Sunday, June 22, 2008

Last Remaining Seats

One of the first things we did when we moved back to Los Angeles, 14 years ago, was join the L.A. Conservancy. We’ve been members ever since. We support the Conservancy because it fights against the needless demolition of the city’s most important historical landmarks (including the downtown central library!), plus it offers regular architectural tours that are fun and affordable.

One of the Conservancy’s most popular fund-raising events is the annual “Last Remaining Seats” series, where several classic movies are shown in downtown L.A.’s famous but mostly shuttered old movie palaces. Depending on what’s playing, we usually like to attend at least one of the screenings so we can relive the moviegoing experience of yore. In the past, we’ve seen the likes of “Singing in the Rain,” “Some Like It Hot,” “Pal Joey,” and “Gentleman Prefer Blondes.” This year our eye was caught by “Young Frankenstein,” Mel Brooks’s hilarious spoof of old black-and-white horror films.

Although the theaters, located along the Broadway corridor, are no longer operating, they nonetheless remain magnificent relics of Hollywood’s glory days. Many people buy “Last Remaining Seats” tickets just so they can explore the musty but lavish interiors of these fabulous old movie-houses. The Los Angeles Theater (opened in 1931) is the most beautiful of them all, though I prefer the less opulent Million Dollar Theater, where my mom used to watch Spanish-language films when she first moved to L.A. in the 1950s.

Luckily we bought our tickets early, because “Young Frankenstein” was sold-out when we arrived on Wednesday. While newcomers stood in the lobby oohing-and-ahhing over the architecture, we ran and got seats at the back of the theater on the first floor. It was warm (air-conditioning apparently wasn’t invented until after 1931!), but at least we had a good view of the screen and three chairs sitting prominently, if empty, on the stage. A guest host usually introduces each film before it plays—often someone like movie critic Leonard Maltin or one of the film’s stars (Tony Curtis, for instance, shared behind-the-scenes stories about Marilyn Monroe when we saw “Some Like It Hot”)—but the only person listed in the program this time was local historian Harry Medved. We wondered who was going to occupy the other two chairs.

Finally, the lights dimmed and a voice introduced not only Medved, but also Cloris Leachman, who played Frau Blücher (cue the neighing horses!) in the film. The applause was so loud that the third person strolling on stage was never introduced. Never mind. Tim knew instantly who it was.

“IT’S MEL!” he yelled, leaping to his feet and clapping. And indeed it was. Cloris Leachman AND Mel Brooks together again on the same stage. The audience screamed its approval.

Brooks immediately began recounting how he was able to get the movie made even though it was in black-and-white. He and Leachman then told the story of how they first met (on the set of the old Andy Williams Show) and how the movie was cast. They reminisced about funnyman Harvey Korman, who recently died, and went off on several tangents. Poor Harry Medved couldn’t get a word in edgewise, but we didn’t care because all we wanted to do was listen to Mel and Cloris. At one point Leachman, who is in her 80s and looks amazing, strutted around the stage imitating Raquel Welch, who had handed Cloris her best-supporting-actress Oscar in 1972 for “The Last Picture Show.”

After about 30 minutes, someone came from off-stage to give Medved a piece of paper, obviously asking him to wrap things up. He signaled to Mel that it was time to go by pointing at his watch. Mel and Cloris continued a little while longer, but eventually left amid cheers and raucous applause. We then settled down to watch the movie. Like the Los Angeles Theater, it still held up well after all these years.

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