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A Man and His Muse

Dance and fitness teacher Ken Anderson has discovered he's part of a secret society of devoted 'Xanadu' fans--confirmed by a sold-out sing-along

July 23, 2002|REED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The muse first kissed Ken Anderson 22 years ago--not a chaste little peck, either, but a big, wet Frenchy, you might say. It took place at a midnight movie screening just a few weeks after the Berkeley native had moved to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a Hollywood filmmaker. From then on, Anderson's life would never be the same.

Because there on screen, playing a modern-day Greek muse named Kira, was pop chanteuse Olivia Newton-John in all her big-haired, '80s-style Olivia glory. Alas, it was a role that practically throttled the Aussie diva's budding film career and ushered in a period of personal and professional upheaval--though she did meet her future (and now ex) husband, Matt Lattanzi, on the set.

The movie, of course, was "Xanadu," arguably the best musical comedy ever made about supernatural love and roller-skating. A meringue-light, proto-New Age remake of "Down to Earth" (1947), it was shot in and around a very fetching-looking Los Angeles and boasted dippy dialogue, sizzling dance sequences and an insanely catchy disco-boogie score by Electric Light Orchestra and John Farrar, Newton-John's longtime producer.

"In the early '80s they didn't kick you out after one screening, so every time I saw it I went multiple times," Anderson was recalling the other day.

Most critics pummeled the corny, innocuous little film, which opened on Aug. 8, 1980. Film critic/historian Leonard Maltin's verdict was typical. The movie, he wrote, was "designed as a showcase for the singer, but the only thing it showcases is her total lack of screen charisma."

But in the years to come, the campy flick with the thumping backbeat would transform the lives of scores of "Xanadudes" and "Xanadames," creating an underground cult of "Museheads." Gradually, Anderson has discovered that he's part of a secret society, whose strength was confirmed by last Thursday night's sold-out "Xanadu Sing-Along" at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre in Hollywood, part of Outfest 2002, the annual L.A. gay and lesbian film festival.

"It wasn't a good movie, by a long shot, even then I knew that," Anderson said. "In retrospect I can't even figure out what it was, but it had this huge, transcendent effect on me."

To put it almost mildly. Today Anderson, 44, is still living his own private "Xanadu" dream after being inspired by the movie's dynamic choreography to chuck film school in favor of a career as a Santa Monica dance and fitness instructor. He even drives a silver sports car with a "Zanadu" vanity license plate (some unknown soul had already claimed "Xanadu"). He has seen the film scads of times over the years, owns the DVD and video versions, wears tank tops with the "Xanadu" logo during his workout classes and can expound in minute detail on the film's socio-cultural signifiers.

"I remember there was this feeling that the '80s were going to be very different from the '70s," he said, "and the movie had the feeling that there were going to be all these different races and generations and musics mixing together, and that it was going to be something different. And now it seems very naive, but there really was something euphoric about it."

The muse appears. The muse goes away.

Perhaps it takes a special kind of person to see utopian idealism in a movie set in a roller-skating palace. Still, "Xanadu" does have a philosophical streak. What else would you expect from a film about a Greek demi-goddess who springs to life from a Venice Beach mural and inspires a frustrated commercial painter, Sonny Malone, played to somnambulant perfection by Michael Beck, to hold fast to his dreams?

"Xanadu's" other star, the late tap-dancing matinee idol Gene Kelly, brings a debonair cross-generational touch to the role of Danny McGuire, a former big band musician, who long ago sold out his dream and became a construction magnate, but yearns for one last shot at running a jazz club.

Given the iconic casting and over-the-top plot, it was all but inevitable that "Xanadu" would be embraced as a gay cultural touchstone, a camp classic beloved for its visual sensuality, inadvertent double-entendres and aura of sincere sweetness. Even its director, Robert Greenwald, who went on to helm "The Burning Bed," has trouble comprehending how the phenomenon took off.

"I knew that there was a huge following among young teenage girls because I've gotten letters over the years," he said. "To be a little bit elliptical, it was a time in my own life when retreating into a fantasy world was a highly desirable and necessary thing for me."

Shannon Kelley, programming director for Outfest 2002, remembers seeing "Xanadu" "with a couple other nerd friends" at a mall in his hometown of Gallup, N.M. "I wasn't immediately won over. I went to see it for Gene Kelly, that's how gay I was. I didn't think they respected the legacy of Gene Kelly."

Now he's a total convert. "The things that it's most innocent about are the things that are easiest to love," Kelley said. "It's a mess of a movie, but it's our mess."

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