A Man and His Muse
The muse first kissed Ken Anderson 22 years ago--not a chaste little peck, either, but a big, wet Frenchy, you might say. It took place at a midnight movie screening just a few weeks after the Berkeley native had moved to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a Hollywood filmmaker. From then on, Anderson’s life would never be the same.
Because there on screen, playing a modern-day Greek muse named Kira, was pop chanteuse Olivia Newton-John in all her big-haired, ‘80s-style Olivia glory. Alas, it was a role that practically throttled the Aussie diva’s budding film career and ushered in a period of personal and professional upheaval--though she did meet her future (and now ex) husband, Matt Lattanzi, on the set.
The movie, of course, was “Xanadu,” arguably the best musical comedy ever made about supernatural love and roller-skating. A meringue-light, proto-New Age remake of “Down to Earth” (1947), it was shot in and around a very fetching-looking Los Angeles and boasted dippy dialogue, sizzling dance sequences and an insanely catchy disco-boogie score by Electric Light Orchestra and John Farrar, Newton-John’s longtime producer.
“In the early ‘80s they didn’t kick you out after one screening, so every time I saw it I went multiple times,” Anderson was recalling the other day.
Most critics pummeled the corny, innocuous little film, which opened on Aug. 8, 1980. Film critic/historian Leonard Maltin’s verdict was typical. The movie, he wrote, was “designed as a showcase for the singer, but the only thing it showcases is her total lack of screen charisma.”
But in the years to come, the campy flick with the thumping backbeat would transform the lives of scores of “Xanadudes” and “Xanadames,” creating an underground cult of “Museheads.” Gradually, Anderson has discovered that he’s part of a secret society, whose strength was confirmed by last Thursday night’s sold-out “Xanadu Sing-Along” at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre in Hollywood, part of Outfest 2002, the annual L.A. gay and lesbian film festival.
“It wasn’t a good movie, by a long shot, even then I knew that,” Anderson said. “In retrospect I can’t even figure out what it was, but it had this huge, transcendent effect on me.”
To put it almost mildly. Today Anderson, 44, is still living his own private “Xanadu” dream after being inspired by the movie’s dynamic choreography to chuck film school in favor of a career as a Santa Monica dance and fitness instructor. He even drives a silver sports car with a “Zanadu” vanity license plate (some unknown soul had already claimed “Xanadu”). He has seen the film scads of times over the years, owns the DVD and video versions, wears tank tops with the “Xanadu” logo during his workout classes and can expound in minute detail on the film’s socio-cultural signifiers.
“I remember there was this feeling that the ‘80s were going to be very different from the ‘70s,” he said, “and the movie had the feeling that there were going to be all these different races and generations and musics mixing together, and that it was going to be something different. And now it seems very naive, but there really was something euphoric about it.”
The muse appears. The muse goes away.
Perhaps it takes a special kind of person to see utopian idealism in a movie set in a roller-skating palace. Still, “Xanadu” does have a philosophical streak. What else would you expect from a film about a Greek demi-goddess who springs to life from a Venice Beach mural and inspires a frustrated commercial painter, Sonny Malone, played to somnambulant perfection by Michael Beck, to hold fast to his dreams?
“Xanadu’s” other star, the late tap-dancing matinee idol Gene Kelly, brings a debonair cross-generational touch to the role of Danny McGuire, a former big band musician, who long ago sold out his dream and became a construction magnate, but yearns for one last shot at running a jazz club.
Given the iconic casting and over-the-top plot, it was all but inevitable that “Xanadu” would be embraced as a gay cultural touchstone, a camp classic beloved for its visual sensuality, inadvertent double-entendres and aura of sincere sweetness. Even its director, Robert Greenwald, who went on to helm “The Burning Bed,” has trouble comprehending how the phenomenon took off.
“I knew that there was a huge following among young teenage girls because I’ve gotten letters over the years,” he said. “To be a little bit elliptical, it was a time in my own life when retreating into a fantasy world was a highly desirable and necessary thing for me.”
Shannon Kelley, programming director for Outfest 2002, remembers seeing “Xanadu” “with a couple other nerd friends” at a mall in his hometown of Gallup, N.M. “I wasn’t immediately won over. I went to see it for Gene Kelly, that’s how gay I was. I didn’t think they respected the legacy of Gene Kelly.”
Now he’s a total convert. “The things that it’s most innocent about are the things that are easiest to love,” Kelley said. “It’s a mess of a movie, but it’s our mess.”
A Fitting Tribute
What better way to pay homage, Outfest reasoned, than with a “Xanadu” sing-along at the Ford Amphitheatre, that arcadian bower perched above the Hollywood Freeway’s roar, across from the Bowl? And what better way to put aside errant thoughts of, oh, the swooning stock market, global warming and the pending U.S.-Iraq war?
And so it was that, following the example of “The Sound of Music,” “Grease,” “Mary Poppins” and other Hollywood classics recently reborn as group karaoke-fests, what some billed as the world’s first official “Xanadu” sing-along was held Thursday.
Outfest braced for some 1,200 Museheads to show up (which they did), to lift champagne flutes, shout preemptive wisecracks at the screen, flick their butane lighters during the ballads and cheer the main characters toward a Hollywood happy ending. Costumes and props were encouraged but, for safety reasons, roller-skates weren’t. “But we’ll be skating in our hearts,” Kelley predicted.
A kind of “Wizard of Oz” for the pre-Reagan era, “Xanadu” was a fairy tale that spoke in code language to its times and its largely closeted devotees. Much like “The Wizard of Oz,” which gained pathos in hindsight because it opened in 1939, on the eve of global warfare, “Xanadu” was a harmless cinematic bonbon that could be savored guiltlessly before life started going to hell for some of those who cherished it: It premiered the summer before the first murky news of an obscure “gay cancer” hit the headlines.
It also was a great date movie, whether your date had a beard or not. “It was one of those test movies,” said Anderson, who is gay. “If he could sit through the movie, if you got it, you were sort of like my kind of person.”
Pretty ironic considering that, for a time, Anderson “couldn’t tell anybody” about his secret “Xanadu” passion. Instead he’d claim that his license plate referred to the fabulous mansion in “Citizen Kane” or to Coleridge’s famous poem. For Anderson, “Xanadu” was the celluloid love that dared not speak its name.
(This may be the place to recall that Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1772-1834, writes of Xanadu in the first line of his poem “Kubla Khan” as an enchanted palace within a walled garden, “a stately pleasure dome.” In a famous literary footnote, Coleridge later said he had written the poem immediately upon waking from a long dream, scribbling his recollections down as fast as he could. But before he could finish, a businessman banging on his door broke the poet’s train of thought. The remainder of “Kubla Khan” consists of Coleridge’s fervent plea that a muse materialize and help him retrieve his fleeting impressions. The poem’s imagery is lush, hallucinatory, extravagant. Reading it you may think, “Wow, what drugs was this guy on?” According to Coleridge, it was a prescription anodyne.)
Anderson and other fans also believe that “Xanadu” is one of the most evocative films ever set in Los Angeles, a city that always seems to be half asleep, dreaming contentedly of itself. In the movie, L.A. appears at its most air-headed and ephemeral, but also at its most tolerant and open-minded. Museheads take pride in pointing out that the cast is ethnically mixed (though largely in nonspeaking roles).
The city also looks ravishing, attired in the kind of late-afternoon light that locals describe as “pearly.” You might say that Los Angeles itself is “Xanadu’s” muse. “It [the movie] reveals more about the time and place than I think it meant to,” said Larry Wilson, a professional magician and friend of Anderson’s. “It’s so L.A., in the clothes and the look and the peoples’ concerns.”
Missed the Sing-Along
Needless to say, Anderson was heartbroken when he found out he couldn’t attend the sing-along. But he had the best of excuses: By an all-but-unimaginable coincidence, he had decided to design an entire weekend of his dance-exercise class around a “Xanadu” theme, and he would need to spend the day of the sing-along getting ready for it.
His plans were all set. He would play only music from the soundtrack, plus some other classic Olivia and ELO stuff. He would decorate the Quest fitness and spiritual center in Santa Monica, where he works as an independent contractor, with “Xanadu” paraphernalia.
Much of the handiwork was done by his partner, Bruce Zwinge, who runs the costume shop for Cal State L.A.'s theater department. There’d be “Xanadu"-themed contests and giveaways throughout the two-day event, which was held Saturday and Sunday, two days after the sing-along. Zwinge said that his partner had dreamed of throwing a “Xanadu” party for years, and only learned of the sing-along by accident a couple weeks ago. “I was shocked,” Zwinge said.
While Anderson and Zwinge were gearing up for the big weekend bash, the sing-along went ahead at the Ford. Co-presented by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, it attracted hard-core Museheads and Olivia-istas, as well as the merely kitsch-curious. “Every time you see it, it gets better, I guess because it’s not as bad as you remember,” said Rod Pinks, wearing a blue Olivia T-shirt as he sat with his friend Les Perkins munching baloney sandwiches and potato chips before the show.
Mia Jenner, a petite woman with long blond hair, turned up in a long skirt, a “Xanadu” T-shirt and roller skates, but she wasn’t in much danger of losing her footing at the steep hillside venue. Named “Miss Roller City 2001" after a Riverside County rink, Jenner says she took up skating in the early ‘80s after seeing “Xanadu.” “I pretended I was Olivia Newton-John,” she said, “because she got to be a cartoon in the movie and she got the guy in the movie and she had sisters.”
After a brief warmup by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, the movie finally started, and the audience began whooping and clapping as soon as the first images flickered up on the 17-by-39-foot screen. There were big cheers for Olivia and Gene Kelly’s opening credits, and a few scattered boos for poor Michael Beck. But everyone cheered at the part where Newton-John skates up behind Beck on the Santa Monica promenade and kisses him, then vanishes.
As the action progressed, the interactions got louder and lustier. Any sign of skin--an open shirt revealing luxuriant chest hair, too-tight shorts on either male or female--was greeted with whistles and applause.
L.A. looked even better than remembered: Venice Beach, the downtown skyline, the Hollywood Bowl and the Pan Pacific Auditorium, an Art Deco landmark that burned down a few years after the film was shot. Empathic yells greeted Newton-John’s most memorable line: “It must be frustrating to waste your talents on things that don’t really matter to you.”
About 2-1 males-to-females, the crowd put its own spin on the same-sex dialogue, as when Danny proposes that he and Sonny should open a nightclub together:
Danny: Kid, you’re going to be my partner!
Sonny: I don’t know the first thing about being a partner!
Danny: It’s easy!
Man seated in front of me: Sugar daddy!
The movie is ludicrous, touching, excruciatingly badly acted in parts and, well ... strangely and utterly charming. By the time Newton-John launched into the theme-song finale, everyone was on their feet, swaying and dancing in the aisles.
Then, too soon, the lights came up and the crowd was racing toward the parking lot. Already the evening had begun to recede. In the cold light of day, this ethereal scene would be hard to recapture. The muse had left the building, and Miss Roller City 2001 was nowhere in sight....
A Xanadu Weekend
Two nights and a day have elapsed since the sing-along. It’s one of those magical midsummer Saturday afternoons in Santa Monica. On the sidewalk outside Quest fitness center, a modest two-story red brick building at the corner of Broadway and 19th Street, Olivia Newton-John’s voice can be heard from inside, just a few blocks from where a good chunk of “Xanadu” was filmed a generation earlier.
Dripping sweat from every visible pore and shouting exhortations through a head mike, Anderson is putting his spandex-clad pupils through an Olympian workout. Several sport “Xanadu” T shirts and black caps emblazoned with white letters: “Ken Anderson--Xanadu--7/20/21-02.”
“Ken Anderson’s Xanadu Weekend--A Place Where Dreams Come True,” read the fliers out front, and it was clear that many of his students believed it. “It’s such an amazing thing, because what [“Xanadu”] is saying is anything can change somebody’s life, anything can be your muse. And in Ken’s case, it’s literally true,” said Larry Wilson, the magician, who was wearing a cream-colored tuxedo and acting as the event’s master of ceremonies.
For the weekend, the studio was festooned with purple, blue and white balloons. A giant reproduction of the “Xanadu” logo hung on a wall. Outside the studio’s front doors, Zwinge had built a miniature replica of the Pan Pacific towers.
After the 1 1/2-hour workout ended and the 30 or so attendees toweled off and grabbed bottled water, it was time to hand out some door prizes, followed by the day’s piece de resistance: a karaoke screening of “Xanadu.”
“He really follows his own heart more than anybody I’ve ever met,” said Janet Andrea, a lawyer, as she watched Anderson dance with another student, imitating Kelly and Newton-John. “He’s writing a book on ‘Rosemary’s Baby'--his other favorite movie. That is his favorite movie. This is the movie that changed his life.”
A pleasant thought occurs: Maybe Anderson did find a way to make movies his life after all. Outside the studio, the gentle Santa Monica light danced across the palm trees and the freeway entrance signs. For an instant, an ocean breeze rose up and brushed my face, like a hand. Then the moment passed by and was gone.