Sunday, January 29, 2006

NORTON DIED! WANT NO DEAD!

First off, some administrative stuff. I upgraded and swapped hard drives, and yesterday discovered that a few of my files didn't make the transition. Don't worry, all my old Daily Show episodes and programs from CS342 are intact. No, all I lost were my address book and email for the last two years. I should be all right on the email front - I think I only owe emails to Lessa and some Cerner folks, but let me know if you're waiting on something for me or just re-send it. This also serves as your early-warning notification that I will probably be harassing you soon for your contact info.

It kind of blows my mind that I've been posting for over five months now and have barely talked at all about the Illuminati or the Discordian Society. If you aren't already familiar with my obsessions, you probably won't understand why I was so gripped when I first heard that a theater group in San Francisco had created a new production entitled "Emperor Norton: The Musical."

Norton is a legendary figure in Discordian circles. Let me pull up my Principia and quote the relevant portion: "Saint Second Class. To be reserved for all human beings deserving of Sainthood. Example: St. Norton the First, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico (his grave near San Francisco is an official POEE Shrine.)" (The four other classes of saints are reserved for fictional beings who, not being actual, are more capable of perfection.) Illuminatus! had a few more details on Emperor Norton, and like everything coming out of that whirling maelstrom of put-ons, I had no idea if he actually existed or not. I'd never learned about him in history class, but then again, I'd never heard of Adam Weishaupt either.

Years later I learned that Norton really did exist, and was even more fascinating than the Discordians made him seem. Around the middle of the 19th century, when San Francisco was in its Barbary Coast heyday, Norton evidently went crazy. He declared himself Emperor of the United States, abolished Congress, and ordered the seat of government relocated to San Francisco. The local press humored him by printing his proclamations, and local businesses accepted the currency he minted with his own face on it. He was a bizarre, colorful yet incredibly charming man who won a lot of hearts. Many people believe that the character of the King in Huckleberry Finn is based on Norton.

On one of my customary perusals of the Chronicle, the words "Emperor Norton" just leaped out at me. I was delighted to read that a local family, the Ohannesons, had researched his life and produced a musical based on it; it had received great reviews and its run had been extended by another month. I first thought of attending it as a double bill with the Mr. Show show, but that fell through; the musical only played three times a week, 7:30 on Friday and Saturday or 3 on Sunday. Last weekend I was, I dunno, busy or something. So on Friday night I decided that I'd try and make it into the city the next day and catch this show.

Now, from my experience with Mr. Show I know it'd feel a little weird if I spent a lot of time in transit and did nothing but the show; I wanted to combine it with something else. I knew that the day was supposed to be chilly and cloudy with occasional rain, and so indoor activities would be most appropriate. However, I love walking around in San Francisco and routinely make poor decisions, so I decided this would be the day I tackled the Twin Peaks, a distinctive SF landmark and the second-highest point in the city.

I worked out my most elaborate transit plan to date: Caltrain in to King, the N line out to Embarcadero, the K/L/M to the Castro, the 37 bus up to the peaks, another 37 back to Castro, rail back to Van Ness, #29 down into the Mission, and finally a #12 back to King. The whole deal would cost me $3. Have I told you yet how much I love the Muni?

It was sunny in San Jose but in the city it was different. By the time I emerged in the Castro I was deploying my umbrella. This was my first time in the Castro and it took a while to orient myself and find the right stop; it seems like a real pleasant neighborhood and hopefully I'll be back someday. Then I hopped on the bus and we went up.

And up and up and up. A lot of the time I'm in the city I'm in the flat parts, or taking the N under the hills, so I tend to forget just how steep it can become. I could've walked it, but it would have taken much of the day. The grimly efficient electric-powered bus just ate up the grade, finally depositing me on the top.

Among the many things I love about the city is how it's a city of neighborhoods, a city where people live. Having never come to the Peaks before, I sort of assumed they would be in a cordoned-off part of the city, with concession stands and whatnot nearby. Not at all. You just walk along a street, past the cars parked on the shoulder, and if you're looking for it, you'll see some wooden steps steeply ascending a slope. I scrambled up those, crossed a silent four-lane road, then another set of steps. It took a while, but I'd made it; I was on top of the north peak, with nobody else around.

Of course, what that really means is that they all had better sense than me. Visibility was practically nil; I could see perhaps ten feet in front of me. Once I climbed to the crest the wind was overwhelming and I had to fold up my umbrella for fear it would be destroyed. I still spent a little while up there, peering into the gloom, trying to make the best of the situation. Then I came back down. I didn't get any view out of it, but something about the journey was inherently satisfying, and at least now I'll feel comfortable if the chance comes to do it again in nicer weather.

The trip down to the Mission went smoothly. This was the first time I'd attempted to enter a rail center using a transfer, and it went just like I'd hoped: hold your pass up to the lady in the booth, she presses a button, you go through. Piece of cake.

Oh, and another sweet thing: transfers are always free on the Muni. Theoretically, you should have 90 minutes from the time you pay until you can stop riding, and you can make as many connections as you want. Even the automated machines, though, will give you a few more minutes, and the drivers are downright leniant. My first transfer had expired by the time I climbed down from the peaks, but when I repaid at 5:30, I received a transfer good until 10:30. What a city!

Anyways. The Mission is a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, and I wandered up and down the street a few times, marvelling at the choices available. Eventually I ducked into a sleepy-looking El Salvadoran restaurant, where I took shelter from the wetness and enjoyed a great meal for under 10 dollars. I'd taken along my latest reading, Neal Stephenson's "Zodiac" (review coming soon), and made more progress while savoring the meal.

I hadn't pre-ordered tickets, but they were the same price at the door, and the Dark Room (the theater) was right across the street. It was 7:00 by the time I finished so I just sort of ambled over there and asked for a ticket. It turns out that was a complicated proposition. Earlier in the day I'd wondered how awkward it would be if I was literally the only person attending; despite the good reviews, the ticket price revealed that this was a small, low-budget affair, and I couldn't help but think that the only people who knew who Emperor Norton was would have paid their respects before the closing weekend.

But, that's not the case. They've been sold out almost every night; fortunately, I got on the waiting list fairly early, and ended up getting a seat at a barstool along the wall. I learned from some overheard conversation that a whole van full of people from LA had come up just to see the show, which their SF friends had raved about.

The Dark Room is a really small, intimate theater. Its posted capacity is 49 people, who are arranged in a series of metal chairs on risers. The lady taking tickets at the door hopped on the stage before the show to talk about the other activities they have: a theatrical version of The Gong Show opens next, and every Sunday night is Bad Movie Night ($5, free popcorn, and you get to yell at the screen). She thanked everyone for coming, and then the show began!

It takes a little while to get going. We first see Joshua Norton at the nadir of his career; he has just lost his fortune trying to corner the rice market in San Francisco, and as he tries to deal with his poverty, he sinks into madness. During this scene we see that this production is just as much about San Francisco as it is about Norton; at one point Norton says something to the effect of, "Everyone comes to San Francisco to try and create a new life for themself; or, failing that, try to create a better version of their old life." A lot of the script conveys the feel of San Francisco during this era: wild, bawdy, nearly lawless, but also just on the verge of developing a sense of civic pride.

Two of the best actors played dogs: Lazarus and Bummer. I was reminded of Pat describing an acting course he took where the students had to study and emulate the behavior of an animal; these guys had probably done something similar, and were great at it. Lazarus was an alert, eager, active mutt; Bummer was more of a hangdog, happy with whatever he could get his mouth around. They start following Norton along, even though he doesn't particularly care for them, and effectively become his royal retinue.

Norton's early interactions are met with hostility, fear, or outright disbelief. He is robbed of his few remaining posessions, mocked roundly, and greeted with incredulity when he issues his first royal decree. As the scenes progress, though, the tide shifts. The newspaper editor who once brushed him off discovers that his sales increase 30% when he prints the proclamations; the businesses Norton frequents, including a burlesque house, see their fortunes similarly rise. The citizens' initial sneering at Norton turns into a mocking respect, and eventually just outright respect. They can see he's crazy, obviously, but he isn't harming anyone, and he causes far less harm than their actual leaders do.

The show regularly slides between humor and drama. A Chinese worker, discovering that his race is being blamed for San Francisco's ills, sings about how he is powerless and nobody wants him. Norton overhears him and invites him to join the Imperial Army. This leads to the best song of the show, the act-ending "Join the Emperor's Army." It's like a subverted version of the army scene from Les Miserables, because Norton's asking them not to bring guns and, really, it's all in his head anyways. You come to realize, though, that it's the IDEA of the army that's important. It makes people feel that they belong, and feel safe and protected, and if you can feel those things, well, you don't need the actual army after all, do you?

After intermission they plunged ahead into the second act, with Norton now a venerable member of San Francisco society. The most interesting element of the second act is Mark Twain, who gets nearly as much stage time as Norton. Twain is amused by Norton, and also intrigued; he gently pulls Norton in from his fantasy world, where his army has captured Washington, D.C. and is moving to liberate Mexico, into the real world, where racial tensions in the city are reaching the breaking point. A crazy man can change the world, he says, and Norton may be the person to do it. This sets in motion a chain of events that ends with Norton staring down a lynch mob; as they threaten to kill the Chinese, he begins to recite the Lord's Prayer, and one by one the mob members fade away. The representative Chinese man, extremely grateful, thanks the Emperor and says that until this moment, he didn't feel there was a place for him in the city. "This is San Francisco," replies Norton. "We have a place for EVERYONE here." That was the biggest applause line of the night.

In a lot of ways, this production felt more like a love letter to San Francisco than a biopic. They know their audience well, including some great jokes about the Board of Supervisors (as well as a groaner about the Bay Bridge - "Norton proposes we build a bridge to Oakland! Surely there is no end to his madness!"). That might just be a case of playing to the audience and being comfortable doing a local show. On the other hand, Norton really was uniquely a product of San Francisco. It's probably safe to say that there were few, if any, cities in the 19th century where a man like him could not only survive, but thrive. He isn't an avatar of the city, but it's pretty impossible to understand him without understanding his environment.

On the whole, the show was incredibly well done. Some of the actors were better performers than others, some had better voices, but the sheer amount of heart going into it was wonderful. And while they didn't have much in the way of props, their costumes were splendid, something a philistine like me rarely even notices. Again, it was ultimately a crowd-pleaser, but there's nothing at all wrong with that, and along the way I'd learned far more than before about the fascinating life of Norton the First.

The musical ended with Mark Twain reading from Norton's obituary. When he died he owned the clothes on his back, five dollars, and several thousand shares in a worthless gold mine. His funeral was attended by over 30,000 people, and every newspaper carried news of his death on the front. "LE ROI EST MORT." The ultimate feeling at the ending, though, is not sorrow, but satisfaction. Norton fulfilled his prophecy of everyone coming to San Francisco to seek a new life - or, failing that, create a better version of their old life. The cast took their bows to thunderous applause, and as the lights came up, Norton stared nervously into the audience before barking, "Dismissed!"

I had some time to think over the musical while riding the train back home. What Norton said rang true with me - I did come out here to try and create a better life, and in a way, just living here has made it better. A lot has changed in the past 150 years, and the San Francisco since the 1906 earthquake is radically different from the one before it. But this region remains a place that draws people with ambition, and is a place that uniquely encourages and rewards them. One thing I've been trying to get a bead on for a while is the difference in personality between here and the midwest, and I think I've finally gotten it: there's a real lack of negativity. That sometimes comes across as flakiness or mooniness to others, but there's a relentless optimism and positivity here that seems to buoy everyone up. That kind of encouragement can keep dreamers going just a little longer, let entrepeneurs take one more risk, and give someone like Norton a chance after he's gone around the bend. We love our crazies, and deep down, we really want to see them succeed.

2 comments:

  1. You are amazingly active for a computer enthusiast! I don't know how you do it.

    I'll have to see that musical myself now.

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  2. That would be cool; unfortunately, this was its final weekend, and I haven't heard anything about it moving to another city or being recorded. Still, I'm sure it would find a small fanbase wherever it went, and I'll post here if I hear that "Norton" still lives.

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