A long time ago…

1977 Star Wars newspaper adI saw Star Wars for the first time on its original release date: May 25, 1977.

Of course, that isn’t exactly true. My memories tell me that I saw it some time after my high school graduation, which would have put me in the theater in June, not May. After poking around a bit I was reminded that South Florida in 1977 was not even a second-tier movie market, so it was not in the first two waves of release. I can’t find a precise date for the first showing — thanks for having locked archives, Miami Herald and Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel! — but me and my friends would have gone to that matinee some time in the latter half of June.

I went, however, on opening day for our area, that’s for sure.

Shortly before its local release, the newspaper ran a full page ad for it: that amazing, thrilling, beautiful poster by the Brothers Hildebrandt (although reproduced in half-tone black and white — newspapers didn’t have color in those days, kids). My small nerdy tribe was familiar with the Hildebrandts through their Middle Earth calendar the year before, so the connection brought with it an unstated expectation of epic scope and fantastic visuals.

Star Wars does inadvertently provide a window into the early history of geeky fandom. Without the ubiquitous information source of the Internet we had to scrounge and scrabble for scraps and rumors about this movie. I’d found the novelization in Waldenbooks several months earlier, its cover proudly proclaiming that it was soon to be a major motion picture. That was rare in those days: a big budget science-fiction film with good special effects and a raucous, action-driven story.

Sitting in that theater and seeing it for the first time was as close to an ecstatic experience as I’d had to that point. I saw it for the second time on the same day, having moved down to the first row in the largely empty house. That was followed immediately by the third time, and I’d have stayed to see it again but hunger and sensory overload finally won out. It was the first time I’d ever seen a movie more than once in the theater, and — the annual TV broadcast of The Wizard of Oz excepted — there was no other way to see a film again in those pre-VHS-and cable days.

Star Wars pre-release novelizationWe talked about it quite a bit, me and my friends, particularly the goofy ending that clearly left open the possibility that there could be further installments. That would have been too much to hope for, though. More Star Wars? Might as well ask for our own TIE fighters, while we were at it. Sequels were rare creatures, generally reserved for major critical (The Godfather) and box office (Jaws) successes.

Of course, Star Wars met the latter criterion with bells on, so it didn’t take long for the newly-minted genre magazines like Starlog to break the news that Lucas had an entire universe of stories planned. What we’d seen was actually the fourth of a planned nine — NINE! — Star Wars films! Our minds could barely comprehend the bounty we’d been granted.

When The Empire Strikes Back was released, I stood in line for the first showing — a national release this time, thank you very much — arriving hours before the curtain went up. (There was no ticket presale, of course, so if you didn’t camp out in line you might not get in, and that would be unbearable, a shame you’d have to carry for the rest of your life.) TV stations sent crews out to film us standing in parking lots in the sweltering Florida sun. Newspapers sent reporters and photographers to ask lame questions. Mundane citizens going about their lives gawked, shook their heads, and carried on.

It’d been a long three years waiting for that day, years filled with speculation, hype, and… well, okay, real life. But still, release day was a gathering of the tribe. You could talk to anyone around you, because we were united in our purpose. It really was a celebration.

Of course, after the movie the first crack appeared, with some jerks deliberately discussing Luke’s parentage as they walked past the line of people waiting for their chance to worship at the galactic altar. (I have memories of someone being slammed against the stucco wall by an enraged fan, but that may be a bit of wish-fulfilling selective memory.) Still, a strong sense of community pervaded the occasion.

There followed another three year wait — three years of nerdy talk, three years of a growing fandom community, three years of speculation as to the nature of “the other.” Good money was on Boba Fett, but really, pretty much anyone who had an action figure was a candidate. All we knew for sure was that we had absolute faith in Lucas; after all, he’d had this whole thing plotted out for years!

And at the end, another multi-hour giddy wait outside a Miami cinema waiting for the conclusion of the middle trilogy. News crews came back and newspapers sent reporters, but this time they were more likely to be fans themselves. Star Wars had morphed into a full-blown cultural phenomenon, and you didn’t have to be a nerd to like it (but it helped). People in line were threatening to beat the shit out of anyone who gave away the secrets of Return of the Jedi. (They weren’t spoilers yet; that word wasn’t coined until after Jedi was released.) There was a community, but it was already growing a little unwieldy.

And while Jedi gave us the satisfaction of a conclusion to the trilogy, it was also a disappointment. Maybe the intervening years had just taken their toll on our innocence, but so much of it was obviously created to sell toys, and not tell to tell an exciting story. We all knew that the big battle was supposed to be on Chewie’s home planet, because — thanks to the explosive growth of fan press — that had been leaked from early scripts. What was this teddy bear bullshit?! And “the other” turned out to mean absolutely bupkis.

It didn’t stop us from going to see it a few times, but instead of fun, it started to turn a little ugly, like picking at a scab. Sure Star Wars was still great, and we liked to jabber about it, but my interest it was fading fast.

There was some talk about the “prequel” trilogy for a while. It was supposed to be all about the Clone Wars, and take place maybe a hundred years before the first movie. (It still feels wrong to call it A New Hope.) That fell apart, though, and took the rest of my interest with it.

Still, I was honestly surprised when the first prequel was finally announced. Not that they were finally making them — I was surprised that I didn’t care. Many of my friends were getting worked up about the possibilities, but I just felt… nothing. When the first one was released and eviscerated by the fans, I felt simultaneously justified and sad. I’d been hoping that maybe they would rekindle the fond memories I had, that perhaps they’d be a new beginning. Who knows? Maybe if — as with most of my peers — I had a family, some kids with whom to share the experience, I’d have been excited. But no. To date, I’ve still never seen even one of the prequels.

Now it’s time for the post-quels. Social media has taken over the world, and my feeds are full of people I love talking excitedly about tomorrow’s release. I have a smidgen more curiosity this time, I confess, primarily to see the old familiar faces returning to the screen. It feels closer to my heart. Still, I didn’t buy an advance ticket, and didn’t make plans to see it. Strangely enough, though, and cementing the place Star Wars has in general culture, my employer decided that as a holiday gift they’re taking us all out to see an afternoon show next week.

However.

Star Wars Original Soundtrack LP coverA few minutes ago I played a bit of the opening theme, the piece of music which assured John Williams’ place in musical history. The triumphant brass, the soaring strings, the pounding tympani — I didn’t even make it through the fanfare before I broke out into a smile, my heart started swell, and my eyes got misty. In spite of my general indifference toward the current Star Wars zeitgeist, the chill in my heart was blasted away by the force of memory. Once again I was seventeen years old, sitting in the Florida Theatre in Hollywood, being swept away by a tale of spaceships, lightsabers, naive heroes, ominous villains, goofy robots, and a nearly endless supply of corny cliches.

The past is always far, far away. Fortunately, memories are not.

Now Face North

Miami is not my favorite place in the world.

This should not come as a surprise to long-time readers of Hidden City, and cannot possibly be surprising to those who know me personally. My tendency to sweat any time the temperature rises above 70° F is legendary, as are my complaints about it. At one time I even considered using the tagline, “Bitching about the Miami heat for over forty years,” but realized that people might get the idea I care about basketball.

A reasonable person might ask why I haven’t moved away, if I hate it so much. In fact, a good number of reasonable people — and a few unreasonable people — have done just that. The answer, though, is a bit complicated.

(I doubt that comes as a surprise to anyone, either.)

Continue reading Now Face North

Engagement

Let’s play a word association game. I’ll say a phrase, and you tell me the first image that comes to mind.

Classical music.

Yeah, I thought so. For most people the idea of serious “art music” conjures images of old people sitting in an uncomfortable theater watching people in black tuxedos play stuffy music on antique instruments. While there is a grain of truth in that visual — the average age of the art music audience increases each year — the reality is so much more interesting. Miami’s New World Symphony is working to reverse that trend, and their new facility on Miami Beach is a major part of that effort.

The New World Symphony is not — as many people assume, based on their “America’s Orchestral Academy” tagline — a “school band.” Formed over twenty-five years ago by internationally renowned composer and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, the goal of NWS is to provide the best graduates of leading music schools with additional education, training, and experience, allowing them to be more than just stellar musicians, but leaders in the music world, and in their communities.

There are only eighty-six fellowship positions available at any time, so these highly skilled musicians — over half of them already holding master or doctorate degrees — compete against their peers from around the world for the opportunity to be a part of this organization. If selected they will spend their three-year fellowships honing their skills not only as performing musicians, but will learn more about the practical aspects of being a working musician, including personal presentation, public speaking, and general leadership and communication skills. (Speaking as an ex-music major, I can tell you that most students prefer to let their art speak for them, making this training extremely helpful.) Moreover, they are groomed to be de facto ambassadors for the world of classical music, helping to remove its social stigma as art for old people, and helping to make art music accessible and engaging to the public at large.

New World Symphony: performance space with window and skylight
Performance space with window and skylight

To further that goal, in January 2011 the NWS will officially inaugurate its new campus on Miami Beach, a marvelous building designed by world famous architect Frank Gehry to be the ceterpiece of a revitalized public space. I was fortunate enough to be invited to tour the center in its final stages of preparation, and while photography was not yet allowed, they were kind enough to provide me with some renderings. (For an excellent discussion of the building and park from the perspective of an actual architect, read Miamism’s account of the same tour.)

Tilson Thomas and Gehry worked to design the facility around the educational nature of the NWS, while still creating a beautiful space. From what I saw, they succeeded admirably. The building is located beside a new, large public park built with Chicago’s Millennium Park as inspiration. Designed by West 8, Lincoln Park is a small but beautiful space reflective of the city of Miami Beach: open, accessible, and multi-functional. One end of the park includes a speaker-wrapped space seating a couple of hundred visitors as they watch live performances of the NWS projected on the exterior wall of the theater. (Note that use of the projector to display advertising materials of any kind is strictly forbidden.)

Inside, the space has an intimate feel, less awe-inspiring than friendly and comfortable. Oddly shaped structures and unexpected corners abound, looking in places like a huge set of children’s toys haphazardly stacked in a large room. Sometimes these blocks have windows, and sometimes only just white walls. On the other side of those walls and windows, however, are rehearsal rooms, offices, and the other non-performance spaces required by a working facility.

This leads to one of my favorite features of the building. To reflect the school’s goal of increasing engagement with the public, many of the student spaces are visible to the public, not hidden away behind blank walls. In fact, when entering via the elevated walkway from the (also Gehry-designed) parking garage next door, you cross above a hallway, aptly described by communications director Craig Hall as like the tunnel the players use to enter the stadium at a football game. If you arrive at the right moment, you’ll be able to wave to the performers as they cross underneath you on their way from the instrument lockers to the concert hall.

Together with similar features in other parts of the building, this leads to an effect not unlike the reinforced glass tunnels running through some large public aquariums. Beginning in October of next year, if you enter the building on a day without a scheduled performance you will be able to observe the fellows going about the business of rehearsal, practice, and so on, from the other side of the glass. The public and private spaces are commingled, but separate. It’s a brilliant idea, and one I suspect will be popular with the visitors (if not the fellows; many musicians are rather private).

New World Symphony: performance space with large projections
Performance space with large projections

The concert hall itself is beautiful, yet casual. It isn’t high-brow or stuffy at all; there’s a distinct impression that tuxedos might look out of place here. The stage itself has ten independently controlled risers, allowing it to accommodate performances ranging from the full orchestra to a solo piano. There are also four smaller stages ringing the main stage, allowing for still more variations, and when they aren’t in use can be easily turned into additional seating. This flexibility will be useful for the series of planned evening contemporary music events called Pulse, which will (according the the NWS site) “[…] feature the artistry of Mercury Soul together with the New World Symphony in performances of theatrically enhanced contemporary music integrated into an evening-long set of DJ-spun electronic.” DJs? Electronic music? Theatrically enhanced? At the symphony?

New World Symphony: Performance space configurations - full stage
Performance space configurations - full stage

In the past the NWS has been good about mixing contemporary music with its traditional offerings, although the moneyed audience still comes out in force for the old stand-bys. As a NWS administrator told me several years ago, if you want people to write checks you need to trot out Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the 1812 Overture, and Rhapsody in Blue. As necessary as that may still be, though, those old money patrons are, bluntly, dying off. If classical or art music is to survive it must build a new audience, and that will be best achieved by performing living music alongside the standard repertoire.

New World Symphony: Performance space configurations
Performance space configurations - flat floor

Engagement with the audience is essential for any artistic endeavor. Surprise them, challenge them, and most importantly, share your enthusiasm with them. They will respond in kind. Sure, playing too many edgy contemporary composers may cost you a few of the tuxedoed bankers softly snoring through Brahms in the first row, but show people just how vital and exciting classical music can be and there will be a new generation of benefactors and fans moving in to replace them. Based on the comprehensive direction of this reimagining of the New World Symphony — from the concert hall to the educational campus to the event selections to the building itself — they are on the right track.

New Frank Gehry-designed garage
New Frank Gehry-designed garage

[Disclosure: As part of this tour I received free admission to that evening’s symphony performance. All images courtesy of Courtesy of Gehry Partners, LLP, and New World Symphony.]