THE PALLADIUM--THIS JOINT IS SOMETHIN’
Spring in the city was as capricious as a courtesan by Colette, warm and seductive, biting as sarcasm, drenching as angry tears. A radiant afternoon snapped into a night that made a California visitor feel like a naked baby. The idea of venturing down into the blight of East 14th Street was as attractive as an Arctic swim, especially since the target establishment is the sort of place that keeps its patrons waiting on line for hours unless they are named Mick or Bianca or Andy.
Well, the public relations representative had assured the visitor that journalists were welcome and if he would just come around to the stage door. Fine, but first duty dictated a turn past the main entrance. How can you report on a renowned and trendy emporium without looking at the facade?
Jeez it’s cold. Is that it? It looks exactly like hundreds of defunct old theaters with its blank rusting marquee and festoons of angry graffiti. Can this be the famous Palladium that celebrated its first birthday last Wednesday and has become fabled in song, story and Architectural Record as something more than just the usual inclusive gathering place for people who are famous for being well-known? It’s supposed to be the popular temple to the Post-Modernist sensibility, designed by Arata Isozaki--the architect of L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art--and given further cultural cachet through the presence of commissioned works by such art Stars as Keith Haring, Jean Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf and Francesco Clemente. It has gained a reputation as a leading example of an integrated art spa where architecture and painting are wedded to design, theater and socializing. The whole thing in the brainchild of Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager who masterminded the legendary Studio 54 before being sent off to the pokey for tax evasion. The Palladium is their comeback turn.
Better go around back and make sure it’s the right place.
“Sure this is it,” says the friendly squawk-box in the alley. “Come on up.”
Backstage is the usual musty maze of staircases, bulletin boards and stale air heavy with languorous cigarette smoke and coffee in cardboard cups. Heaven. Warm.
A handsome dark young woman appears wearing a lace dress, cowboy boots and a satin baseball jacket. “Hi, I’m Michelle Suna, director of special programs. Nancy is stuck uptown in traffic, so let me show you around until she arrives.”
Michelle tourguides amiably into the main auditorium where--suddenly--she is like a character in a movie who mouths mutely while haunting music begins a flashback. The camera pans up the vast dome of the theater ceiling with its pocked lunettes, volutes, capitals and you hear echoing snippets of the past lives of a theater once called the Majestic. Beethoven mixes disharmonically with a popular Burlesque ditty the swing of Big Band jazz and the pelvic thump of rock. . . .
” . . . they purposely left a lot of the old detail so it would contrast with the new high-tech look . . . .”
Flash Gordon meets Luis Bunuel. The interior is more than 100,000 square feet. Into the center of it Isozaki introduced a three-tiered right-angle structure that looks a little like a Minimalist reduction of a theater. It is crowned by an arch and punctured with square openings suggesting box seats. Steamship-modern staircases lead down past plaster gilt baroque sculpture to a disco dance floor overflown by a Star-Wars array of audiovisual hardware.
“Lots of toys. Here comes Nancy. She will show you the art.”
Nancy Jo Friedman, the public relations representative, allows that she herself does not know a lot about art but likes it and knows the Palladium is deeply dedicated.
The Francesco Clemente mural is in a stairwell, upstaged by the stairs themselves, a goggling carpet of glowing glass bricks that looks like a stairway to electronic paradise. The Clemente is pale and metaphysical.
Kenny Scharf was permitted to decorate telephone booths near the men’s room, leading one to wonder if he was not the inspiration for a recent “Doonesbury” episode. Anyway, Scharf did a lively job of graffiti-ing the phones and covering them in Styrofoam goop, as if they had been vandalized. This would have worked well in a museum, but Palladium patrons out-vandalized the art-vandal, pulling off chunks of Styrofoam gunk and adding their own touches. The Scharf was being dismantled to be replaced by a Vito Acconci.
Nancy assured the journalist that the best was yet to come even though the Andy Warhols were not installed. Jean Michel Basquiat’s murals are in a bar called the Mike Todd room, as it was once the office of the legendary and flamboyant producer. It looks like something that might be haunted by the ghost of Liberace, full of dark mirrors in writhing gold frames and candelabra that seemed prepared to levitate. Unfortunately, the Basquiat murals behind the bar were covered by a screen and projected photos of a celebrity of whom the journalist had never heard. She looked like a cross between Mae West and Dolly Parton and had taken over the room for a special party. Nancy allowed that the murals are frequently covered.
Never mind. There was a photography exhibition in a small room that featured pictures of famous people by renowned photographers. But the main attraction was a huge mural by Keith Haring. Nancy explained that it was behind the dance floor behind a number of heavy theatrical drops, but it might be unveiled around midnight. She, regretfully, had to leave now but the journalist was welcome to lurk about.
Wandering up to the balcony, where posh old theater seats are divided by stylish chain-link fence, he brooded on the scene below. It was all like a set for some Post-Apocalyptic movie where brittle, chic technocrats boogie on the corpse of Victorian elegance and allow punk troglodytes from the street to hang around for amusement like dwarfs in a Velazquez. Here a matron could pretend it was the vinyl ‘60s again and she was doing the frug with the Phantom of the Opera. A real nostalgia maniac could climb to the back balcony and neck with a stranger like it was Junior High.
“Hi. Want to see how the lights work?” It was Michelle.
“Want to neck? No, nothing. I’d love to see the lights.”
The control room looks like something from NASA. Tommy DiMeo--the man in charge--demonstrated his lights, inundating the visitor in statistics and effects. Elaborate drops come from the ceiling, including a replica of a Brooklyn disco with the exterior street rendered in false perspective. Isozaki’s walls light up, flashing 168 color combinations. There are more than 300,000 pounds of equipment hung from the ceiling, including two banks of 30 television sets. Robotized, they move about the space broadcasting videotapes--many by well-known artists but all in the general style of Nam June Paik. Batteries of spotlights fly overhead. All work by computer and each is individually robotized, creating a range of effects from interlocking spotlights to a confetti of color that dissolves the floor and dancers.
DiMeo is proud of the fact that there is no “disco” equipment, only state-of-the-art theatrical and rock concert hardware. A survivor of ‘60s Light Shows sees a marked contrast between their sloppy, amateurish gear with all its possibility of creative accident and those neat, solid variations, so confident and ultimately repetitious.
Spectacular, though, goggling and certainly a hoot of a place to dance until 5 a.m. The journalist feels a little quaint begging for a peek at the Keith Haring that is supposed to make his day.
DiMeo graciously sends him backstage with a grip who tolerantly interrupts his dinner to hoist intervening drops to reveal the Haring. It looks about as big as a large tablecloth in this environment. The image is a jigsaw of Haring’s familiar dauntless cookie-cutter man. One suspects he represents the Manhattan Ego with its relentless belief in the triumph of ballyhoo.
A trim cocktail waitress in tux pants and a black tie materializes.
“Hey, there it is. I work here all the time and I have never seen it before. Thanks, mister.”
It's a date
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