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Socal P.O.V. / Patt Morrison

Acolyte of a Vanishing Art Formby

September 07, 1997|PATT MORRISON

In a perpetually dim hollywood duplex, on a sweaty day more or less cooled by a slow electric fan and the wagging tails of two panting dogs, I shook the hand of Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

Now, there are other places in Hollywood where making contact with a man dead these 180 years would entail some credulo-mystic plunge into channeling and past lives. This, though, was real, the unbroken human chain of memory and the custody of memory.

Sheridan, the Irish playwright of "The School for Scandal" and "The Rivals," met, before he died in 1816, a young English actress in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and shook her hand. She grew up, came to New York City and, as an elderly actress, met Blanche Ring, the Madonna and Ingrid Bergman of the Broadway musical stage at the turn of the century. In her 80s, Blanche Ring had shaken the hand of my host in this Hollywood duplex, Miles Kreuger, telling him as she did so that he was now only a couple of handshakes removed from the great Sheridan. Then Kreuger shook my hand and added me to the deathless chain.

Years ago, at the moment I touched Chaucer's tomb in Westminster Abbey, his name clanged in my head like a fire alarm, Chaucer, Chaucer, Chaucer, this is Chaucer, and I swear I felt a crackle and spark.

Tinker to Evers to Chance, big deal. Sheridan to Ring to Kreuger--there's magical realism.

Miles Kreuger lives in 16 crammed rooms with George and Ira, Flo and Gertie, Oscar and Richard, in a still-life reality more to his liking than any other age. But even if you already have an inkling of the nature of his mania, Kreuger, the muse of musical comedy, takes some explaining. He is a Hetty Green, the Witch of Wall Street, protecting his treasures of paper and wax and vinyl and celluloid against the indifferent, greedy world--a minor saint, an acolyte of a vanishing art form, the American musical. And if you know nothing whatever about the American musical theater--if you don't know that before radio, TV and movies, before people said "thea-tah" with snot and spleen in their voices, that Broadway was the glamorous music box of the nation--Krueger will happily enlighten you.

Being a monomaniac, he can be something of a pain in the butt. Imagine trying to talk about the Roman aqueduct system with John the Baptist. So it is with Kreuger: You could start talking about the Pathfinder mission or low-sodium dog food, and always the subject comes back around to some show, composer or song. This is good. The distracted and the light-minded do not accomplish what Kreuger has, accumulating out of his own head and his own pockets the entire archives of the American musical, both stage and film.

Buff is an insult, a frivolous term; Kreuger, 63, is scholar, curator, expert, tonsured monk of the order of St. Lerner and St. Lowe.

This was understood in New York, whence he came here in 1977. An Edward Sorel drawing from the Village Voice shows a hysterical Kreuger being restrained as flames chew up a collection that has since grown from amusing to irreplaceable--"Oh my God, my Alice Faye 78s! My autographed photo of Mary Astor! Oh God! Oh God! My Atwater Kent!"

Now he lives in Hollywood, where fire and quake are not funny, and he is a couple decades older and no nearer, it seems, to being the prophet with honor in his own adopted land.

Fred and Ginger, Judy and Gene aside--a large aside bon mots, for musicals were once the movies' bread and butter--Hollywood memory is as shallow as a can of film, and the cinema keeps reproducing fainter and fainter versions of itself.

Yet, Kreuger's nonprofit Institute of the American Musical, in its 25th year, is right in Hollywood, where Rocky Balboa's shorts sell for the price of a subcompact car but the archives of the American musical has $750 to its name. It is a gesture as bold and as foolhardy as putting the Vatican in Beijing's Forbidden City.

Sometimes he speaks in Cole Porter, as when he says he is a man of the '90s--the 1890s. The people he really knew--Porter, Faulkner, Griffith, Gordon Craig, Mamoulian, Agnes de Mille, Bunuel--are several handshakes closer than Richard Brinsley Sheridan and at least as real to him as the passersby on the street out front.

Kreuger fears he is sitting shiva on the American musical, but as the literate men of the Dark Ages hopefully kept their arcana, he keeps his: a century and a half of scores, settings, playbills, postcards, more still photos than anyone but the Academy of Motion Pictures itself.

The British, who treat him like a household god, would love to have his collection. The Library of Congress has come wooing, calling him and this place "a national treasure." Yet Kreuger wants it here, orderly and organized, close at hand for scholars and students who will some day, one day, he is convinced, want to know these lost arts and perhaps bring them back.

The charm of the stage is also the death of it, its butterfly evanescence. The horror of today, to Kreuger's way of thinking, is that in their combined lives and careers, Edwin Booth and Ellen Terry and Sarah Bernhardt, reborn every night onstage, full-blooded and vivid, never had as big an audience as this week's rerun episode of "Baywatch."

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