“The color, the grace and levitation, the structural pattern in motion, the quick interplay of live beings, suspended like fitful lightning in a cloud, these things are the play, not words on paper, nor thoughts and ideas of an author, those shabby things snatched off basement counters at Gimbel’s,” wrote Tennessee Williams in his Afterword for CAMINO REAL.
The structural pattern.
The quick interplay of live beings.
I thought of all these ways to describe not a play but a theater itself as I climbed amid the construction workers and artisans up into the scaffolding within the Curran as it was in the midst of its renovation back in May. I am afraid of heights but nonetheless kept climbing because the theater kept beckoning me to do so. A funny thing happened, though, on my way to the top of the place. As I climbed ever higher, my fear subsided and I felt the presence - both eerie and comforting - of some of the stars who had appeared there and whose voices had carried up into the very top of the balcony where I paused to take in all the work being done and wondered if their ghosts were floating about: Mercedes McCambridge, Mickey Rooney, Marcel Marceau, Agnes Moorehead, Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Ethel Waters, Dorothy Loudon, Mae West, Rex Harrison, Katharine Hepburn, Lenny Bruce.
Could that be the sprightly ghost of Will Rodgers over there who appeared in Eugene O’Neill’s AH, WILDERNESS! when it opened at the Curran during another May back in 1934 when he took over the role played on Broadway the previous year by George M. Cohan?
Wait. Was that the sound Lenny’s rat-a-tat titter haunting the place, that titter he’d intersperse with his rapid-fire delivery, or was that an echo of a jackhammered moment somewhere way down there stage left past all that scaffolding? A jackhammered moment: that could be an apt description of Lenny Bruce’s brusque wit. I listened as the jackhammered tittering took off again then spotted a ladder leading up to the scaffolding’s summit only a few feet from the massive ceiling, the scaffolding’s plywood floor built just above the gigantic glass chandelier that has hung here since the Curran opened in 1922. Dare I chance it? I decided to - taking each of the ladder’s steps with a tentative bravery - then tested the plywood to see how secure it was. Deciding it was safe enough, I next spotted a lone figure crouched over in a corner as if I really had happened upon a Curran ghost. It certainly looked spectral as it hovered in the work lights strung about at this height, suspended - as Williams had written - like fitful lightning in a cloud. Could that be the sprightly ghost of Will Rodgers over there who appeared in Eugene O’Neill’s AH, WILDERNESS! when it opened here during another May back in 1934 when he took over the role played on Broadway the previous year by George M. Cohan?
The figure heard the scaffolding creak beneath my presence and turned my way, smiled, nodded and shambled over to introduce himself as Jed Ellis, a craftsman from EverGreene Architectural Arts, who did have the aw-shucks, irascible charm that Rogers was known for. He even looked a little like him. Jed had been carefully painting a section of the ceiling beneath the newly cleaned moldings and took me around to see the work he’d been doing there in the theater’s ornately-appointed dome. I watched as he touched the sculpted plaster moldings of the entablature with a suggestive gentleness, having seduced their beauty forth once more as if this were all a fairy tale - not a ghost story at all - and this grand old lady of a theater were magically through care and love and kindness becoming once again her younger self.
“Is seduction too strong a word to use when describing what you’re doing while hidden away up here?” I asked. “Are you the Curran’s suitor as much as its restorer?”
“Yeah. In a way. I like to always compare it to our grandmas. Grandma was always old-looking but she was always elegant and refined. But we never got to see Grandma when she was 20 years old and going out on the town with Grandpa when he was young, too. That’s what it’s like with this building here. Generations have just grown up with her looking like this. We never saw her when she was vibrant with color. We’re making Grandma young again. That said, this place has been allowed to age gracefully,” he continued, still caressing the cornice work. “We’re fortunate that this theater has not been overpainted. It’s never undergone any major repainting to the decorative surfaces. It did have layers of nicotine smoke on it though. You can actually smell it on our rags when we were cleaning.”
He paused to take in his handiwork. “There was 90 years of soot up here at this level,” he said. “First, we came through and vacuumed everything. Then, we cleaned everything with a biodegradable cleaning solution and water. Next, we scrubbed everything. In the dome here we want to preserve and maintain as much of the decoration as is here. We’ll accentuate with a little bit of varnish to get the colors back and reinstate some of the others. I can almost hear the foreman from 90 years ago going, ‘No, no no. Do it this way,’” he said, summoning his own fairytale ghosts and laughing along with them - not a bad-boy titter like Lenny Bruce would keep onstage with him, but a good-old-boy giggle that Will Rogers would let roll over the audience past the footlights. “I’ve been doing this since 1974,” said Jed. “I learned while I earned. Next thing you know you’re pretty old and they start calling you ‘sir’ and you know what you’re doing.”
With that ah-shucks line worthy of Will, he shambled back to his corner and concentrated on a piece of cornice he was carefully restoring to its earlier grandeur. I climbed back down the ladder. I listened for Lenny once more. But all I heard was the silence, one that will be filled with a chorus of voices in the Curran’s future - audiences awed by the theater and performances alike; orating stars, excited school children, grandmas and their grateful grandchildren, singers, comedians, and the Curran’s owner and producer Carole Shorenstein Hays heralding it all and welcoming San Francisco to its newest cultural home.