Thursday, May 31, 2007

Now What?

For the first time, one can walk into the Garden Theatre without fear of sticking to something or direct erotic excitement. That is what I did on a recent afternoon when I peeked into the door which used to be lit by ever-blinking yellow light bulbs. The carpet still stank yet the condition of the lobby was far from being dangerous. After 34 years of constant moaning from the screen, the theatre finally enjoyed a short period of silence.

As a relatively new Northsider, I didn’t witness the rise of pornography business behind the door. When I moved into a townhouse on North Ave, it puzzled me to know that just about 1.5 miles away from downtown, surrounded by Andy Warhol Museum, the Mattress Factory, Aviary and CHILDREN’S MUSEUM there was a movie theatre where you can watch X-rated movies, live shows and perhaps some real actions right beside you.

You can call him blunt or stupid. But former owner George Androtsakis has every right to defend his ownership. In particular, if one of his special movie theatres crumbles in the court, the rest of his theatres could be that much easier to seize. In fact, he may have saved the theatre in some way. After I have seen so many architecture gems in North Side were abandoned to such a degree that restoration is impossible, I kind of appreciate that for such a long period, at least someone had used and not done irreparable damage to the theatre.

On the other hand, Androtsakis’ defeat is inevitable in that virtually no one is on his side (except maybe some exceptional libertarians). In fact, the whole block of the start of West North Ave. could have been saved sooner if the Garden were not there (at least as far as the inept planning process was executed). On both sides of the Garden Theatre, buildings have been emptied for a long time. On the very morning when the fire of the houses next to it was put off, I walked by and wondered whether it was the Garden’s owner who did that: after all, you don’t expect to see porn video in an exciting booming business district. The more forlorn it looks, the more suitable for an adult theatre. Nevertheless, the scene of out-fashioned blinking bulbs in the day light with two soot-covered windowless buildings was disheartening.

Now What?

From the brief conversation with the people who were doing renovation jobs, I’ve heard that a play is scheduled for the theatre’s reopening in the middle of June. I doubt that everything would be in the right order by then, but it was a wonderful idea to let people IN before the flames of happiness of final acquisition cease. In fact, URA should take advantage of this special group of people, who are probably more interested in seeing the theatre than the show and may come even if it is “Deep Throat” on the screen, because they ARE the people who care about the neighborhood and the future of the theatre. A well-planed survey can be distributed to know what people think of the current renovation, what can be done for better and what, in the long term, can benefit the neighborhood and the city better.

Obviously, “Now What” is not a question with easy answers. It is exciting to know something can be developed and changed, but developed into what has yet to be determined. Everyone may have his own answer, however it is a theatre which ultimately functions as a theatre most effectively, therefore not many choices are left in the basket.

First, it is not wise to convert the Garden into a regular movie theatre. The city has already been surrounded by state-of-art complex-cinemas and the Garden does not have big parking space and huge screens. For small cinemas which focus on art and independent movies, Manor, Regent Square and Harris serve the purpose very well plus Harris is close enough to draw the same geographical audience as the potential Garden.

As for performing art, cultural district has the best revues. But that does not necessarily mean that the Garden cannot develop its own niche. After all, not many musicians, actors or dancers could afford to book Heinz Hall, Carnegie Music Hall, Benedum Center or O’Relly. Some chamber music or piano recital works better in a smaller hall which provides a sense of intimacy. Same is true for some play with small troupe which can benefit from the catalyst derived from audience close by.

The Garden may never attract world-class artists such as Emerson String Quartet or pianist Lang Lang. But looking hard within the city, you will never run out of performers. In particular, a lot of young amateur musicians cry for a space to gain invaluable live performance experience. Within the city, thousands of young kids are learning music instruments. Some may be privately tutored; some might be involved in a school band. They could form the base of the audience and performers at the same time. It is true that schools may have auditoriums, but to perform in a public theatre with your full-size pictured poster on the front-window and face a group of audience who are friends, colleagues, mentors or unknown music lovers is totally different experience. It is important to know that the sound may differ when you have a full house of audience seated in a hall bigger than the rehearsal room, to know that fingers may slip or intonation may go wild. Most of all, to play for SOMEONE, to interest, then involve and finally move the live, receptive listeners sitting expectantly is ultimately the joy of music making.

Maybe it will all come true one day. I imagine that after an intense concentration on a splendid performance by some promising young musicians, audience walk out of Garden theatre. And they read a plate which says:

Here lies a theatre, the same of which used to be an adult theatre for more than three decades and through which shows people’s power to transform vagueness and obscurity into enlightenment and edification.

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