As a child of the 80s reared on cable and the small screen, my first opportunity to see The Wizard of Oz on the big screen came in a mid 90s summer-revival series at the State Palace, and the experience remains with me today. First of all, the movie alone to be seen in this fashion should not be missed, I don’t care how many times you’ve seen it. Secondly, to see a film in a somewhat decrepit but likely once masterful venue layers the sensory. Creaky, spent springs and paint-chipped seating, flooring with decades of goo, and echoey cavern of yesterday celluloid dank and dark. And then Mr. Brunet spoke.
Before the feature Mr. Brunet walked out to address the somewhat sparse crowd, speaking into a static-y microphone providing a context to the film, maybe a little history of the theater, fun facts, and so on. Call him a film historian and a Crescent City elder he was dressed in a coat and tie with his hair combed back, and his voice veritably lifted up the summer escape. I was looking for a familiar afternoon distraction and avoiding running my window unit in a New Orleans summer, but what I got was a soaring intro of cinematic joy, the likes of which in my experience remains unmatched.
The unexpected addition of Mr. Brunet that day had me hooked. The following week Singin’ In The Rain played, another one of my faves, and again Mr. Brunet spoke. Except this time he went off, but in a good way. Why? For the uninitiated, allow me to explain that the movie itself fictionalizes a la a musical the pivotal transition the film industry experienced in technology from no sound to “talkies.” Kind of a big deal. And for someone like Mr. Brunet, whom age lends a film wisdom most of us will never know, and pair it with his unbridled enthusiasm, well, it was transcendent.
I was further hooked, returning once again the next week to catch Meet Me in St. Louis. And every chance and every summer after that, if I could have gone, I went. The State Palace however was not a traditional movie house per se, but a theater that at the time played more live music and hosted the occasional rave too. There I saw everyone from the likes of Primus to Stone Temple Pilots to the Foo Fighters. The latter I distinctly recall the parking lot attendant asking me as I walked away from my car “Are you going to see that Foo thing?” I laughed a little to myself, yes, yes I was.
Today the State Palace from the naked eye remains dormant, awaiting its next journey. In a city seeing a rebirth particularly in its theater district with the refurbishing of the Saenger, the revamping of the Joy, and the reopening of the Civic, my hope is it won’t be long. Strength in numbers and all that. Post Katrina it was touted the collection of venues once redone and just blocks from each other could reemerge as a vibrant Broadway South. So far so good. I myself went to the Civic twice last week, and I’m ready for more. As for Mr. Brunet?
When The Prytania restarted operations after Katrina, Mr. Brunet, among other things like screening midnight classics, began also showing daytime classics too akin to those long-ago summer revival series at the State Palace. And as a dad now I have brought – and do bring – my kids as often as circumstances permit, especially to The Wizard of Oz and again Singin’ in the Rain. In the last year I am happy to say we have taken in both. And yes, the last time we saw Gene Kelly do his thing, Mr. Brunet did his too.
Before the feature began, a nurse wheeled out Mr. Brunet, oxygen tank in tow, hair slightly mussed, but his voice and enthusiasm remained all they have always been. His seemingly tireless passion for film showed through once more to a fairly packed house, as he relayed the historical relevance of the dawn of the talking motion picture and how Singin’ in the Rain captures this. The audience applauded once Mr. Brunet wrapped his thoughts, and the movie started. A little misty, I wondered if I’d be able to hear him speak again.
Everyone gets so hung up on calendar events, usually for the mainstream reason of holidays or when hurricanes make landfall. Well, I’m no different really, except I try to say what I’m thankful for at every dinner with my family, and it’s often the innocuous days that leave me moved. And in the second week of October 2005, eight years ago, my wife and I brought back to New Orleans our (then only two, now all told four) daughters. And with a steady diet of routine DVD viewings of The Wizard of Oz on the small screen for many months thereafter we dug back and rediscovered our home.
New Orleans will always be many things to many people, and maybe its yeasayers love her for unlike reasons. The historic downtown theaters shedding their decades of careworn façade and tarnish stand up as embodiment to these passions, a lovely testament indeed. And hopefully their example provide perhaps an inkling of hope to other weary American downtown theaters: It can be done. Kudos and a glass half full to our progress and all the countless hours of restoration these Crescent City icons have endured. I think I’m a State Palace kind of man though, and my eye will be on that side of Canal Street awaiting its return too.
Jean-Paul Villere is the owner of Villere Realty and Du Mois Gallery on Freret Street and a married father of four girls. In addition to his Wednesday column at UptownMessenger.com, he also shares his family’s adventures sometimes via pedicab or bicycle on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.