We all have our origin stories—our radioactive spider bites or parents gunned down outside the Gotham opera. Mine occurred in a movie theater when I was a wee child and features blood, tears and the Devil. It set in motion my career as a director and my relationship with my father, but frankly, I can’t believe that I ever watched another movie again.
In 1982, my father was thirty-two and I, his youngest child, was three. I loved music first and most of all. I demanded that my parents play a 45 of “Duke of Earl” as part of my bedtime ritual. I loved it when Dad strapped on an acoustic guitar and strummed “Puff the Magic Dragon,” or assembled the improbable steampunk machinery of his bassoon, whetted the double-reed between his lips and played the wolf’s theme from “Peter and the Wolf.” So when my father read in the paper one day that Disney’s “Fantasia” was coming to town with a $1 million restored Dolby soundtrack, he figured it was the perfect film to take me to for my first in-theater movie-viewing experience. “Fantasia,” after all, had everything: Dinosaurs. Classical music. Bewitched household cleaning equipment. What could be better?
He couldn’t see the future. He didn’t know how far awry this trip to the movies would go. All he could see was little me, so excited for the film that I got nosebleed from pure joy.
Ensconced in my father’s Oldsmobile, we twisted our way through the curlicues of Rock Creek, rising up Porter Street onto Connecticut Avenue. We passed Yuen Hing Palace, the Chinese restaurant where men in dark suits and heavy-framed glasses planned both the Bay of Pigs and Nixon’s visit to China. Today, although it houses a drug store, its façade remains intact, a tendril of D.C.’s secret history hiding in plain sight. In Washington, every block drips with this peculiar company town history; file the right FOIA request—or listen to the right cab driver—and you can unlock its secret past.
The Uptown Theater’s own history mimics the imperial ambitions and grim Reaganite realities of the nation’s capital. Designed by John Zink for Warner Brothers in 1936 with a screen over eighty feet wide, the Uptown can legitimately lay claim to being one of the greatest movie palaces in America. But by the time we went to see “Fantasia,” the Uptown, like the city that contained it, had slumped into a gray, dingy decline. Save for the marquee and the imposing light-up sign announcing its name, only traces of the façade’s grandeur remained, the imposing rectangles and elegant lozenges of colors visible like the markings on Aztec temples.
All of my profound childhood movie viewing experiences would happen at the Uptown. In middle school I played hooky and navigated the bus system to watch “2001,” Keir Dullea’s trans-dimensional psychedelic eye blink rendered mythic by the sheer scale of the Uptown’s curving screen. In eighth grade I snatched the very last ticket to the very last seat of the first screening of “Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut.” In high school I lay down in front of the front row to watch “Empire Strikes Back: The Special Edition,” AT-AT walkers attacking the Ice Planet of Hoth while looming like skyscrapers about to fall onto my body.
Back then we were a family of five standing in line for tickets, followed by an even longer line for seats. Despite its massive screen, the Uptown’s lobby could not hold more than a few dozen people. Popular films spawned centipedes of ticket holders outside the theater, stretching past the tchotchke shops, around the Irish pub and up a narrow hill.
As the curtains parted, the film flickered to life and I fell in love. Not with movies, no, but rather with conductor Leopold Stokowski of the Philadelphia Orchestra, who appeared to explain the music and the film to the audience in expressively lit interludes. Stokowski’s frightening skeletal face and fearsome power bewitched me. This man moved his hands and music happened. The faintest twitch of his fingers made the strings louder, the horns softer or cut the score out in its entirety. Perhaps I already yearned, at age three, for some ability to bring order to the chaos of a bustling, creative family of divergent interests, tastes, religions and races. Or perhaps I simply wanted to be the star, the hinge on which whole enterprises would turn. Either way, soon I was standing on the red faux-velvet plushness of the Uptown’s creaking seats, swaying my hands to and fro when Stokowski did, and even when he did not.
Conducting, I entered a state of rapture. I would come to know this feeling again thirteen years later, directing my first play, guiding actors through their blocking. Meanwhile, my parents discovered that lurking in “Fantasia” lay a darkness they had forgotten. The Sorcerer is no kindly Dumbledore to his Apprentice, but a harsh taskmaster. In one scene illustrating the glory of evolution, a tyrannosaurus rex kills a stegosaurus in graphic, violent fashion.
My father turned to me. “Are you scared?” he asked
“He say delicious!” I whispered back, gleefully conducting away.
Soon, this was all to go awry. Stokowski appeared a final time and, in a long monologue, explained that we were about to hear “Night on Bald Mountain” by Modest Mussorgsky mashed up with Schubert’s “Ave Maria” and that together they would tell the story of good’s triumph over evil. Over the end of his speech, the camera dollied in on the conductor and cross-faded to a forbidding mountain, enveloped in spectral green mist and overlooking a doomed little town.
We were in the devil’s territory, and he had appeared to call spirits from the vast deep. Violins voiced rapid arpeggios before anxiously sawing back and forth. And then—with a drum roll that brought an army of horns blaring at full fortissimo—the devil rose above the town. As the other kids sank into their seats in terror, I discovered, much to my surprise and delight, that the devil was a conductor, just like Stokowski, just like me. Never mind that he was unleashing demons on a medieval village. If Isaac = conductor, and conductor = devil, then Isaac = devil.
I went mad with power. I could raise my left hand and a scrim-thin wisp of skeleton warrior arose to do my bidding. My gestures manipulated the music as it crescendoed and the ghosts as they floated and the storm clouds as they gathered. Even thunder and lightning obeyed me. Nothing exceeded my grasp.
My reign of terror was to last precisely five minutes and forty-one seconds. As Stokowski had foretold, dawn came and brought with it church bells. I recoiled as more pleasant strings wafted in through the speakers. My powers vanished and my spirits deserted me. Two minutes later, my humiliation reached its nadir, and I skulked back behind Bald Mountain defeated, perhaps even dead.
Now the real trouble began. For if Isaac = devil and devil = dead, then surely Isaac = dead. The transitive property remains constant, even when it breaks your heart.
The tantrum I threw did not happen gradually. No quivering of bottom lip foreshadowed it. No slow watering of eyes occurred as a light bulb appeared in a thought balloon over my head. Instead, I lost my shit. I cried. I wailed. And then, with the force of a sequel to a summer blockbuster, my earlier nosebleed returned. More blood than I thought my body contained poured out of my nose. It covered my face and, when I reached up to stop it, seeped out from between my fingers.
Dad acted fast, scooping me up and running to the lobby. He placed his large hand on the brass of the Uptown’s front door. With his other arm he held me, trying to soothe or at least contain my grief. This moment—my mild and friendly father trying to calm and heal his exuberant son—would play out again and again throughout the fragile years to come. Neither of us could know then that we were creating a pattern that would echo through the decades, through mumps in the second grade and chairs thrown against walls in the fourth and becoming so unsettled by life at school that I couldn’t be left alone in the house in the seventh. We did not know that one day it would reverse itself as I held my father’s hand while he lay in an induced coma, clinging to life.
In 1982, we were just father and son, caretaker and bleeder, man and boy. Dad exited the red, darkened, air-conditioned lobby into the sunny, bright, hot D.C. afternoon and turned to go to the car. As his eyes adjusted to the light, he saw them: the centipede of parents stretching around the block, swollen with anticipation for the next screening of the film, standing between him and the car. He stood in the Uptown’s doorway, stunned for a moment, carrying a bloodied child who shrieked “I’m dead!!” over and over again while sobbing into his now-ruined shirt as a few hundred parents with a few hundred small children stared at him with increasing worry.
What could he do?
With the dignity of the condemned, my father walked past the line of parents with his head held high. As their expectant faces turned to him, he offered over and over again the only reassurance he could think of: It’s really a wonderful movie.
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Isaac Butler is a writer and theatre director living in Brooklyn and Hopewell Junction. His work has appeared in PANK, Thought Catalog, Rain Taxi, The Fiddelback, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, The Hooded Utilitarian, American Theatre, Time Out New York and others.
Keny Widjaja is an Indonesian cartoonist who resides in White River Junction, Vermont but migrates to the warmer climates of Asia during the harsh northeastern winters.