When Charlie Lustman, who ran the Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax Avenue until it closed in June 2006, was diagnosed with a rare bone cancer that year, he thought that his world would be forever changed for the worse. Doctors removed half of his jaw, fitting him with a prosthetic.
But rather than let it get the best of him, Lustman turned the experience into something positive. A lifelong musician, the 47-year-old wrote a musical called “Made Me Nuclear,” a one-man show about his illness and subsequent surgery that goes on national tour again in September (details at www.mademenuclear.com).
Here, he talks about staying positive, using the mind and spirit during recovery, and helping others through his music.
Tell me about your illness and treatment.
I had osteosarcoma in my upper jaw, which is a kind of cancer that is extremely rare. The only thing you do for that is cut it out, which they did. I had a double maxillectomy back to back, because they didn’t get it out in the first cut.
They gave me chemo for a year just in case that spread, but there was no evidence of spreading. It was halfway through the whole experience that I realized that this was going to be truly an experience that involved my mind and spirit — that they are doing what they’re doing to my body, but my mind and spirit is totally up to me. I had a choice to look at this as a negative or a positive.
What is the musical about?
It’s the journey, everything I went through from the phone call to getting scanned to surgery, treatment, recovery and beyond. It goes in chronological order; it’s all told through pop songs. It’s like a Beatles record, like Sgt. Pepper meets cancer survival. You’re left with a universal message that we can all overcome our negative thoughts so we can enjoy the day. It’s not about whether you’re going to survive or not survive — we all don’t really know how much time we have, so let’s enjoy the time we do have, which is now.
How do you hope to help others through your music?
I want to take the opera to people going through the same journey that I was on.
You have a choice how you want to see this, and that’s my work. I’m showing that anything’s possible. Look at me: I got my jaw sawed off, nuked with chemo, and I turned this around, wrote a pop opera, and five years later I went all around the world singing these songs. I have a prosthetic jaw; my entire jaw comes out of my mouth, and I go out there and I sing my heart out better than I did before cancer.
I know that I was left on the planet by the power above to deliver this message of humanity, which is a message of hope.
You talk a lot about the mind and how your health affects it. What is the connection?
When I started to look at my cancer as a possibility, I started to feel better, even though the same chemo was running through my veins. I stopped getting the side effects — the mouth sores, the nausea — I started realizing that by seeing that I can create something positive out of this, and my body responded. As I started to write this opera, I started to feel that I really have a purpose in all of this, and I found something bigger than myself.
When I was diagnosed, I thought it was the end of the world. But I got stronger, and I recovered beautifully.
What was your career prior to this?
I’ve always been a musician. In 1999, I saved the Silent Movie Theatre. I remodeled it, and I ran old movies religiously for seven years. I’ve always been a musician and a songwriter, but I decided to do something crazy like reopen a cinema. I’ve always wanted to create one-of-a-kind things.