown L.A., my wife and I were determined to score tickets—which we were fortunate to do for both shows. I have to admit my memories of the productions have dimmed with time—I mainly remember the use of real water for the rainstorm in “Lear”! 

The Spencer Tracy Award
After I graduated from UCLA, I worked there for several years. During this time, UCLA established the Spencer Tracy Award, its first recipient being actor William Hurt. I was a fan of Hurt from the very beginning of his career and, if not for the program I found in my files, forgot I had attended the ceremony for the award’s inaugural presentation in 1988. I’m fairly certain I attended next year’s presentation to Jimmy Stewart. Both events included sit-down interviews with the actors. (I don’t think it was for this award, but I recall seeing Gene Kelly at the same venue; I recall him joking that he just had to cross the street to accept the award since UCLA is adjacent to Bel-Air.)

Given UCLA’s location, I was fortunate to see many actors come in to speak and answer questions during noontime programs. At this stage there are more than I can remember, but these include Sean Penn (many of whom in the audience went to high school with him), Christopher Reeve, Joe Piscipo, and others.

I have many wonderful memories of outstanding live theater shows I’ve seen over the years. Among the best not mentioned above are a UCLA student theater production of “Medea." This was a controversial M.F.A. project that re-imagined the ancient Greek story as a star-crossed love story between Jason, an Israeli army officer, and Medea, a Palestinean, with the deux ex machina at the end of the production in the form of a helicopter, which was quite an impressive piece of stagecraft in the show; a production of “Macbeth” with a Mad Max-like production design; “Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” which I saw before the show was revived, re-vamped and expanded into its current popular incarnation; and “Mother Courage and Her Sons,” another Brecht production off-Broadway that I saw while in high school and still living in New York City. This was one of the first stage productions I ever saw, or at least one of the more adventurous ones that showed me the true power of theater when done compellingly and innovatively.

These productions are among the highlights of my life as a theater-goer and are a reminder that there is nothing quite as electrifying as a live theater production that hits on all cylinders.

A few more from my collection:

At right is a souvenir program I believe I inherited from my parents, for the film Camelot. I wonder if it's a collector's item?

By coincidence, I  have this same image hanging on my wall as a poster, from a gallery exhibition of the artist's movie poster work.

The souvenir program at left was from a showing of Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film, Hamlet, in 1996. I don't think I went to any special showing, but it was the week it opened, at a well known L.A. arthouse theater in West Los Angeles, so it may have been leftover from the premiere. I recall seeing Leonard Nimoy at the show! 
At right is the cover to a handsome, glossy program I got at a special showing of the film Grand Prix that I attended at the Academy of Motion Pictures Sciences earlier this year. The film was part of the Academy's annual 70mm festival. I only discovered the film relatively recently and blogged about it here, but it was a delight to see on the big screen. Better yet, several of the film's crew and stunt drivers took part in a Q&A, including actress Eva Marie Saint. (James Garner, too ill to attend, sent a nice message.)

It's nice to know that movie programs like this aren't a lost art!

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