by Carol Biederstadt
Nearly 70 years have passed since the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, including 33 years that have vaporized since the events depicted in the once futuristic novel were said to have occurred. Still, the recent spate of press coverage of the novel, especially here in the US, bears testimony to the continued relevance of Orwell’s classic. In late January, for instance, major publications such as The New York Times and USA Today reported on the book’s rapid ascent to the top of the Amazon bestseller list after Kellyanne Conway appeared to use Doublespeak to label claims made by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer as “alternative facts.” Nineteen Eighty-Four was in the spotlight yet again this week when nearly 200 theatres across the US and a scattering of theatres around the world banded together for a national screening of Michael Radford’s 1984 film adaptation of Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece. Organized by the United State of Cinema in response to President Trump’s recently proposed budget, which would cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the event was scheduled for April 4th so as to coincide with the day on which Winston Smith penned the first entry in his illicit diary. The idea of being one of thousands of people viewing a national screening of 1984 was too much to resist, and for the second time in about four months, I found myself making the trek to a rather distant theatre to attend a production of 1984.
My destination this time was the historic Landmark Loew’s Theatre in Jersey City, New Jersey, one of only five “Wonder Theatres” that opened in the New York metropolitan area in 1929 and 1930. Now a community arts center, the architecturally impressive and spectacularly ornate theatre had been saved from demolition and was now being operated entirely by volunteers from the Friends of the Loew’s. A flier informed me that the screening had been sponsored by the Jersey City Free Public Library, partnering with Friends of the Loew’s, and as a bonus, the first 100 attendees were to receive a free copy of the novel, courtesy of the JCFPL Foundation. Doors opened at 7:00, and not expecting a huge turnout on a Tuesday night, I arrived shortly thereafter, only to find the books long gone and people queuing in two lines to get in. Surprising even the organizers, the event had drawn over 500 people. The audience, I noted, was a mixture of young and old, including an elderly man wearing a shirt covered with “Hillary” and “Bernie” buttons who caught my eye.
Compounding the excitement of seeing this classic film on National Screening Day in a theatre abounding with cathedral-like splendor was a special performance by organist Bob Maidhoff playing the magnificent “Wonder Morton” Theatre Pipe Organ. Although not the original organ of the Landmark Loew’s, the Wonder Morton is a nearly identical sister organ that had once graced the Paradise Theatre in the Bronx, one of the other four “Loew’s Wonder Theatres”, before ending up in storage for a number of years. The Garden State Theatre Organ Society, which had purchased the organ and transported it from Chicago, spent over a decade to get the instrument in working order again, but it was clearly time and energy well spent. Aptly chosen yet cheerful-sounding tunes such as “Springtime for Hitler” reverberated from massive pipes hidden behind the walls near the proscenium, enveloping the theatre in sound. Wrapping up the set was the equally fitting “Can You Hear the People Sing?” from Les Misérables, followed by an ominous sounding march that signaled curtain time. The organ performance was a treat I had not been expecting.
The film began, and the gripping tale of Winston Smith unfolded before us. A panel discussion had been planned to follow the screening, and while about half of the audience were filing out after the film ended, those of us who stayed behind took a few moments to readjust to 2017. A panel of five local arts and community leaders then led a discussion that covered a variety of topics on themes inspired by the film. Many who remained were eager to chime in, and it soon became apparent that the mind-numbing oppression of Orwell’s imagined 1984 – visually enhanced in the film by the muted colors resulting from the bleached bypass process – was something that resonated with people on both sides of the political spectrum.
Before leaving the theatre, I climbed the grand staircase to get a better view of the entrance hall and its impressive chandelier. I discovered a large, dimly lit anteroom replete with sofas and a now inoperative fireplace adjoining an elegant restroom. I commented on the grandeur of the facilities to a fellow theatregoer, and a brief conversation ensued. She told me that she remembered the theatre and its imposing restroom from when she was a child, adding that an old-fashioned box vending lipsticks had once hung on the wall. “They only came in two colors,” she reminisced, “red and orange.” Thinking aloud I wondered if they might have been the old Tangee lipsticks, prompting yet another woman, washing her hands, to join in: “Oh yes! The Tangee lipsticks! Remember them?” And there, in what is said to be the most diverse city in the United States – in the restroom of a theatre from a bygone time – the three of us shared a moment from a common past, and almost as if through primordial memory, the rhyme that had haunted Winston Smith began to echo through my head:
Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St Clement’s . . .
9th April 2017