Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Fate of Old Theaters and Young Magicians

I stopped by the Balboa last week to show my support. Two audience members were chatting before the show and I disagreed with their statements.

One said that the Balboa was closing at the end of the summer. He qualified the statement with a "probably" or a "most likely." I'm not sure I agree with that. I also overheard two of the staff talking with each other. One was asking the other how long she had worked at the Balboa. I couldn't hear her answer but his response was something like "you're an old-timer." The woman looked about 20 years old to me. He went on to say that his impression was that half the staff was new and half were "old-timers." The girl responded that was "only until recently." Presumably Gary Meyer's leaving or the lead up to his announcement precipitated some changes.

Anyway, getting back to the likelihood of the Balboa closing, I wonder how likely that is. It is certainly possible but given the closure of the Red Vic, I wonder if it is likely. I've noticed the Balboa Theater's newsletters have been publicizing films shown by "their good friends at the Vogue" for several months. I thought it odd that the Balboa would mention another theater in their newsletter as they were in dire need of business.

After Meyer announced is upcoming departure, I read that the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation (who operate and own the Vogue) were interested in the Balboa. Undoubtedly, they have been in discussions for months. Unlike the Red Vic, the Balboa is housed in this old and large building constructed for movie exhibition. I'm not sure how attractive it would be to other business. I'm not sure if the City would grant permits for other use. The building the Red Vic was in is owned by members of the Red Vic collective & the theater was behind on its rent so there is a certain sense that the owners of the Red Vic had exhausted all avenues as well as themselves.

Gary Meyer only subleases the space the Balboa is in. In some circles, if a theater is having a hard time economically, it must be because the lease is too damn high (to paraphrase Jimmy McMillan). Something tells me that if the Balboa tries to go out of business, there will be a "grassroots" uprising against the idea.


The man who mentioned the upcoming closure of the Balboa was speaking to another man. The second man had read the article about the reasons Meyer is leaving and opined that "less than 10% of theaters can handle digital" so the deadline to convert would have to be postponed. I found this statement to be ludicrous. Every screen at the largest metroplexes nearest me have been converted to digital - the Century Daly City, the AMC 1000, the AMC Metreon, the Century San Francisco Center, etc. I later found supporting data to show more than 50% of the screens in the US have been converted as of earlier this year.

What does this all mean? I don't know. The Balboa won't be allowed to fail and without $200,000 for a new digital projection system, they will be "reduced" to showing 35 mm rep house prints? That would suit me fine but I doubt that will happen or if it does, it won't last for long.


I did go to the Balboa to see a movie. The film was:

Make Believe; directed by J. Clay Tweel; documentary; (2010) - Official Website

Make Believe is a documentary which follows six teenagers as they compete for the title of Teen World Champion at the World Magic Seminar in Las
Vegas. The six teenagers include

Hiroki Hara, a quiet Japanese boy from a remote village in Japan

Bill Koch, a roly poly 19 year old from Chicago who is a skilled musician as well

Derek McKee, a 14 year old from Colorado who may take his preparations lightly

Krystyn Lambert, a blonde high school senior from Malibu whose pedigree and wholesome good looks make her odds on favorite

Siphiwe Fangase & Nkumbuzo Nkonyana, two South African boys with enthusiasm and pleasant demeanors

The film follows these six contestants as they prepare for competition and then provides backstage looks at them during the competition. Some of the contestants were more interesting than other. Siphiwe Fangase & Nkumbuzo Nkonyana lived in shanties Cry, the Beloved Country which made their upbeat dispositions even more surprising. However, the two most compelling contestants were Hara & Lambert.

Lambert has the attractive looks of a stereotypical California girl, appeared to be an driven over-achiever (she was her high school class president; two years running I believe) and was the anointed one. She had been performing since a young age, appeared on television specials and the prestigious Magic Castle and was mentored (managed?) by Gay Blackstone, a pioneering female magician. Leading up to the competition, it felt more like a confirmation of Lambert's supremacy. However, Lambert seemed tightly wound and Blackstone was a piece of work, telling Lambert how she was dismissed by her peers for being a woman. As Blackstone recounts the story to Lambert, she was told she got a gig because she had tits. Blackstone bellows "Damn right I have tits!" Lambert is left with a queasy smile. Blackstone comes off like some Hollywood agent stereotype - cynical, crass, sexist and more than willing to compromise Lambert's integrity (if not for a buck then under the banner of life lessons). I was left wondering who the real Krystyn Lambert is and frankly, I didn't really like the Krystyn Lambert that was being cultivated by Blackstone who implied Lambert need to sexualize or objectify herself to raise her profile. I thought Lambert looked younger than her 17 or 18 years so at times, Lambert's dress and appearance left me uncomfortable.

In one telling scene, Blackstone rushes to congratulate Hara after his performance. Lambert exits from backstage to see the two chatting. She attempts to join the conversation but Blackstone seems to ignore her and Lambert is too shy or upset to interrupt them. Eventually, Lambert returns backstage without saying a word.

The polar opposite of Lambert was Hiroki Hara. Hara grew up in a small town that can't even receive a cell phone signal. He learned magic through slowing videotapes of magic acts and books. Hara dreams of going to the Magic Castle...where Lambert is a member, teaches and performs. It becomes clear to this casual observer that Hara had the most skills and that fact is confirmed by the commentary of many magicians interviewed during the film.

During the competition, Hara nails his acts while Lambert drops a ball and ruining her illusion & later has trouble with one of her props. It was very amateurish looking. Although I didn't feel schadenfreude, I definitely breathed a sigh of relief. I figured Lambert was a shoo-in and since the preliminary voting was performed by the judges, I thought Lambert wouldn't make the finals. Instead, the judges amazingly gave her a pass to the finals where the audience would choose the winner by vote. I was near apoplectic. Who is the Las Vegas audience going to choose - blonde, nubile, Causcasian woman or shy, quiet, skinny Asian guy?

Spoiler Alert!

The audience chose Hara for first place, Koch for second place and two Japanese brothers who weren't featured much in the film took third place. Fangase & Nkonyana won the spirit award or congeniality prize. I felt a tear well up in my eye when Hara won. I think the results couldn't have been better if they had been scripted.

Six months after the competition, Hara had gone on an international tour and was booked at the Magic Castle. He seemed as though he would make magic his career. Lambert was matriculating at UCLA, taught classes at the Magic Castle, seemed much more at ease with herself and appeared as though magic would be a hobby (not even life-long). Both Hara & Lambert seemed better off with the results. Bill Koch is a talented musician (he could play Scott Joplin's Ragtime from memory on the piano) who returned to university on a music scholarship. Derek McKee seemed like a strange boy in need of some more lessons in life. Upon seeing Hara performance, McKee quipped, "When I grow up, I want to be Asian." Beyond his hero worship of Hara, that sentence reveals a myriad of insights into the psyche of Master McKee. The South Africans, frankly, looked as though they would have a tough road ahead of them and that that week in Vegas would be the highlight of their lives.

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