The moment I walked into the joint, the title song from Hello Dolly! started.
Although I had never been to this bar in West Hollywood, I felt instantly at home, as if I were actually Dolly returning to Harmonia Gardens. Eleven TVs were blasting the iconic scene from the movie, one small TV in a corner played ESPN. I like to think this is where the bar Eleven got its name, eleven TVs dedicated to the advancement and preservation of musical theater, but obviously not since Musical Mondays, as their name would imply, only happens once a week, unlike my favorite establishment in New York, Marie’s Crisis.
There, every night is Musical Monday. There are no TVs at Marie’s, just a piano. I often go with my boss, Jessica, where I spend the night belting show tunes, drinking mostly water, and not worrying about being hit on because almost every man there is gay (and if there’s a straight man at Marie’s Crisis singing show tunes, he can hit on me all he wants). Jessica usually spends the night getting a little drunk and trying to get the pianist to play Mack and Mabel. There’s a break where a waiter solos “Poor Unfortunate Souls” from The Little Mermaid.
It always feels like Christmas there, maybe because it is such a warm and welcoming environment, or maybe because of the permanent garland (remembering Judy?) and Christmas lights wrapped around the wooden planks on the ceiling, like a hunting lodge, but it’s gay and in the West Village. You get the feeling that there’s a fire burning in a fireplace somewhere and marshmallows roasting over it. Saturday nights you hear more known tunes, like Sound of Music or West Side Story, and I’ve even once heard them play Bohemian Rhapsody (“It’s the next logical step” we shrugged to each other, surprised at any diversion from musical theater). On less crowded evenings, it’s anything goes instead of Anything Goes. I once sat around the piano on my birthday with my friend David and sang all five verses of Rodgers and Hart’s Manhattan, one of my all-time favorites, which only about three people out of about six on this Sunday night in September seemed to know.
My flight to Los Angeles on January 3rd had been cancelled due to snow and I was unable to fly out of New York for almost another week. With nothing better to do, I spent the week watching musical movies from the 1960s. Of course, I didn’t say to myself, I think I’ll do nothing this week except watch musical movies from the 1960s, it just sort of happened that way. Hello, Dolly! was among them, a musical close to my heart as I live in New York (though of course, not fake New York as in the movie) and often channel “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” into a nauseating optimism in everyday life. I have a straw boater hat and I’ve danced around the Yonkers train station. I love the red coats the waiters wear, the elaborately choreographed dinner dance, everything; as Irving Berlin wrote, “the costumes, the scenery, the make-up, the props” in Annie Get Your Gun. I love watching Hello, Dolly!, and to a greater extent, most movies from the era, because they made watching movies an experience. Even the way the film looked, color, something we don’t think about much today, Technicolor or some equivalent, is a feast for the eyes, saturated as if someone has turned the color dial all the way up on Photoshop. I like to think that movies from this era had colors so bold because everyone was doing psychedelic drugs and that’s how things look when you’re tripping balls, but this beautiful technique started long before in films like The Wizard of Oz in 1939. It still blows my mind that they made a movie like The Wizard of Oz in 1939. That was really an achievement. I thought the same while watching the original King Kong from 1933 screened at The United Palace on Sunday.
Consider some of the musical movies of the 1960s: West Side Story (1961), The Music Man (1962), Bye Bye Birdie (1963), My Fair Lady (1964), Mary Poppins (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), How to Succeed… (1967), Dr. Dolittle (1967), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), Hello Dolly! (1969), Sweet Charity (1969). Sure, the decade is missing Singin’ in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz, South Pacific, Oklahoma!, An American in Paris, Showboat, and more, but it’s still a nice list.
These movies, along with many non-musicals of the era, looked spectacular and over the top, whereas today movies are made to look realistic. Even Dr. Dolittle, which is by no means the best of the group, features Rex Harrison, bright costumes, and a dance sequence with a double-headed llama. West Side Story, (also featured in the United Palace screening lineup) with darker themes and the realistic backdrop of New York City, in contrast to the happy-go-lucky period pieces of the day, still featured beautiful colors and elaborate dancing. Why should movies be made to look like real life when we have to look at real life every day? I want to see movie posters with poorly photoshopped disembodied heads that promise exciting Technicolor adventures like those of yesteryear. When I watch a movie, I want to see something special. “Movies were movies” as Mack Sennett sings in Mack and Mabel. I want movies to be movies again instead of imitating reality. Until then, I’m sticking to Technicolor or black and white classics.
The other side of the coin is that I work in ye olde moving pictures. I studied TV writing in college at NYU and since my sophomore year, I’ve worked in Production, Costumes, Casting, but mostly in the Art Department. My usual work life consists of helping decorate apartments for fictional people, snorting lactose powder to see if it will be an OK substitute for on-screen cocaine for actors, or calling vendors to buy $5000 worth of taxidermy sharks. Movies and TV are everyday life to me. I can’t turn on a TV without seeing someone I’ve worked with or a friend’s name in the credits. Every moment of supposedly relaxing watching a movie or show is ruined because I’m concentrating on figuring out where they bought all of the furniture or how they did a particular stunt. It’s infuriating. If your day job is working at McDonalds, you probably don’t eat at McDonalds when you want to unwind and forget about work. The musicals of the 1960s were an escape for everyone, as they are for me. They don’t look like real life because the sets are deliberately extravagant and the colors are brighter than usual, and many of them are set in different time periods so the costumes are more interesting than jeans and a t-shirt. The Edwardian Period is probably my favorite era for costumes. I’ve always been a fan of the hats.
The following week at Musical Mondays in LA, I joined a rousing chorus of “Run, Freedom, Run” from Urinetown, surprised that so many people sang this lesser-known number and nobody wanted to sing the medley after it, the two most played songs from Hair, “The Flesh Failures (Let The Sun Shine In)” and “Aquarius”. Then I heard the words I knew in my sleep: “Out there, there’s a world outside of Yonkers. Way out there beyond this hick town, Barnaby.” Is nobody really going to sing this song? Usually they’re on stage literally without missing a beat.
“There’s a slick town, Barnaby!” I belted on stage after heading there from across the bar, still the only person on stage. “Out there, full of shine and full of sparkle…” Now there was a woman kneeling at by feet, Barnaby to my Cornelius. I finished out the opening and waited for Dolly to sing her part.
“You can’t sing that,” Dolly, a tiny thirtysomething man whisper-yelled at me.
“We have set parts for these things!”
“Nobody was singing- it was like ten seconds into it! I didn’t think anyone was doing this number. And this is my favorite song, like, ever.” I was so flustered that I was reduced to teen girl vernacular. Nobody would ever yell at you for singing at Marie’s Crisis, they yell at you for not singing. I rushed back to my friend David, who was at the bar with a few friends.
“David, we have to leave now. This has become an unwelcome environment. I may have just gotten kicked out by some little queen for singing the wrong part in Hello, Dolly! And he’s probably never even been to the Yonkers train station.” The little man, playing Dolly, reappeared.
“Oh, you’re not done yet.” He dragged me back to the stage. “You can be the little girl.”
“Ermengarde? I don’t know her part.”
“You’re the little girl.” That was her name, Ermengarde. I don’t think he even knew her name. I was furious. He pushed me on stage and I watched the screen for my cues. I reluctantly finished the number, forcing a smile as I waved goodbye to the Yonkers Train Station on the eleven TV screens, never to watch or listen to Hello, Dolly! again without feeling a little bit angry.
On the way home from the bar, David and I stopped at Barnes and Noble, where I moved copies of My Fair Lady and The Music Man over the those of The Sound of Music Live! With Carrie Underwood, which unsurprisingly, nobody had purchased.
Often on a dreary winter day, I’ll sit down and watch My Fair Lady, which has long been one of my favorites. My mother introduced me to it sometime before I could walk. One of the reasons my best friend in high school and I became friends was because one of the first things I said to her was that she looked like she had been raised by two old British guys, not knowing that this was also one of her favorite films. But I can’t say I fully appreciated the movie until a few years ago. Any good movie grows better with time; as your experiences grow, the movie hits you on different levels. Such is so with My Fair Lady.
Many have said that My Fair Lady is a near perfect movie. The script, based on Shaw’s Pygmalion, is hilarious, the Lerner and Lowe songs are wonderful (I often skip over Stanley Holloway’s songs when listening to the soundtrack, but they are quite lovely on screen), and the costumes and sets are works of art. I don’t have much to say against it except that it might have been better with Julie Andrews. Audrey Hepburn was a big star at the time of the movie and Julie Andrews was just a Broadway actress. Badass Julie Andrews even thanked Jack Warner in her Golden Globe acceptance speech for not casting her in My Fair Lady because it meant she would not have been in Mary Poppins, for which she won the Golden Globe and later the Oscar. But whenever I watch Audrey’s poorly lip lynched “ho, ho, ho, Henry Higgins” to Marni Nixon’s singing during “Just You Wait, Henry Higgins” I get a little bit sad about what could have been. Julie Andrews is just swell. In my wildest dreams, she would play me in a movie, though that would be difficult since she was born fifty four years before me, and also because she is endearing and wonderful and I am not. She pals around on-screen with some of my favorite musical crushes, Dick Van Dyke, Robert Preston, and Rex Harrison. If I had my way, Julie Andrews would be in every movie.
One of the first things my friend David and I did when I got off the plane in Los Angeles was go to a Mary Poppins sing-a-long at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood. A beautiful space with a giant velvet curtain and a man playing Disney songs on organ before the show, this is how movies are meant to be seen. I had watched it a week earlier in my apartment; all of the ads for Saving Mr. Banks reminded me that I hadn’t seen it since I was a kid. It was a hundred times better than on my laptop screen at home, filled with a theater of mostly adults who clapped when the title appeared on screen and sang every song. I couldn’t have been happier. It’s the kind of movie that makes me proud to say I work in the industry. The crowd clapped as the title appeared on screen, something I’ve only seen at my favorite of movie experiences, like the Harry Potter films at their midnight release in my high school years while wearing my old catholic school uniform and a cape with hundreds of similarly-clad dorky individuals.
I rarely go to the movies these days. It’s not just that theaters tend to be overcrowded and tickets expensive, or that I’m a snob and am too good for today’s films. The main reason is that I don’t have cable or use social networks, so not a lot of movie advertising gets through to me. Occasionally I see a trailer I like, and if I’m lucky I’ll remember to write down the title and Netflix it a year or two later. Watching Mary Poppins made me sad that I couldn’t replicate the same type of high-energy magic back home in New York. Of course, I realized, I could. Not at some screening at The IFC, Landmark Sunshine, or Museum of the Moving Image, but a few blocks from my house. The series is run by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the man behind In The Heights, a Broadway musical not based off a movie, not a revival, not a half-assed plotline stringing together music by a popular singer or band, and not starring some fading TV star in a last-ditch attempt to draw audiences. Not someone contributing to Broadway’s slow morph into Vegas, a place where talent goes to die. Someone who is worthy of respect and admiration, who I wave to in the park when I see him because I’m happy he exists, even though we don’t actually know each other. I think of his show whenever I sit in Jay Hood Wright Park, which contains a view of the George Washington Bridge similar to the backdrop from the production, or sing “Piragua” when I pass the carts on the street. The King Kong screening found Lin-Manuel Miranda in a gorilla suit as a result of his continued commitment to restoring The United Palace to something wonderful.
I don’t own anything that could be considered a gown, but on Sunday I zipped up my favorite new dress and headed downstairs. I ran into my roommate in the lobby.
“Where are you going?” He asked.
“To see King Kong at the United Palace. You know, that beautiful theater on 175th? Want to come with?”
“How much is it?”
“It’s free. And John Landis is introducing it for some reason. Because when I think King Kong, I think John Landis.” I watch Coming to America and Trading Places each about once a month. His explanations of the special effects and making-of trivia about King Kong were perfect.
“There’s no reason for me not to go.”
I had never been to The United Palace for fun, only for work. There have been some great screenings lately, but King Kong was the first one I was actually able to attend. In addition to the recent arts boom, The United Palace is increasingly becoming a venue used by Film and TV productions shooting in New York, and I’d been there twice. My first experience there was on Smash and entailed wrangling the musicians, who were low-maintenance, and we became friendly after spending twelve to fourteen hours together each day for almost a week. One of them later invited me to something I will never forget, to sit in the pit with her as she played cello in Evita on Broadway. One of the highlights of that week also included almost an entire day of watching Jennifer Hudson sing while the stage raised her in the air.
My second experience, working on the first season of a reality contest show, utilized a completely different section of the space, the beautiful staircase and lobby for a challenge in which the modeling contestants had to walk down the stairs in large gowns. The day was a complete disaster. I can remember our new field production manager asking me if I “know walkie talk” (how to use a walkie talkie, something one learns their first day of work in Film and TV, and I was somewhat insulted as I had been working in the industry at that point over four years) and trying my hardest not to laugh in her face as I replied “what’s walkie talk?” and turned and walked away. I think it might have also been the day where our notoriously irascible host left set, leaving the production with no idea where she was and when and if she would return. At the end of that day, the understaffed remainder of the crew struggled to clean up the space hours after our agreed upon hard out time (time the owner of the shooting location expects the film crew to be finished using the location). Our production executive was sweeping the stage, not something that’s usually in a production executive’s job description. A girl named Kelly was supposedly helping me load out. I was bringing coolers outside from the kitchen and draining them while she was cleaning up the tables. There was a table that needed to be broken down and a number of coolers still to be drained and packed in our truck. When I got back to the kitchen, I found Kelly standing over a plate of chocolate chip cookies, shoving them into her mouth.
“So, this is how you’re disposing of the cookies?” I asked. She looked at me like a dog I had just found going through the garbage. In fact, going through the trash might have possibly been something productive, an improvement from just eating cookies.
“I was about to take a cooler outside,” she replied sheepishly.
“Of course you were.” I tossed the plate of cookies in the garbage and ran outside with the last cooler. I smile when I see parking permits lining Broadway around 175th Street because I know that whoever is working there next is in for an adventure to rival the ones they once again show on screen.
I’ve been obsessed with United Palace since I first saw it, with its old school marquee, as instructed, I always smile as I pass. My love for it only intensified when I finally was able to go inside and explore it fully. I drone on about loving over the top movie sets? The lobby of The United Palace makes you feel like you’re inside Amadeus or Anastasia. Something that can’t possibly exist in reality, and especially not on 175th street. It is a breathtaking space. I wish I could just stare at it for days. When the lights go down and the auditorium is filled with silence but for that of the picture on screen, it’s downright magical.
Shoveling popcorn into my mouth, I stared transfixed at the giant primate on screen punching dinosaurs and climbing buildings, certain that the seven hundred or so other members of the audience were feeling exactly the same way. You can watch the special effects in old movies and think they look fake (though I will argue with you until my head falls off that the shark in Jaws is still more terrifying than recent movie monster), but that doesn’t mean they don’t look cool or aren’t fun to watch. Many of the effects in King Kong are stop-motion animation, so they don’t really look real, they look animated. When Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke dance with animated penguins in Mary Poppins, nobody says, “oh man, those penguins look so fake,” because, no shit, they’re animated. And it was deemed an amazing achievement at the time in 1964, and even later in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in 1988 to have live action simultaneous with animation, even though King Kong had combined stop-motion animation and live action in 1933. I prefer to think of the movies of yesteryear as trying to be exciting rather than trying to be real. This is one of the reasons why I can write endless love letters to Mary Poppins. It’s a fantastical universe with made up words, magic, colorful characters, animation, and saturated color. There are plenty of colorful characters in New York City, but while I could hop the fence at the zoo and dance with real penguins (and of course proceed to get arrested), I’ll probably never dance with animated penguins in reality.
I imagine that on the set of Mary Poppins, Julie Andrews tried to teach Dick Van Dyke how to speak in a cockney accent the way Professor Higgins had to teach Eliza Dolittle to speak properly in My Fair Lady, the parts Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews played on Broadway, the movie of which was being filmed at the same time as Mary Poppins. She had so recently had to do this accent on Broadway, but obviously teaching Dick Van Dyke to do it didn’t work out as well. He is still made fun of for his regrettable cockney accent fifty years later.
I like to think that Julie Andrews’ movie musical characters are one continuous immortal person in a series of adventures. It’s possible; they were all set in different times and places. Maybe they’re all some extension of Mary Poppins’ adventuring lesson-teaching persona, though Millie in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Maria in The Sound of Music were a bit too silly for Edwardian London. All of her characters like to sing, like Mary Poppins and Maria who both swoop in and sing to unruly children, Victoria Grant in Victor Victoria, who is an actress who can’t get a job except by impersonating a man impersonating a woman, or Millie, who sings at a Jewish wedding and other parties.
Documentation of this supposed character’s adventures start chronologically with Mary Poppins in Edwardian London, though Mary Poppins came from the unknown and returned there at the end of her story. Suppose she abandons each family in every story. She does her job bringing joy to the Banks family, etc, etc, and then ditches them when the wind changes. The wind carries her all the way to New York where she changes her name to Millie and cuts her hair. It’s the Roaring Twenties and she parties and helps a new gal pal played by Mary Tyler Moore from being forced into prostitution and liberates the captives at a Chinese sex prison. Everyone is happy at the end and she marries an adorable fellow who she finds out is rich. What happens after the movie ends? She’s done her part and saved the day, so she floats away again after the story is over, just like the end of Mary Poppins.
We catch up with her again in Paris in 1934. She’s a struggling singer and she only gets work when she borrows her gay friend’s clothes and they concoct a scheme to make them both successful by passing her off as a dude, then a rich club owner with mob ties falls in love with her. Sure, she’s helped out her pal Toddy a bit, but it’s not enough public service for her. She’s not warming any hearts, so she runs away to Austria and tries to be a nun, but is instead sent to be governess to a captain and seven children, what’s so fearsome about that? She even brought her carper bag with her from her days as Mary Poppins, though her fashion sense is somewhat more dowdy. She and the captain fall in love and she saves the family from sadness and Nazis and they disappear into the Alps and presumably live happily ever after, even though it’s just the beginning of the war and they’re homeless. What if Captain Von Trapp and the children got captured by the Nazis after the end of The Sound of Music? Maybe Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds found them? Maria, who knows her way around the hills probably got away and fled to another movie.
As I watch movies taking place in other eras, I like to imagine this roaming Julie Andrews character somewhere in the background in another adventure, like Belle from Beauty in the Beast as an extra in Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. Maybe Fictional Badass Julie Andrews was at one of Mame’s parties during her time in New York in the 20s, donning a Pink Ladies jacket in the 1950s in Grease, in the Tribe in Hair or teaching at a school in Baltimore in Hairspray in the 60s, or gender bending again at Dr. Frank N. Futer’s party in 1974 in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Hoping to exist in Technicolor rather than reality, I channel the elaborate world of adventure and color found in musical movies into my everyday life. On one side of my room, a collection of original one sheets from my favorite films. My love for saturated colors stops here; the colors on many of the posters are so oversaturated as to be inaccurate and look like sketchy Japanese copies even though they’re real. For instance, in The Sound of Music, Maria wore a nasty grey-brown colored dress (which is joked about on several occasions in the movies), not a pink one like in the poster! And the play clothes the children wear in the poster are yellow instead of green and cream. A non-nerd might not notice these, except that if you like the movie enough to buy and frame an original poster, you know that both clothing items are quasi-plot points in the movie.
I was speaking at a friend’s high school film class when one student asked the question, what do you want to do? When I grow up, even though I’m technically a working, functioning adult member of society and have been for years, when asked what I want to do with my life, I always reply that I want to be Mary Poppins and the Modern Major General from Pirates of Penzance. I do not think the class expected to be serenaded with this catchy patter song from 1879.
On the other side of my room is a wall dedicated to my own adventures, creations, and former jobs. They stare at each other always, in inspiration, in disappointment. To an observer, it would look like I’m proud of my work enough to hang constant reminders of it above my desk when it is almost the opposite. Would Julie Andrews approve of the year after college where I worked almost entirely on reality shows? Certainly not, and neither do I. The pictures which ignite regret and resentment in me are more important than those of which I am actually proud. Leftover from a college internship at 30 Rock, a sign above my door reads “Nothing but excellence today for your family, your country, and Tina Fey.” The pictures recalling what may not have been excellence say, Do it twenty percent cooler next time. I channel fictional Julie Andrews characters into everything I do. I’m sure that real fictional Julie Andrews exists somewhere, but until I meet her while she’s being kicked out of an abbey for singing when she shouldn’t, she lives in me, being kicked out gay bars for singing the wrong part in Hello, Dolly! in West Hollywood or working in the movies in New York City.