"Talk about Christmas spirits!" says Will the Thrill in reference to the many beers and wines offered inside Oakland's Parkway Theater. "We got Christmas spirits."
The sharkskin-swathed producer of the "Thrillville" movie series and, specifically, "A Rat Pack Christmas Party" rolls his right shoulder imperceptibly and smiles a little slyly. "You know, Frank Sinatra was born on December 12th. I think he's kind of a modern-day Christ figure, don't you? And Dean Martin, he went to that big casino in the sky on December 25th, 1995. So, that's no coincidence."
Will the Thrill slips into the cozy Parkway lobby and motions to a woman behind the refreshments counter: "Make sure my new friends are taken care of. Whatever they need." The statement is blatant and absolute. A pitcher of beer, Parkway Punch, pizza, sandwiches (strombolini, meatball, "The Russo"), a cozy couch in the front of the house. It's getting to feel a lot like Christmas. Will the Thrill makes sure everything is as it should be, then stops by to make sure everything is as it should be ("Cuz if it ain't ...," he suggests with just a touch of menace between shaking hands with new arrivals).
Within the delicate fading gilt of the Parkway's Egyptian art deco, a motley crew of "Thrillville" fans settle in, some of them passing around Sinatra paraphernalia, most of them toasting each other over sticky pink Parkway Punch. Will the Thrill takes the stage as a man from the audience yells out his name.
"Yeah, I love you, too, babe," says Will, cocking his chin, "but I think we should see other people." Will's partner, Monica the Tiki Goddess, slinks onstage to spin the "Thrillville" wheel, which dishes out prizes to lucky ticket-stub holders.
"Who was the original Rat Packer, born 100 years ago this December 25th?" asks Will, offering a Dean Martin CD provided by his "pallies" at Ultra Lounge.
"Humphrey Bogart," answers a fan. Will the Thrill is pleased.
While song stylist Robert Ensler walks the aisles singing Sinatra tunes through a humming public address system, Monica cuts and distributes her own birthday cake in a flurry of creamy shoulder blades and wisteria-hued taffeta. Still, Sinatra imitations, even with cake and pinkie rings, are just imitations, not to compare to the Chairman of the Board in vivid Technicolor.
"Robin and the Seven Hoods was made in 1964. It's the last movie the Rat Pack made together," says Will the Thrill with a sentimental eye. "This is a pristine, beautiful print, and I hope you enjoy it."
After 123 splendid minutes -- and one dazzling green suit, one wonderful tap-dancing-and-gun-twirling number by Sammy Davis Jr., two odes to booze and style, a casino-turned-soup-kitchen swindle, a persistent no-good dame, four cement-block burials, and three Rat Packers in Santa suits -- the crowd is sated.
"Now if that didn't make you feel all warm and fuzzy like roasting chestnuts and fuzzy bedroom slippers, there's something wrong with you," says Damon Tallis. "Nothing says Christmas like cocktails with Dean Martin."
"Judy Garland was just so beautiful and charming, nothing like my own mother," says Mikell Stern, wearing a frightfully festive red sweater. "It's OK to say that. She doesn't care; she's dead. My mother, I mean." Stern chortles and takes a seat in the bustling, sold-out Castro Theater next to his boyfriend, Jerome Plombon.
"I thought she was a hard-core alcoholic," whispers Plombon, wary of the avid Judy-philes at his elbow.
"Well, Judy Garland never sat on the foot of my bed at 4 in the morning reeking of gin and dropping cigarette ashes on my duvet," says Stern. "I've only ever seen her be charming."
Over the stage, Christmas lights and television clips of Garland singing with Barbra Streisand, Ethel Merman, and Mel Torme have folks laughing, clapping, and even singing along as they find seats, but not a breath can be heard when Garland's tiny face finally fills the screen with "The Man That Got Away."
"I have goose bumps," says 67-year-old Esther Tashiro. "I've seen A Star Is Born at least 30 times, and I still have goose bumps."
Even after such a moment, Connie Champagne is stalwart enough to emerge from behind a traveling trunk onstage, singing, "San Francisco, open your Golden Gate," occasionally touching her right earlobe in that shy, characteristic way, or cupping her pale face in a way that says the applause may be too much to bear. In a matter of moments, even the most fastidious old-timer is eating out of her hand, cooing appreciatively as she relays stories about Parisian hairdressers with that long, familiar pause and the sweet informality that permeated many of Garland's own public appearances. Between Champagne's costume changes, Suzy Berger appears as Judge Judy, and Matthew Martin reads, rather brilliantly, The Night Before Christmas as Katharine Hepburn, fresh from her role in The Lion in Winter. But it is Champagne who walks with the standing ovation, dressed in a gown nearly identical to that worn by Garland in The Judy Garland Christmas Show. It's a nice touch; Lorna Luft, Garland's daughter, who is now escorted onstage by Tom Ammiano ("Mayor of the Emerald City"), also appeared in the holiday television special, singing "Silent Night" for her mother.
Sitting onstage with Jan Wahl, Luft regales the audience with simple tales of the woman they adore: Garland standing in the bathroom in her white bathrobe without makeup, Garland inviting the neighbors (Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart) over for dinner, Garland laughing out loud at her own TV shows. And with less simple tales of her own: Breaking into the business, Luft was aided by her godfather Frank Sinatra, but she dyed her hair purple and sang backup for Blondie; her life was saved by Don Rickles who suggested she not dine with a member of the "Italian family" who was gunned down in a restaurant later that night. Most important, Luft cleared up two misconceptions -- her mother was not tragic and she did not commit suicide -- and plugged her upcoming show with the San Jose Symphony, Songs My Mother Taught Me. The crowd is pleased, and Wahl is nearly beside herself: "[Judy Garland] was robbed of that Oscar!"
Announcing the night's movie, event producer Marc Huestis is also beside himself. "Meet Me in St. Louis is about the family some of us never had. It's not camp, but it warms my heart. And it's a good movie to end the millennium." Garland is lovely, pouty, angry, funny, and sweet, and she sings the most wrenching version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" possible; by the end more than a few tears are being wiped from cheeks.
"You see," says Stern, unabashedly moved, "that's how the holidays should make you feel, like a Judy Garland movie."
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