We went to the Orpheum on Broadway a week ago tonight for the first of four gala Wednesday nights in downtown theaters.
They showed a silent newsreel, a Harold Lloyd short, Walt Disney's first cartoon and a Buster Keaton feature, and Gaylord Carter played the Wurlitzer.
It was glorious.
The series is called "The Last Remaining Seats," and it is sponsored by the Los Angeles Conservancy in its campaign to save the palatial downtown theaters from destruction.
I was probably in the Orpheum the last time 50 years ago. I used to frequent the theaters on Broadway when I was in high school. Most of them ran double features and some triple, for 25 cents. I sometimes saw five features in one day. The Orpheum had vaudeville in those days, and I saw many acrobats, ventriloquists and dog acts on that enormous stage.
Inside, the theater hasn't changed. Even the walls of the lobby are marble, and the auditorium itself seems to bloom upward with its fantastic French baroque walls, ceilings and chandeliers. The seats under the enormous balcony are lighted by rose lights like those in the facades of cathedrals.
It has been said that the great theaters of that era were designed to give patrons a sense of luxury that their lives did not offer. I don't remember that I ever thought of them as being mine, but I do remember coming out of the hot daylight and being swallowed up in their architectural glories, of being transported into a dream world far from the realities of the Great Depression; for three hours I was enchanted.
The show began with an International Newsreel made in 1926. Except for shots of floods in England it had no hard news. It was unrelentingly frivolous, featuring an English bull with 19 pups; college boys on horseback fighting over a huge rubber ball in the mud; the New York City Christmas parade; a race by Parisian porters on their bicycles; the opening of the Agua Caliente horse racing season. Even the footage of Mussolini, looking young, brash and hungry in his top hat at the dedication of King Victor Emmanuel's monument, did not seem ominous, and the shots of new British tanks in field tests were made for laughs.
It was indeed the era of wonderful nonsense.
The Disney cartoon, said to be his first, showed the impudent humor and technical ingenuity that was soon to make Disney the world's leading showman.
Gaylord Carter, the organist, appeared in a spotlight at the console down in front. Like the organ itself, Carter is a national treasure and ought to be designated a historical monument. I had heard him play in one of the theaters when we were both young.
He played "Hooray for Hollywood," the score of "Wings," the Laurel and Hardy theme song, "You Oughta Be in Pictures," and other old timers, and he must have been gratified by the applause from young and old. Except for some seats along the aisle on either side, it was a full house.
The Harold Lloyd short was one of the first he ever made, and it showed his genius. Wrapping up all the cliches of the early Western in a few minutes, Lloyd rides into town, subdues the villain and lives happily ever after with the girl, who is none other than Bebe Daniels.
In the feature "Steamboat Bill Jr.," Buster Keaton proves that good comedy never grows old. I expected to make some allowances for the film, because of its age, but I was astonished to find myself thoroughly engaged, and laughing out loud, along with 2,000 others.
The story was simple. Buster's father, Steamboat Bill, owns a run-down river steamboat that is being squeezed out by the town's rich man, who owns the bank, the newspaper and his own steamboat. Junior comes home from college in his Joe College threads and is scorned by his macho father. Junior and the rich man's daughter fall in love. Both parents forbid their romance. Take it from there.
In one marvelous sequence a tornado wrecks the little river town, collapsing buildings, blowing people away and pushing a car up the street by its top like a sailboat. As Carter commented, "The movies have never made a better tornado since."
I might have suspected that my delight was pure nostalgia, but many in the audience were young, and when Keaton triumphed in the end, they cheered.
In these days of stunt men and special effects, it is revealing to remember that Lloyd and Keaton both did their own stunts. Keaton's athleticism is almost beyond belief; and it is a measure of his genius that he created such empathy with a face that never changed expressions.
It is revealing also to be reminded how much can be conveyed without the spoken word. The titles are few and brief. The organ becomes an integral part of the film, now tender, now tremulous, now rumbling, now breezy, now ominous, now thunderous, now sad, now triumphant--every mood conveyed by its thousands of voices.
Three more shows in the series will be held on successive Wednesday nights, beginning tonight at the Palace, 630 S. Broadway, with a vaudeville extravaganza, and followed by shows at the United Artists, 933 S. Broadway, and the Los Angeles, 615 S. Broadway. Curtain at 8 p.m., tickets at the door $12; or by mail, the Los Angeles Conservancy, 849 S. Broadway, Suite M-22, Los Angeles 90014, $10.
Take Sam Goldwyn's advice: "Don't miss it if you can."