I remember playing O Solo Mio on the organ as a kid and my father swooping in from the other room and angrily shouting at me to stop. “Why?” I asked, confused. “Just don’t ever play that song again!” These were the days when adults did not explain their feelings to kids.
And so this extreme reaction remained a mystery for many years to come. I always imagined that he associated it with some long ago lost love affair and the memory was too painful. Finally, decades later, I asked him again about the song and he explained that as a teenager, he choked on some food and almost died and that song was playing on the radio at the time.
This was my first lesson in trauma, the way catastrophic events get stored in the nerve endings and the muscle memories and anything that calls that moment back triggers the same reaction in the body, mind and heart that it experienced during the event itself. The way a car backfiring can set off a war vet with post-traumatic stress disorder, a person who looks like someone who abused you can set off alarms, the way a song can call back a life-threatening incident. New studies of trauma indicate that the presence of trauma in our bodies and psyches can even be stored in our DNA and passed down by our ancestors who were not able to heal themselves. In short, Hell is not a place in the afterlife reserved for most current Republicans and Putin’s cronies, it lives in each and every one of us like a bullet triggered in any number of ways by life’s experiences.
Yet Heaven equally lives in us and can be called up in similar ways. A smell that reminds us of the safe, cozy, vibrant feeling in Grandma’s kitchen, a song that evokes our first kiss on a moonlit night, a step out of the car into the pine-scented air of a mountain campground we revisited each summer. All the things that bring us to our “happy place” that lives forever inside of ourselves.
And so I returned to one of my personal heavens on earth last night when I stepped into the Vogue Theater to see the new Downton Abbey movie. The smell of the popcorn, the buzz of the crowd, the alluring invitation of the big screen in the darkened theater and joy of all joys, the recorded organ music playing before the movie started. My eyes would moisten up several times throughout the movie, but here they were already wet before the movie began. After two years of sheltering with the TV, I was back to the Palace of Dreams I had visited and revisited my whole life. I had forgotten how much I loved this, how much I missed this.
When the one-screen movie theaters with character began to close in San Francisco— the Surf, the Gateway, the Alhambra, the Coronet, the Bridge, the Clay, all swallowed up by the slick, multi-screen cinemas, I was already sad. The pandemic threatened them further and I simply didn’t know what I would do if the Castro Theater, the Emperor of the Heavens, would close. This enormous, ornate, old and beautiful theater with an organ that rose up from the floor and an organist who played the themes of the movie to be shown, ending in the San Francisco song that had the audience singing and clapping along while the organ descended and the lights dimmed, this was the Heaven of all Heavens. So many extraordinary films there that swept me away into magical lands alongside a few hundred other souls united in the magic of celluloid.
Many of these films found me rooted to my seat at the end not ready to break the spell, savoring the last echo of the magic and mystery. The Sound of Music and Wizard of Oz sing-a-longs, the grand epics like the Seven Samarui, Children of Paradise, Black Orpheus, East of Eden, the heartwarming It Happened One Night, It’s a Wonderful life, Some Like It Hot, the riveting thrillers without undue blood and gore like Hitchcock’s Vertigo, The Lady Vanishes, North by Northwest. Some of the classic films that shaped me, shaped my culture and lifted me up into a world larger than my own. And so much of it in the sacred space of the Castro Theater, a theater that remains mostly closed, now rented out for special events and film festivals. I haven’t given up hope yet, but the fact that it has not returned to itself is one of the great losses of the pandemic.
Thank God for the Vogue. The only single-screen theater remaining in San Francisco and the added touch of the recorded organ music calling up the Castro is what brought those tears to my eyes. And then the movie itself delivered what I hope for— a Dickens-style ending of all the years of conflict and in-fighting brought into love and understanding and forgiveness and redemption, neatly tied together and gift-wrapped in a way that life seldom is, and yet, we still dream it might be. This particular fairy-tale ending made even more powerful from the six seasons and 52 episodes that preceded this movie.
May the movie theaters re-open, the popcorn keep popping, the crowds gather and the organs play!
(But don’t play O Solo Mio.)