The actor lurked in the shadows of a nameless doorway, studying the street. His muse was a tragic one, and he felt well in place standing along this sordid thoroughfare. Not only did it suit his mood, but he supposed he was as much a has-been as were the proprietary interests of this one time haven for the performing arts.
It was difficult to believe this had once been a place of high-life and culture. There were mushrooms growing through the broad cracks in the street, and he doubted very much if they were edible ones. Though perhaps they were to the people around here, who had reason to be interested in the topic of their edibility.
The theaters were largely closed and many of their fronts had lost their lettering; the Bijou and Roxy were nowhere to be seen. Others, still open, had poor fare — edited-down detective reels from nearly a hundred years ago, women-on-the-loose epics, an expose of a hobo jungle, a documentary on the development of custom cars. About the best offered, discounting live performances, was a film on the life and times of Casey Jones, a railroad man from nowhere near, with a banjo accompaniment by a man described in the advertising as having been Davy Crockett’s sidekick. Even if they were doing their best to present entertainment, he did not want to belie the spirit of the thing by attending and not being entertained.
He’d been outside the theater where this was showing one evening when a bunch of people exploded out of the theater shouting “He jumped out of a train into the water car of another one to show them how to operate their new hydraulic brake! Risked his life!” It brought him down. One of them shouted, “It was like science fiction! A diesel engine is science!” That was a demented perception and he suspected the fellow had been brainwashed by a propagandistic advertising department who were attempting to find modernity in what they were presenting to the public.
Frankly, he thought, for he had no one to be frank with, what they presented in that and the other theaters had more in common with horror than with any other literary milieu. In fact, if they were billed as horror attractions, the street might have more patronage than it presently enjoyed.
“There’s more to this street than meets the eye!”
He was being hailed by someone who’d stepped out of one building or another while he was looking at the condition of the paving. The actor decided it might be a good idea to see what he had to say. “You are referring to its long history?” he asked.
“I could be. It does have a tendency to come to life from time to time. It’s called a ‘Happening.’ You can’t keep that nostalgia down. But what single most significant quality do you think this part of town has?”
“It attracts people like you, actors, and in just the right mood for what we do here.”
“I’m not in the mood to watch a show.”
“You don’t know it, but you are. I’m a theatrical angel. We are studying the meaning and life-significance of the depressive mode.”
“Well, there’s no horror in that, and I was just thinking that it would promote the area splendidly if the business attempted to become known for its horror presentations.”
“Why, that’s a splendid idea! You must be an idea man! We need that kind. Here, everyone contributes something. By the way, it’d be a mercy to my family if you’d cross my palm with a half C-note. They’re somewhat lacking in sustenance. I wouldn’t ask, but they contribute to my creative impulse, and I’m a patriot! It’s stars and stripes forever, to name a revue you missed!”
“Stars and Stripes Forever?”
“Unending patriotism! But I was just asking as a token, part of a ceremony. My family? They could all drop dead tomorrow! You don’t need to come across with any fancy fives. I know of a good place to talk, let’s do just that.”
The man led him to a little lighted-up place whose sign said it was a “bistro.” They went inside and ordered a “Smooth Lager” and an “Apple Juice Cocktail” and watched the lanterns on the tables play through the bubbling beverages, as the menu advised them to do. The man told him confidentially, “I want the shows to improve around here. Your idea isn’t what I had in mind, but it is an idea. When one stops to consider, horror might indeed lay in the groundwork for making the shows more meaningful.”
The actor thought this one over. He’d been intending to go elsewhere, but now here was a proposition and he’d never been known to turn one of those down when it involved the theater. His acquaintance, the angel, let him go after a couple of hours with the further statement that he’d let the people who ran things around here know of his presence.
The next day, in the rather-too-revealing light of morning, he watched that same light reveal the quality of the paper in the advertising for THE DOLL HE MET WAS TOO STRONG FOR HIM THAT SEASON, about a chorus girl whose relationship bucked the trends in behavior. The fiancee’s solution was two-timing, a mistake that brought in the police. The actor doubted he could relate to the characters. While he stared at it, a fellow he hadn’t seen because no one would came up and told him to report to the Palatial Province, a hotel.
He approached the place cautiously, otherwise following the instructions given him by the hustler. He was still thinking about how the actress in that film was described in her role as having both carbides and carbohydrates. If anyone cared what she had about her, they wouldn’t have cared any more if that’s what she’d had about her. A must-avoid.
The mogul he met had words for him. “It isn’t very good around here,” he said. “They strive for reality, but it isn’t real enough. It’s an illusion that it can be considered public entertainment. But with just the right touch it could be show business again. I’m told you have that touch. What did you say your name was again?”
“I’m just ‘the Actor.’”
“Don’t want to say what your name is? Good! Because ‘the Actor’ is a good enough name for you! We don’t want known names here, we want to start at the ground! You start tomorrow, at a hundred rupees a day!”
“What am I in? What am I to do?”
“What you thought of. Transform what there is into public attractions.”
No one knows the Actor’s name to this day. But his abilities were unquestionable and well worth the sums paid to him. The District is well known today, and the shows they present are unprecedented esoterica that will leave you wandering the streets. It goes to show, and so do the audiences. The next time you’re there, tell them who sent you, if you can.
Copyright © 2003 by John Thiel