Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Movie House

Neighborhood movie theaters. They once were the hallmark of Chicago's landscape. Now they can be found only few and far between. Among those which remain, it is rare for them to serve the original purpose. Instead of feature films, they are art picture houses, or show second run flicks. Some are subdivided to offer more than one movie in what was once a grand old space. And, of course, there are those which sit silently awaiting their future, empty of the patrons who once filled entrance corridors galliant and auditoriums of sparkle. Not to mention the many lost entirely or now used for businesses not of first intent.

The story of the Portage Theater is little different than the rest. A neighborhood theater at the center of what was once a thriving business distrcit called "Six Corners", it was like the others in popularity until multiplexes came around. Then the home video followed. Soon it was subdivided. At least this one lasted. Into the late 90s, the Portage stayed open showing films, but then it shuttered. After going through some troubled times and an uncertain future, it recently received rebirth. Last year the showplace reopened restored to glory. Once again, its auditorium is full, its stage renovated now for theatrical presentations, too. Its lobby very nice. Though, its restrooms could use some expansion; but hey perhaps this is part of the retro experience, too.

The Portage is facilitating many mixed used these days. From concerts, to theater, to filmatic offerings. Presently, it has Friday night silent movie shows as part of an annual summer festival. These servings do quite well, filling the large theater with an enthusiastic audience. So out I ventured to join them.

Approaching an institute like this is an experience. From a half mile away the marquee awakens, stirs anticipation and excitement of the coming event. You step off the bus or turn the corner from your parking spot and stare up in awe.

Such buildings are testaments to the importance of beauty, community, lasting memory, and a worthy offering of art. At last, you arrive under the canopy: bright lights, big city.

Tickets tonight: twelve dollars. (Ten if you reserved in advance.)

Then through the doors, where you ticket is torn. Stub in hand I enter.

An atrium opens up a world of old, anew. A grand space for great gathering.

Past the information table, a brief stop to see what some are selling in this hall. A quick look see at an old movie camera and a display of song sheets from the era long ago.

Soda, hot dog. Not tonight, thank you, but oh what a counter they have! (Popcorn always smells so much better in a genuine, old theater, too!)

Then into the doors to join the full house. Our show is starting as I speak.

Actually, it's a prequel to the film. Some organ selections by Jay Warren. It is so nice to hear live music. Soothing, interesting, fascinating even. His accompaniment to this evening's work is made all the more entertaining because of special sound effects which it's plot enable.

But, wait, there's more. You really do get your money's worth at these festival films. They add in all kinds of extras. Tonight's short was a nice piece from the Pat Sajack Show in 1989. In it, Pat and his sidekick did a takeoff on going golfing as a silent piece. It was accompanied on organ by his show guest, an organist (whose name escapes me, sorry) appearing on the show that night. Fun stuff!

Then we got to hear a songstress, Qia Janae join Jay is a special singing of the rarely heard tune from the main bill. It's title, "When You Are Mine." A cute and fitting ditty which I enjoyed.

But, then, the reason for my coming began. A showing of silent star Harold Lloyd's work Welcome Danger. In it, Harold (as eccentric botanist Harold Bledsoe) stumbles across the love of his life: a young lady name Billie. (We were also treated to another lost gem of a melody about her character later on in the film). Lloyd is an all too straight, but clever, clownish character who somehow manages to get things right despite himself. His fascination with fingerprints gets him into a lot of trouble when he's brought to work for the San Francisco Police Department, of which Bledsoe's father was a famous cop. But his comedic brilliance shows though and through in every which way and sense.

Lloyd converted this film to a talkie, and this shows in the takes. But it seems to offer us much more as a silent with timing impeccable for the set up and falls. Conversation, it appears, would have added a bit too much to these scenes. Less is more is a lesson which many ought to learn, after all.

The two hour piece moves along fast, with extended scenes and sections which contain the comedy into workable segments. Who says that silent films have to be short in order to be effective? Lloyd here proves that an extensive plot can, indeed, be interesting and in no way boring. And, everything, of course comes together artistically and in story.

Fascinating, of note, is how some of the things which were culturally acceptable at the time would never pass muster today. The entire concept of the Chinese drug syndicate which plays such an important role gives place for some stereotyping and jokes which would never be employed in contemporary times. Yet in this context, it worked. Of course, "The Dragon" who leads this underworld dealing isn't necessarily who you would expect it to be and we want to see this strange character receive his come uppance as loyal Harold gives chase.

Attending an event at the Portage is always a wonderful evening out.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The People's Sword in the Stone

Before it's run ends, I wanted to offer some comments on The People's Sword in the Stone. Put on by Quest Theater Ensemble, the traditional story receives a new production at the company's home base, St. Gregory the Great: a Catholic parish which has a strong relationship with the artistic community in Chicago.

Quest is a collective of local theater types who offer free performances (donations are accepted) to the community. Taking on intriguing works and giving them new twists is their forte. One of the most notable aspects of their offerings is the regular inclusion of puppetry. This creates another level of interplay and brings something interesting to reach out to audiences of all ages.

This rendition of Sword in the Stone has here a new book (by director Andy Park) and score (of Scott C. Lamps, musical director) which makes it one of the best shows from Quest which I have seen. Dealing with some serious matters of mores, strong wills, and life's consequences in a still fun, fantasaic style the piece takes us through the dramatic story line in a light spirited manner. Indeed, it is a hallmark of their group's works to often take up issues which are deep and "grown up", but in a way which is accessible and entertaining even to children in a simple way. It is refreshing to find shows which have such broad appeal.

Vincent L. Lonegran as Merlin does an excellent job weaving his magic in a believable way. Jason Bowen (managing director of Quest) plays a comic Sir Ector. The best acting was from Scott J. Sumerak as Arthur. He also has an excellent singing voice, though the extended range of his part called for more than he seemed comfortable with handling. And yet the musical writing was well enough overall for me to want to recall it by purchasing a cast recording.

Their production runs through Aug. 19 at the Blue Theater, 1609 W. Gregory.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

A Gala Evening

Up to Ravinia Saturday night. It was the Gala Benefit Evening. Which means two things: top quality performances and lots of rich people.

I arrived in time for the procession of the tuxedoed elites. It's the walk from dinner tent to music pavilion which those who are there for the Gala event must make for the concert, itself. It takes them at least twenty minutes and is accompanied by baroque trumpeting on the sound system.

I watched them pass while snatching my place to stand at the back of the seating area. So much money here then gone. (Not one even offered me a dime, let alone work. Perhaps if I had held up a cardboard sign.) At least they got to their seats relatively on schedule, meaning we didn't have to wait much. In the past this has been a problem. One would think that the town's high society would have enough sense to actually sit down and shut up while we peons observe their impoliteness. But then, the "real lovers of music", perhaps are better cultured in manners and such than this crowd of North Shore types.

The dinner tent, itself, was magnificent. Glowing from the back of the park's lawn, it was white with sidewalls curtained to allows a peak inside. Burnt umber drapes shone under lighting all the way across the park. Crystal centerpieces glimmered fantastic. And tables clothed deep in green. I wish I had a picture, but with the rain, I wisely left the camera home.

The meal looked marvelous. Check out the offerings!

One wonders how much it all cost. (It is reported that the event raised 1.7 million.)

Then the baton fell. The National Anthem was sung, led onstage by two Ravinia bigwigs. They jokingly dubbed themselves "The Two Tenors". Thank you, thank you, oh and thank YOU. Now, that those appreciations are out of the way, I'd just like to offer MY gratitude to the Women's Board for bringing together this night "which we will not soon forget."

Hearing Placido Domingo in recital is an opportunity which one does not often have. Which made springing fifty bucks for a mere lawn admission well worthwhile. As a special treat, a big video screen was set up to enable those on the lawn to watch. It is an idea which Ravinia ought to consider employing more often, say, when there is a particularly special event onstage or performance piece worth seeing and not just hearing. But I didn't get to see him on "TV". Instead, I found my oft park perch behind the pavilion. It's canopy kept me nicely dry on this rainy night. The hearty lawn crowd proved a delightful panoply with their colorful umbrellas decorating the field as one looked back upon the scene.

It takes some time to accustom oneself to the sound of opera over amplification. I found myself ducking in, tilting my ear in any way which might give me a more clean sound scape. Ah, and the crickets like to sing along, of course! Indeed, Placido's first number was slightly difficult to listen to and seemed a bit overbearing. But this was straightened out soon enough for his reappearance thereafter. The wonderful thing about this most astounding of vocalists is his ability to offer warmth, depth, yet cleanness of vocal lyricism. Nothing overdone. Full yet lovely. Just genuine, believable. Indeed, I would readily take him over any other opera star out there today. Perhaps best yet were the duets where he paired with Ana Maria Martinez. The sheer drama inherent to the works combined with these voices lifted the experience to another level.

Martinez, indeed, acquitted herself well. With strong, bold voice that can also lilt in places she paced through several pieces both as soloist and alongside Placido. One of the most impressive moments was their take on Bernstein's "Tonight" from West Side Story. Martinez sang the English cleanly while Domingo added an interesting element with his wonderful accent. Ravenous applause began on the lawn and worked it's way up to the stage at it's end.

And, of course, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra sounded superb under it's summer director, James Conlon. I especially enjoyed their offering of Korngold's Prelude, Serenade and Intermezzo from Der Schneeman ("The Snowman").

An extended series of encores followed and included Domingo and Martinez engaged in dancing to a final waltz from "The Merry Widow".

The overall selections for a concert like this were impressive for their wide range. Not only were several languages and operatic styles involved, but they avoided the mere collection of all too predictable standards which sometimes take over such gala events to offer something more eclectic and of overarching appeal. Included were, certainly, well known gems, but also the offbeat and lesser performed. Below is the program list:

After the concert I had the chance to stand humbly united amidst the men of means, proving that we all are equal at the urinal. Back for drinks they then proceeded. And I to the awaiting rail car which would bring me happily home.