Better the DeMille You Know

“Take Back UR Power Now,” the letters on the marquee read. I am standing in front of the Music Box Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. Whose power? I wonder. Who took it? Who lost it? And just who is telling me—or anyone else reading—to seize it? Take it from me, perhaps? Do I have it? Did I ever have it? Am I supposed to have it? If so, to do what with? Storm the box office? Take to the stage? Tear down the building and plant a tree? A windmill? Hold it. Is this one of those tiresomely postmodern Barbara Krugerisms? As my friend Clifton once put it, “I could look [it] up . . . but it’s more fun to speculate.”

The imperative “Now” intrigues me. It strikes me as incongruous, anachronistic. And, yes, antagonistic. It does not seem to denote the “Now” of 2011, my “Now” on this bright, sunny afternoon spent in one of the most frivolous locales in the western hemisphere. The look of the venue, the somewhat run-down surroundings, the slogan and its lettering transport me back to the early, bleak, violent, recession-shaken 1990s. Why am I thinking race relations? Could this not just as well be some hackneyed Tea Party catchphrase? Or else, a sign of things to come . . .

The time is ripe for warping. I’ve just been to Grauman’s Chinese, placing my palms into the imprints left by stars long gone out. I’ve been taking in all those names on the Walk of Fame, and it felt like treading on gravestones. And I arrived here, at the Music Box, transported by a longing, by the kind of nostalgia I am so wary of.

I did not expect to be reminded of the 1990s, to be taken aback instead of simply being taken back, if that were ever achieved ‘simply.’ Sure, I was prepared to be late. Seventy-five years late, to be exact. If it were in my power, I would be standing here, back in line with hundreds of other enthusiasts, to take a gander at Marlene Dietrich, Myrna Loy, Ruby Keeler, or Claudette Colbert. Not on the screen, mind, but live and in person. The Music Box, after all, was once the venue for the Lux Radio Theater, a Monday afternoon extravaganza hosted by showman-director Cecil B. DeMille. Merle Oberon, Marion Davies, Joan Crawford. Back in the summer of 1936, they were all here. I am in awe.

That is why I have come to this spot—on a Monday afternoon, no less, as I would later realize. I was dreaming. Now I feel tired out, and a little bit stupid, having caught myself chasing after ghosts. It is as if I had been hoping to get hold of the breeze stirred up by some wispy number long since mothballed. The spirit of the place does not “send me,” as swooning teenagers used to call it (the state of swooning, I mean). If anything, it sends me back to where I started this reverie. It takes me back into the ether, the mythical non-space I can fill, at will, with the voices of Marlene Dietrich, Myrna Loy, Ruby Keeler . . . as they were performing for millions of listeners, broadcasting live from the Music Box stage. It takes me back.

Wait. When was it again that I discovered these recordings for myself? The early 1990s. Well, what do you know! I guess, looking at that marquee, I have been forced to catch up with myself, and I find that self wanting, historically lost to the world. Years spent circling in representations of a past not alive to my being. Is it time to take back whatever I squandered? Is there still time? Do I have the energy to matter, the power to mean? I wonder . . .

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