GRANDER THAN LIFE: “CITIZEN KANE” AT THE ORPHEUM THEATER

IMG_0489Have you ever seen “Citizen Kane”? Ever see it on the silver screen? Ever see it on the silver screen in an opulent 1926-built theater called “The Orpheum”?

 

I first saw “Citizen Kane” while taking a film appreciation class and it was projected in a theater. Awesome! I mean, I went in with high expectations. It’s only called the greatest American-made movie ever… still! Of course we could argue for days and weeks as to the validity of the claim. (I side with… “Yes,” by the way.) But the point is that it is a film worthy of appreciation. The background story of its creation and the parallels with its auteur director’s own life are just bonus material. This film is beautiful, stark, joyful, pitiful, and grand!

 

Prominent on my L.A. Bucket List was to see a film in The Orpheum Theater in downtown Los Angeles. It’s not like there is a movie playing all the time. In fact, the window of opportunity each year is rather small: June. The Los Angeles Conservancy each year sponsors “Last Remaining Seats,” wherein moviegoers can take in selected films at historic downtown theaters that are otherwise used for select events.

 

I eagerly seized the moment and purchased two tickets for the Saturday screening! I preened before my wife, basking in the glory. Citizen Kane ProgramThen she told me that she couldn’t go with me. She was teaching a class that day and I was suddenly left to contemplate a lonely visit to the Orpheum. Luckily, I had a friend who was available, my wife was okay with the substitution, and I was once again preening.

 

Best of all, my friend had never before seen “Citizen Kane.” Heard of it, of course; knew it was a famous movie, but never saw it. “Rosebud,” I said to her. Her eyes lit up. “Ooh, that’s from that movie?” Yes. “What’s it mean?” That’s what the movie will explain, I told her.

 

So we arrive, stand outside in line, and then enter this incredible theatre. It opened in 1926 as part of the Orpheum vaudeville circuit, and it was designed in the French Renaissance style of the sixteenth century French King Francis I. If you’ve seen the 2011 Academy Award winning silent film “The Artist,” then you’ve also seen the Orpheum. Jack Benny played here, so did Duke Ellington, Lena Horne and, yes, even Gypsy Rose Lee. It has a working Mighty Wurlitzer installed in 1928 and organist Tony Wilson entertained the incoming audience beautifully.

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We walked in and I gasped. Not an over-the-top hammy-actor gasp, but a tiny one. “Oh my…” was all my throat could generate. My friend nailed it when she said, deadpan, without a gasp, “This is architecture porn.” Yes. It was larger than reality, a bit shocking even, and to trying to wrap my head around it all took a couple of moments. All the while I had a great smile on my face. “Oh, yeah, this is memorable!”

 

She later recalled the Orpheum as “dripping in elegance oozing from every orifice.” (She clearly has a way with words.) Her perfect observation of the Orpheum was that it was “grander than life.” I love that.

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And as for the movie? What of “Citizen Kane” and “rosebud”? She enjoyed the scratchy print (the Blu-Ray has me spoiled, of course) and said it made the whole film feel like a classic. She spent the 119 minutes recounting the life of Charles Foster Kane leaning over at steady intervals, whispering, “Is that rosebud?” “Is she rosebud?” It was all I could do to contain myself at the end when it appears that no one will be able to answer the famous question. “Keep watching,” I said.

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When the moment came, she fell silent. My friend is rarely subdued. She effervesces, you see. I suppose she can’t help it. But as the credits flickered all she could say was “That’s so sad.”

 

On the way back, we chatted about the film and what made it so original in 1941 and why it caused such intense controversy. I got to ramble on about Orson Welles and William Randolph Hearst. I mentioned that Welles had come to regret the portrayal of Susan Alexander because it unjustly mocked Hearst’s real-life love Marion Davies. The film’s negatives were nearly purchased by the other studios bosses so that it could be destroyed before the film’s public premiere. All of the movie trivia I have come to know and love connected with “Citizen Kane.” I did however, stop short of telling her where the name “rosebud” allegedly came from. And why, if true, it would have truly angered and mortified Hearst and Davies.

 

You don’t know that story? That’s all right, it’s probably not true anyway.

 

I’m just saying…