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Thursday, March 20, 2008

There's Something About Gene

"I laughed. I cried. It was better than Cats." -- from Saturday Night Live.

I don't know even where to start...I'm tempted to say that this might have been the singlemost coolest thing I've done in San Francisco and I don't really think I would be exaggerating.

So picture this: The Castro Theatre, San Francisco's historic movie palace, a packed house filled with 1,400 people. I was sitting four rows from the stage because I had gotten there early enough to score some pretty awesome seats for myself, The Boy and another movie-freakish friend.

The theatre had us entertained with their organist who played the huge Wurlitzer organ. He played "Putting on the Ritz" to get us in the mood for the film we were to see, and everyone laughed to hear the first few notes. Then, he began to play “San Francisco, Open Your Golden Gate” which is the cue to us regulars at the Castro that the main attraction is going to start, and people really started to get excited.

The people of San Francisco Sketchfest, who hosted this event in conjunction with the California Film Institute, gave a very brief introduction to the person we'd all been waiting for. Then the lights dimmed a little, and the first few bars of "Pure Imagination" came through the speakers, and to a person, everyone stood and wholeheartedly applauded the man walking slowly down the aisle toward the stage, Gene Wilder. Willy Wonka to all of us there.

Of course, my eyes filled with tears immediately and I wasn't the only one who was blinking rapidly.

The man is exactly like you would imagine he would be. Smart. Quietly funny. He exudes an aura of calm and humor. He gave us a little background on Young Frankenstein. He told us how he came up with the concept, what happened when he called Mel Brooks (who wasn't interested in the idea) and how the movie actually got started. He merely whetted our appetites for more, and then the movie began.

It's an entirely different experience seeing films in a revival house where you are surrounded by complete and like-minded fans. It's a big reason why I love watching old films at the Castro and my former home-away-from-home, the Stanford Theatre. And why I rarely see new releases anymore. Whether it's noir, silents or special events like this one, being in a crowd of people who truly appreciate every nuance of a classic film they may have seen dozens of times, who know when all of the best lines are coming, or can anticipate every laugh, it creates an atmosphere, a shared experience that you will not find in the latest blockbuster at the cinemaplex at the mall.

I really can't tell you how many times I've seen Young Frankenstein, because I've seen it a lot. I know that movie by heart. Seeing it with such a gigantic crowd who loves the film just as much as I do was really something. But seeing it and knowing the that guy who is up on the screen, who dreamed up the idea and who wrote the screenplay, that he is sitting somewhere in that darkened theater with you, hearing us laugh...sharing that experience, now that was incredible.

We clapped and laughed in unison. We cheered at all the right times.

After the movie, when the lights came up, Gene came back onto the stage, where they had set up two chairs and microphones, and of course we gave him another standing ovation. The mood in the room was so light, so happy. He had to wave his hands to make us sit down. I think we would have stood and applauded for much longer.

The interviewer for the next hour was Paul Gilmartin, who hosts something on TBS called "Dinner and a Movie." Gilmartin was a good interviewer, and except for the crazy man who wandered up to the stage and handed Gene a flyer while quoting something from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory before the intruder was hastily booted from the auditorium (don't forget, we are in San Francisco where crazies abound), we hung on every word that Gene said.

He talked about working with all of his costars in Young Frankenstein, he talked about relationship with Richard Pryor, his childhood, a little bit about Gilda (he described her as a "firefly") and his home life in Connecticut, his wife of 16 years who he loves very much, his art, his writing and how he became an actor. Then, they allowed questions from the audience, which he graciously and adeptly responded to. He told us his comedy inspirations were Danny Kaye and Sid Caesar, and how he met Mel Brooks, and why he didn't see the remake of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

We just didn't want him to stop talking. It was like having a beloved relative come to visit. But it's obvious that he's getting older (he's 73) and I'm sure these events are a drain on him. He still had to go upstairs and autograph a ton of books. So people started filing out and getting ready to line up for autographs and The Boy and I decided to head for home. And as we walked to the exit, there was Gene right in front of us, maybe six feet away, hugging someone who I guessed might be a relative. I was so close to him. His blue eyes are just like you would expect them to be. And the "Pure Imagination" song was playing again, and of course I got all teared up as we walked behind him (!) for a few feet, and I tried to watch the back of his head, until he was swallowed up by the crowd and we went outside into the cool, foggy air.

UPDATE 3/21: Here is the write-up in the SF Gate/Chronicle, which is more reporterly and less emotional than my little piece.

Photo from The Oldie, whatever that is.


PhantomMinuet March 20, 2008 at 7:44 AM  

Yes, the quote is from Saturday Night Live. :-)

Christie March 20, 2008 at 9:17 AM  

So glad it was everything you wanted it to be. Thanks for the fab description.

Anonymous March 20, 2008 at 10:20 AM  

Magical night! Thanks for bringing us along!

tangobaby March 20, 2008 at 11:13 AM  

Hi gals,

I'm glad I could be there on your behalf. Just your little ol' reporter on the scene.

Dear Ms. Phantom Minuet,

Thanks for the confirmation. Somehow I think maybe it was a Billy Crystal sketch? Love the hats on your blog. I will need to investigate more.

FogBay March 20, 2008 at 5:04 PM  

Wow, it sounds like you had a great night. Thanks for sharing it with us.

It sounds like he still is 'The Frisco Kid.'

studio wellspring March 21, 2008 at 8:54 AM  

what an incredible experience ~ i'm so glad you got to be so close & share that evening with him. lucky girl! and thanks for sharing the good fortune by telling us all about it. :o)

tangobaby March 21, 2008 at 9:17 AM  

Hey FogBay/Tintin,

Thank you for reminding me about the Frisco Kid...I totally forgot about that movie and should watch it again.

Why did I NOT know about The Brides of March that you just posted on your blog. I was one train stop from downtown on Saturday and missed the whole damn thing. I love your photos.

Hi Ms. Wellspring,

I tried my best to capture the experience in writing this post for you. I'm glad you liked it.


paris parfait March 21, 2008 at 2:49 PM  

What a wonderful account of a magical evening! Thank you!

tangobaby March 21, 2008 at 3:50 PM  

Hi Paris Parfait,

I bet they'd love Gene in Paris, too. They're such cineastes!