I'm sorry that I ever, ever,
Left my little home in New Rochelle"
(-Ruby Keeler, "Footlight Parade")
(-Chorus, "Going Hollywood")
At times in my life I've felt on the margins. A series of peripheries accumulated in my thoughts during my daily commute 6 years ago, from my family's suburban home in New Rochelle to the center, New York City. Here they are:
Walkman helps the scenery and time pass by like a motion picture. Trees give
way to parkways and industrial buildings. Houses progress into apartment buildings.
A black tunnel ensues and the train emerges into Grand Central- in medias
res- during its 1997 renovation. Partially polished it already resembles
its Hollywood, sound-stage doppelganger from which Bing Crosby, sporting a
beret, departs "Going Hollywood" in 1933. The film's merry black
Pullman Porters toting chorines on their luggage trolleys have been replaced
by construction workers and commuters in uneasy proximity.
I saw my first film when I was 6 or 7 and my family was stationed in Panama. My father was the base commander of Albrook Air Force Base, one of a triangle of US military posts that formed the Canal Zone. The residents were fiercely loyal to their individual divisions; Air Force, Navy or Army, but bound together by American citizenship. Each base was self-contained and included all necessities and amenities; a post exchange, commissary, pool, hospital, headquarters, bowling alley and movie theater. Each post had a gate patrolled by military police, requiring an ID card for entry. Base property was forbidden to civilians and to Panamanians except for service workers--the bag boys, maids and gardeners.
My (black) family seemed to be constantly crossing these social and physical boundaries to explore Panamathe beaches (complete with nets keeping the sharks at bay!) the rain forests and San Blas Indian villages. Most enticing were trips into Panama City to the Presidente's mansion which, in turn, was surrounded by a high wall topped with armed guards, barbed wire and broken glass. In the midst of downtown the ruins of Old Panama were surrounded by the new city. To visit the city or the other posts we had to drive past a large slum of corrugated metal shacks. The American soldiers had a fascinating name for this shantytown. Each time we passed it in the car I would ask my parents, "What do they call this place, again?" anticipating the familiar answer: "Hollywood."
One exciting afternoon my mother and I ventured past the gate and shack town to the Army base cinema which screened films 3-7 years past their initial release date. The movie was "Carry On Cleo (1964 )," one of a series of naughty, English, sex comedies that sent up the concurrent Egyptian epic, "Cleopatra," featuring Liz and Dick. (Leonard Maltin denounces it as a "typical entry in (a) series crammed with lowbrow humor"). "Cleo" must have mortified my mother, but I remember it fondly as a seminal cinema-going experience, while other "more appropriate" films ("The Sound of Music", "Mary Poppins") that I've been told I was taken to see, have faded from memory and affection.
you seen the well to do,
Up on Lenox Ave?"
(-Puttin' On the Ritz)
"Broadway you magic street,
River of humanity..."
(-The Broadway Melody)
began my excursions into Manhattan to escape suburban ennui not by experiencing
the city itself but by attending an urban pleasure, the revival/repertory
movie house. Sadly, these metropolitan staples have been reduced in number
despite the many communities of filmgoers they served. I have attended African,
Russian and Taiwanese festivals along with the classical revival fare of the
antique, unusual, beloved, experimental and canonical. In these theaters I'm
part of community of which I'm fond, the community of audience. I especially
enjoy the folks who go to the movies during the day. They are a disparate
group that might consist of the elderly, students, artists, buffs, the un/under-employed,
the lonely, anti-social, adulterers--all of us on the margins of the daily
Frequently, the images projected are of the city outside the darkened theater. Still, titters and gasps of recognition will emanate from the audience when New York City flickers onto the screen. It might be a Library of Congress paper print of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island; the Flat Iron Building in the teens; a police motorcycle driving up rural West End Avenue past the Veteran's Memorial in the twenties. An early musical (the jewels of the repertory) showed a 2-strip Technicolor vista of Times Square in 1927. During the rapid transition to sound at that time, studios like Vitaphone, located in outlying Astoria, accommodated Broadway stars and theatrical know-how. Broadway had already spent years inventing and celebrating urbanity, modernity, itself, and Manhattan. Even when the industry relocated to Hollywood (like Bing Crosby mentioned above) city films, no matter where they were set, Paris, Alexandria, or Atlanta, all seemed to actually take place in Manhattan. The titles are evocative: "The Broadway Melody", "On the Town", "42nd Street", "Paradise in Harlem", "Harlem is Heaven".
a boat leaving soon for New York,
Come with me..."
(-Cab Calloway, Porgy and Bess)
A familiar narrative found in many films of the repertory; in Yiddish-language, race, and Hollywood films, is the experience of leaving the simplicity and naturalness of rural life; the safety of the small town or the security of an ethnic neighborhood to answer to the lures of the city. Reel after reel, naive, ambitious or curious heroes and heroines are drawn to the Center to triumph, to be tempted or to be crushed; often they return home, like Dorothy to Kansas. My mother came to visit New York from Macon, Georgia prior to marrying my father in 1945, wearing pastels and patent leather shoes since, officially, it was spring. The Georgia Peach felt like a country bumpkin next to my Harlemite aunts, chic in light wools. During drives through Harlem from New Rochelle she would reminisce about the sophisticates of Lenox Ave, the homes in Sugar Hill and the glamour of Harlem in those days. Each day of the sad and endless October before she died in '96, my father and I drove through these same Harlem streets between New Rochelle and the hospital.
1st Man: Where'd you go to college?
2nd Man: I went to UCLA.
1st Man: You went to UCLA?!
2nd Man: Yeah man, the University on the Corner of Lenox Avenue!
first experience working on a feature was as a prop assistant on the film
"Malcolm X". Spike Lee, shooting in New York and its boroughs with
a predominantly African-American production company, remained beyond the pale
of Hollywood while establishing his own center in Brooklyn. My job was to
recreate bits of WW II-era urban flotsam such as cigarette packages, shopping
bags, parcels and newspapers. One morning I arrived late at an uptown location,
whose perimeter was patrolled by walkie-talkie-wielding Fruits (of Islam)
and PAs. Showing my ID, I passed thorough the margin of teamsters and trailers
to the core of the set. It must have been 145th St. or so and Malcolm X Boulevard.
Suddenly, I was a time traveler, a specter. The boulevard had been transformed
into the Lenox Ave. my mother would describe from 50 years ago--back before
the street was re-monikered "Malcolm X". Huge cars rolled by and
black promenaders passed, smoking and shopping, while carrying parcels and
newspapers! A shrill megaphone commanding the extras broke the spell. A few
days later, my mother, my French sister-in-law, her dad and I drove around
looking for the phantom boulevard. It had disappeared. Returning to New Rochelle
we drove through 125th St. pointing out the sites to our tourists. Fantastically,
about 6 or 7 blocks later we drove through 125th street once again! But this
time it was the early '40s with the Apollo Theater and Small's Paradise et
al., compressed into a 1/2-block area. The delighted contemporary residents
of what was usually 130-something street were photographing each other and
the bright facades before they were cordoned off to vanish onto celluloid.
I stopped working on "Malcolm X" when the production traveled to Egypt. I had been there with my parents a year earlier and pointed out a corrugated shack town near Cairo that reminded me of the one we would pass in Panama.
"What did they call that place?" I asked (anticipating the familiar answer). "Hollywood!!"
INA DIANE ARCHER is an artist and film maker born long ago in Paris, France. Consequently, she is devoted to "total film maker" Jerry Lewis. She attended Rhode Island School of Design and received her graduate degree in Cinema Studies from New York University. She also participated in the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program.
Ina's video work examines the intersections of race/ethnicity, representation and technology. She is an advocate for film preservation. She is particularly interested in innovative early sound cinema and musical comedies. Ina's work has been shown in venues such as The Studio Museum in Harlem, The List Visual Arts Center @ MIT, White Columns and The NY Expo of Short Films. A 4 channel installation, "Hattie McDaniel: Or A Credit to the Motion Picture Industry" is currently on view at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta Georgia. Ina lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.