By Michael Winship
Source: Messenger Post
In the colder months, we’d get a short ride downtown to the Playhouse or crunch along the shoveled sidewalks, stepping over or through the deeper drifts, watching out for patches of ice. Sometimes during semester breaks in high school, I’d go to a double feature and, after it was over, walk down an icy silent Main Street late in the night to where my father was closing his store and preparing to drive home.
I’ve written of the Playhouse before; the smell of antique popcorn, the black velvet darkness inside while the movies ran, the theater illuminated only by the projector’s beam and the soft neon light of a clock hanging to the right of the screen, courtesy of a local jeweler.
Holding the town’s movie monopoly had its bizarre advantages: unusual double features like “The Three Stooges in Orbit” – and “Gigi.” And because this was a small town, where everyone knew everyone else’s business and the official motto could have been In loco parentis, if the mob of kids at a Saturday matinee got too unruly the manager would simply stop the movie, walk out on stage and threaten to call our mothers and fathers.
One of the very first films I saw at the Playhouse was “White Christmas.” I have little memory of that initial viewing — there was a jeep in it, right? — but as the years go by I’ve grown to love its music and cozy holiday sentiment, not to mention the impossible legs of actress-dancer Vera-Ellen.
I went to see it with my mother that first time. She was a bigger movie fan than my father and her eye was critical in more ways than one. Once, the Playhouse’s main attraction was accompanied by a short, French comedy. At one point a soccer ball bounced through a doctor’s office. A woman in a hospital gown was lying face down on the examining table, her buttocks briefly exposed. My appalled mother went to the manager and had the offending three seconds snipped from the film.
Years later we laughed about it and agreed that times were different then. And yet they aren’t, of course. Witness the current flap in Washington over the inclusion of an excerpt from a video by the artist and filmmaker David Wojnarowicz in a show at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery. Made in 1987 and titled “A Fire in My Belly,” the video is a poignant, fierce message of grief and anger arising from the news that Wojnarowicz’s mentor and former lover Peter Hujar was dying of AIDS.
Eleven seconds of the piece depict a crucifix over which ants crawl, a metaphor evoking, as New York Times columnist Frank Rich described it, “frantic souls scurrying in panic as a seemingly impassive God looked on.”
Outrage was expressed by William Donohue of the Catholic League. The drumbeat was then picked up by conservative Republicans, including the incoming majority leader, Eric Cantor, who threatened the Smithsonian’s funding and described the video as “an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.” The Smithsonian caved instantly, and removed the offending video.
Now, first of all, the video was just part of a fascinating exhibit called “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” I know this because, unlike I would guess virtually every one of its holier-than-thou critics, I have actually seen the exhibit.
“Hide/Seek” not only demonstrates the major contributions of gay men and women to contemporary American art but, just as important, how their work was affected by years of suppression and finally, liberation.
The Smithsonian’s purpose is “the increase and diffusion of knowledge,” yet once again it has allowed its intellectual spark to be snuffed by know-nothings. Such cowardice relegates the institution to the role the Smithsonian professes to hate — “the nation’s attic,” the place where we throw history’s knickknacks, toys and worn-out ephemera, unguided by curiosity or scholarship.
God knows, Christianity will carry on, despite this alleged affront. To paraphrase Jon Stewart, if Christmas can survive the Roman Empire; it can certainly survive this. If it can’t, we’re in worse shape than I thought and I’d just as soon run back to Canandaigua and lose myself in the comforting darkness of the Playhouse Theater. Too bad they tore it down. Happy holidays!
Michael Winship, a native of Canandaigua, N.Y., is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.