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My roommate works at King’s Theater, a movie palace in Flatbush, Brooklyn which opened in 1929 and closed in 1977 (neither of those were very good years for New York City).  The theater stood empty for decades as vandals and the weather destroyed the lavish faux-baroque opulence within, yet nobody had the heart to raze the grand edifice and the city wisely held onto the property waiting for the right moment…which finally arrived in the two-thousand-teens when a private organization spent a near 9 figure sum to renovate the palace to its glory (albeit as a real theater now, rather than a lavish movie house).  All sorts of strange mid-tier international acts have poured through since and I always look forward to hearing from my roommate about David Blaine (who vomited live frogs all over the place), the Hip-Hop Nutcracker, the Snoop Dogg morality play “Redemption of a Dogg” etc. etc.

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Anyway, last Monday was the office party, and he graciously invited me to look around inside the theater (I am familiar with the façade, pictured at the top of the post, but I never checked out live boxing or the Allman Brothers, and thus never passed the main door).   The theater was even more grand inside than outside (as you can see by the house photos immediately above), and walking around on the stage and looking at the stage machinery behind the curtain was a huge thrill.

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One of the miniature sagas of the long decline and unexpected resurrection of the theater is the story of the house organ (although sadly, it does not have the same happy ending).  The original organ was a  Robert Morton company super organ known as “the Wonder Morton” which was played to the delight of the house between shows and during silent films.   The organ was taken down in 1974–with good intentions for later installation at a working theater—but alas, the pieces were lost, except for the console which went to a private home.  When the theater was restored, the console returned from exile (although sadly with electronic guts).  I took pictures of the Wonder Morton console because it fits one of my artistic/musical obsessions: vanished music that plays only in the imagination.

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I love the lyres of classical Greek art, and the pigs playing bagpipes in ruined medieval abbeys and the vanished symphonic orchestras of ancient Rome, not just because of their visual dynamism, but because looking at them evokes a whole lost world.  The sad disengaged cockpit/console of the Wonder Morton touched these same levers in my heart.  Staring at it, I could almost hear the bygone music.  Plus, just look at the names of the settings!   I can almost hear the golden beauty of the chrysoglott, the pastoral serenity of the subharp, or the awesome majesty of tuba mirabilis.

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Ah…the days that are no more.  I will be sure to include some more silent symphony posts about musical instruments which we can never hear–although, come to think of it–I hear there is a theater in Jersey that has one of these organs in working condition….

In the Pavilion of the Red Clown (Robert Williams, 2001, oil on canvas)

In the Pavilion of the Red Clown (Robert Williams, 2001, oil on canvas)

Here is a contemporary picture by Robert Williams, the master of low-brow art.  In fact it is so very contemporary that you can still order high quality limited edition prints directly from the artist (who will hopefully forgive me for using his image–considering that I just linked to his online store).  The painting is obviously appropriate for Halloween week because of the masks, the pageantry, and the salacious costume worn by the circus girl (to say nothing of the uninhibited and rampant alcohol abuse on display), but what is the larger meaning?

At first the painting seems like a straightforward representation of an evil clown menacing a damsel in distress—the stock-in-trade cliché of horror films and pulp fiction everywhere. The inappropriate tongue-like nose on the clown’s mask, the rearing serpent, and the clown’s incarnadine garb all serve a rather straightforward Freudian narrative of male perversion and oppression.

Yet the clown grows more sympathetic on closer viewing. His leg is a prosthetic.  He is an alcoholic. It is questionable if he is menacing the showgirl or if she is a knowing part of the act.  The clown’s flamboyant red Pagliacci-style costume illustrates his intensity as a performance, and (as in Pagliacci ) the point of the painting is how thoroughly artists become subsumed into their art.  We the audience are represented by the (vaguely) surprised showgirl and Williams himself is the desperate artist who, like a desperate maimed clown, is trying to get a rise out of us with every old trick in the book. See how desperate and drunk he is! His life has become his art—and it is a bemusing spectacle. The poor clown doesn’t even have his caged bird but just an angry capricious serpent and a drinking problem.

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