Secrets of the Play That Refuses to Close

Welcome back to “Tamara,” the theatrical experience that won’t die.

Since May 21, 1984, about 200,000 people have followed the “living movie” up and down and through three floors of bedrooms, hallways, balconies and stairways at Il Vittoriale, a transformed American Legion post on Highland Avenue in Hollywood.

They’ve kept coming, sometimes even waving petitions when the show’s producers threatened to close Il Vittoriale’s doors. In January, producers were counting down the weeks before closing. Then came word last week--with just two weeks to go--that once again “Tamara” producers were resuscitating it.

The theatrical experience that’s been compared to both “Dynasty” and Disneyland is back “by popular demand.” Whose demand? What fuels a $550,000 production about politics and debauchery in ‘20s Fascist Italy?

The Los Angeles theatergoing public apparently relishes the chance to be right there-- on the bed, behind the divan or even in the men’s room--to visit and watch a house full of aristocrats and servants mate, murder and masticate. For nearly five years, eight times a week, ticket buyers have been paying as much as $80 apiece to spend an afternoon or evening with mysterious chauffeur Mario Pagnutti and sexy maid Emilia Pavese as they serve such historical figures as Italian poet and ladies’ man Gabriele d’Annunzio and Polish artist Tamara de Lempicka.


He wasn’t being misleading with all those “last six weeks” ads, swears Moses Znaimer, the 46-year-old Canadian broadcaster who first produced the show here. Ticket sales really were down. “We posted the six weeks and (sales) immediately went up, which means people appreciate being reminded. I don’t take it (that we were being) manipulative. It’s just that if you’re permanent, nobody feels urgent about it.”

He was apparently right. The newly installed Tamara Hotline is promising tickets for three more months. Ticket sales are back on track. “Tamara” fans still won’t have to go all the way to New York--where they’d pay as much as $135 apiece--to see their favorite show in its second and even more expensive U.S. incarnation.

What with his TV station, music video service and other businesses, Znaimer may no longer have the time to pop in from Toronto to shepherd the Los Angeles production. But even he doesn’t want it to expire. So he was in town recently shopping it around to potential licensees, hoping to find someone who would be as much of an entrepreneur at this point as he was back in 1981 when he saw the show at the first and only Toronto International Theater Festival.

“The issue here--aside from the amusement of the moment--is not whether ‘Tamara’ runs an extra two months or not,” says Znaimer. “The issue is whether I can establish this as a valid new entertainment form. Not a theater piece with a gimmick but a new entertainment form. And by extension, whether I can establish (the Legion post) as a venue where you go to do that kind of thing.”

At “Tamara,” written by Canadian playwright John Krizanc, you truly do pay your money and take your choice. Once you’re inside Il Vittoriale, the Italian villa where Mussolini reportedly kept D’Annunzio under house arrest, things are happening in nearly every room. There, you can follow any one of the 10 characters, each of whom has a separate script, for as long as you want. If you’re bored by all the political conversation upstairs, for instance, rush down to the maid’s room and watch some fairly graphic nuzzling with the guard.

Theatergoers line up for passports issued in lieu of tickets, then hand them over to a snarling Fascist policeman a few yards away. As the villa’s “residents” mingle with the crowd in the opulent living room, a ballerina pirouettes around the balcony, the piano music becomes more ominous and functionaries appear to explain the rules of the house. Among those rules: Do not speak or wander around on your own or block a doorway.

Nearly everybody sees a different show, which is one reason the management offers discounts on repeat visits (see accompanying story). That way visitors won’t have to miss such jewels as D’Annunzio’s opening scene in his bedroom. Just after telling Mussolini by phone that “if I want to speak to someone in authority, Benito, I look in the mirror,” our hero looks up to see a lady in white enter the room, a red rose in one hand, a gun in the other!

The concrete stairs are tough on the legs, and theatergoers are advised to wear comfortable shoes. Actor John DeMita, who plays the chauffeur, says the valet has to climb the most flights of stairs each performance--36--to his and the maid’s 27 flights apiece. “It’s just a very strenuous show,” says Lorelle Brina, who plays her last performance as the maid tonight after more than a year in the role. “You can’t do it for a very long time.”

In “Tamara,” the audience is practically a character; the audience affects pacing, for instance, by moving slowly or quickly up and down stairs. Bigger audiences take longer to crowd into rooms. And after consuming the intermission buffet, originally “designed” by Ma Maison’s Patrick Terrail, audiences are not just slower but also less inclined to climb stairs at all.

The audience can also get a little too involved. Legend has it that one audience member jumped on an actor’s back to stop him from beating up another actor, and alternate Marie Chambers says that once during a suicide scene someone started screaming at her, “Don’t do it, don’t do it.” (She drank her poison anyway.)

Paul Lukather, who has been playing Fascist policeman Aldo Finzi practically since the show’s start here, says some women overrespond to his black leather uniform, winking at him and saying “things that are unbelievable.” But more often, he admits, people loathe him. When another character pulls a gun on him at one point, he says, “People yell, ‘Shoot him, shoot him!’ ”

The show also caters to voyeurs. DeMita,for instance, does one scene wearing just a towel and recalls how one group of people simply stood and watched him change behind a screen in his bedroom. “I’ve never had a towel grabbed off me, but I heard that happened to another actor playing this role,” he says. “I wear underwear just in case. I don’t think the other guy was wearing underwear. (The audience feels) it is environmental theater, so they think it’s part of the show. And I guess it is.”

The show’s cast has included both Anjelica Huston and Karen Black, and there also have been many stars in the audience. Director Norman Jewison once took over Il Vittoriale for a private party, and a five-page, single-spaced celebrity list provided by the show’s publicist names such visitors as Bette Midler and Warren Beatty. Actors sometimes have to move audience members out of a doorway or off a bed or chair, and one cast member recalls Lukather chasing a prominent singer out of a dining room chair.

The lack of backstage means any prop problems have to be fixed in front of the audience. Former stage manager Jonathan Lee recalls, for instance, a time D’Annunzio went for his pistol, it wasn’t there and the actor had to rush out to the balcony yelling, “My gun, my gun, does anyone know where my gun is?” A crowd followed as a prop person pretending to be an audience member slinked in with a second gun tucked under his sweater, opened a drawer and dropped in the gun.

Actors say they have developed optional bits to delay or speed up the action. Characters wait in hallways and on stairs, sometimes eavesdrop. DeMita, for instance, says that at his first performance 10 months ago, he was “so jazzed with adrenaline, I was early for every scene. But after feeling very embarrassed because you have 25 or 30 people standing around just looking at you expectantly, you learn the timing very quickly.”

Flashback to 1981. Playwright Krizanc and director Richard Rose, two friends in their 20s, were talking about putting Italian poet D’Annunzio’s life on film. “We were Bertolucci fans,” says Krizanc, “the kind of guys who sit in the back row and watch ‘1900' five times. It was sort of a fantasy of ours to one day do some kind of epic like that when we were old and fat film makers.”

But why wait? They could immortalize D’Annunzio on stage rather than on film. Bookseller Krizanc was taken with a book about what happened when De Lempicka went to paint D’Annunzio’s portrait in 1927. They later brought the book with them to visit Shain Jaffe, executive director of the Toronto International Theater Festival and, says Jaffe, “while I read, they paced and told me about renting this mansion in the middle of the park, refurbishing it, and staging a half-dozen or more plays simultaneously. What is so phenomenal is that what they described is what I saw at the first preview.”

“Tamara” opened at the festival on May 8, 1981, with a $28,000 budget. It was four hours long instead of two, had 11 characters instead of 10 (a mistress bit the dust) and a beat-up Toyota instead of the Hollywood production’s vintage 1929 DeSoto. Its set design budget was $2,000 and the set included Krizanc’s entire library.

Enter Znaimer, a prominent entrepreneur interested in radicalizing traditional theater and film as he had Canadian television. He saw the show, contacted Krizanc the next day and tied up rights three weeks later. According to Krizanc, Znaimer also doubled the actors’ salaries and paid him the first money he ever made in the theater. Says Znaimer: “I covered their debts, paid them some cash and said, ‘I see in this a great new idea.’ ”

Born in Kulab, Tajikistan, Znaimer was educated at Canada’s McGill University and at Harvard. He clearly relishes spawning the “living movie,” a phenomenon he defines as a “participatory and interactive environment in which you play or learn--with luck both. The analogy to movies is that you are stepping into the film and picking your own close-ups.”

Widely covered in the Canadian press for what one journalist called his “boogie-style programming,” Znaimer first applied his interactive ideas of entertainment to TV. He calls his new City TV headquarters a “living studio” because all three floors, the parking lot, roof and even nearby sidewalks can be instantly transformed into shooting sets. And his “Tour of the Universe” attraction in Toronto, which opened two years ago, simulates what a spaceport might look and work like in what Znaimer calls “the believable future”; it plops “the world’s first flying motion picture theater” on top of a 747 flight motion platform.

The father of “Znaimervision” alternately defines “Tamara” as a piece of intellectual curiosity, an experiment and a gentleman’s hobby. He says that he initially intended to take his show to New York, not Los Angeles, but couldn’t get the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue between 66th and 67th, his only choice. So when longtime companion Marilyn Lightstone moved to Los Angeles to work as an actress, he decided to take his play and follow her. Besides, it was “a good way to underline the cinematic nature of the form.”

After more than two years of negotiating with assorted government agencies, Znaimer finally opened a second U.S. production at New York’s Armory in December, 1987. The production, which cost $1.2 million to mount, is “substantially different,” says author Krizanc, who figures he rewrote 35% of it. But it still has the same high ticket prices, three floors worth of rooms--just two floors below shelters for the homeless--and catering by a famous restaurant--in this case Le Cirque.

Znaimer says he initially funded “Tamara” himself, then set up a separate limited partnership for New York. The Los Angeles production is grossing $2 million a year, he says, but the New York production, which can accommodate an audience of 170 to Los Angeles’ 125, is grossing $4 million annually. Besides, friend Lightstone has moved to New York with that production of the show and, Znaimer says, “Considering that I make a lot more money in TV, you always have to ask yourself, ‘Is it an intelligent deployment of your marketing time and resources?’ ”

“Tamara” clearly has a cult following. At least three different “Tamara” banners, all 50 feet or more in length, have been stolen from in front of the building; one of the stolen banners even had wires running through it. A pricey collection of real paintings by De Lempicka, on loan from such collectors as Barbra Streisand, were replaced early on with fakes, but staff members says household items are rarely if ever stolen.

Some items, of course, are meant to be taken home. Souvenirs for sale in what is called “the Tamara Collection” include “Tamara” perfume at $200 an ounce; Znaimer says they actually sell a few bottles a week (at this point, to New York theatergoers only) along with the watches, sweat shirts, books, post cards and lapel pins.

Yet playwright Krizanc, who followed “Tamara” with a tragicomedy about human rights in Czechoslavakia, seems more embarrassed than pleased by Tamara’s success, calling it at one point “a drunken idea that should not have been pursued in the sober light of day.” For most people, he says, “Tamara” is “about drinking champagne and running around a house . . . (but) to me it is a critique of decadence. D’Annunzio was a man obsessed by a life style that perversed any talent he had. That is a great metaphor for not just the artist in society but society in general.”

Still working part-time in a bookstore, Krizanc is living in a one-bedroom rental apartment and says his “Tamara” royalties still haven’t brought in enough money to take on a mortgage. But the play will finally be published next month in Canada and England, and Krizanc is clearly relieved. Saying he would never have written it had he known how long it would take, he says “the main reason I’m publishing it is so I can say it’s done.”

Znaimer, however, may never let it go. He’s talking with some Russians about a possible Moscow production. He’s also interested in putting the show on laser disc so that viewers could create their own sequence of events as in the “theater.” And he has suggested taking over three TV channels so viewers could zap their channel-switchers back and forth between characters and stories.

Then again, he does want to move on. “When the audience for a particular story runs its course, this whole thing doesn’t shut down. I simply bring in the next story.” Current contenders include comedy, Gothic mysteries, maybe something by Agatha Christie. But whatever it is, he figures it would have to be a year or two before it could be written, much less readied for the public. Hottest candidate right now: a visit with Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin “as they carve up the world in which we still live.”

Znaimer spins a scenario. “Can you imagine it?” he smiles. “Winnie (Churchill) fatigued in one room, Roosevelt dying in another, Stalin sharp as a barracuda. (Pause) You could go in and out of the rooms. (Pause) Think of all the maids and chauffeurs, the hanky-panky.”