Backyard Plays and Film Festivals

I’ve always loved the theater, and movies especially, ever since I would pretend like I was singing for crowds on the backyard stage my brother had built for us for a play I had written and was planning to put on for the neighborhood kids to perform. I liked singing songs to an invisible audience from the Sound of Music. I was amazed with the lyrics after seeing a rerun of the movie at the Moonlight Amphitheatre in Los Angeles, an outdoor venue my mom used to take us to on summer nights. They offered free entertainment and that was the right price for a family of seven.

My neighbor friends and I would run home from school to practice renditions of movies. My brother’s outdoor wooden stage was raised up against the back of the house. Our first effort was singing the songs from the Grease movie that starred John Travolta. It was especially attractive to us after we pleaded with our parents to see the movie and almost didn’t get to because it was rated PG and up to that point we had only been allowed to watch rated G. We wanted to put the Grease play on for the neighborhood but soon realized the project was too big for us. So, then we tried to perform a short play for our siblings and a couple neighbors. The play was primarily just a couple of love themed songs. We sang the old Beatles tune When I’m 64 and a song by Harry Belafonte There’s a Hole in the Bucket. The play felt tired and we lost interest quickly, like anyone who listens to the There’s a Hole in the Bucket song usually does.

So my play had incorporated a lot of songs along with actor’s scripts and I had cast my sister and almost all of my neighbor friends as actors. My brother worked the sound behind the scenes. With most of us being in the play we realized we didn’t have many people to watch it so we ended up going around the neighborhood to announce the performance. The play went well except for some minor glitches as kid’s projects often do, but to this day I still have fond memories of writing and performing a play in our backyard.

So almost five years ago when the idea to go to the Telluride Film Festival as a volunteer came to mind, I was more excited than I had been in a long time. I had briefly sampled the festival in 2008 when I happened upon it while taking a road trip to the area. That year, I sat in the front row of an outdoor theater and watched a movie about a Senegalese musician Youssou Ndour, and found I had been sitting right next to his wife when at the end of the performance he asked her to stand.

The first year I volunteered I joked with my friend that I had to take planes, trains and automobiles to get there. The flight to Denver ended up arriving late at night and I wouldn’t be able to pick up my rental car until the morning so I ended up doing my best to rest on benches in the airport until things opened up. I would nod off and then jump awake again afraid my luggage or myself might be vulnerable.

In the morning, I took a tram from the airport to the rental car area. The flight to Denver and the car rental in Aurora were the best rates I could find during Labor Day weekend on a tight budget. [It’s easier to fly to Durango and drive about two hours to Telluride and pick up a car at the airport but flights and cars are usually more expensive that way]. The tram dropped me off in a residential area and after looking at maps and asking people how to get there I was told I would need to take a bus. I boarded the bus and watched kids getting on for school and adults heading to work. The closest bus stop to the car rental location was still a couple miles away.

By the time I arrived at the car rental, I was sweaty and exhausted from the walk and lack of sleep. I still had a seven hour drive ahead of me and was in a hurry because I needed to be at a first-time volunteer meeting at the Sheridan Opera House. The drive took longer than the map said it would and I hadn’t eaten anything. I realized about midway through that I was going to be late to the meeting so I contacted my volunteer manager. She told me it was fine so I felt some relief.

After a long and twisty drive, I reached the main street of Telluride in time to get into the volunteer meeting a little late. I didn’t have time to pick up my SHOWcorps pass and backpack with items they give to volunteers but was lucky to find a parking place near the hotel. My body woke up a little from the fresh air and excitement of being at the festival. The main street was decked out with colorful flower pots and outdoorsy people walking along the streets. The high mountains in the background were gorgeous. The whole scene seemed surreal. I tiptoed to an empty seat in the auditorium. The air of excitement filled the room from other eager volunteers. I seemed to fit right into the crowd. After the new volunteer meeting, there was another gathering for both new and returning volunteer staff at the Herzog Theater. It was crowded and I still didn’t have my pass. People started asking me where my pass was but after I explained that I had just arrived they allowed me to find a seat. The climate inside the Herzog was even more anticipatory, almost like everyone else was in awe like I was. I talked to my neighbors to the right and left of me. Most of the people were veterans of the Show, as they like to call it. I found out from my seat neighbors that Telluride is a favorite among many of the stars for its

low key atmosphere in the mountains. Ken Burns and Peter Sellers, festival veterans I found out, stood up to talk to the crowd like we were all their friends. Their speeches included a lot of political and liberal references, even using cuss words regarding some issues. I was surprised. The managers then told us we would be given a meal and after they would show us the first movie we’d see at the festival. At that point I was so exhausted I was ready to go to sleep but ran to the office to pick up my pass, then hustled back to the Herzog to stand in line for the meal. I talked to a lady that had been a newspaper reporter. We sat down and ate together. The meal was very good but I just wanted to find my hotel. In the morning I was going to have to get up early to make another mandatory staff meeting at the theater I was volunteering at, the Chuck Jones Theater. As I was walking to my car I saw John Assaraf and his wife walking toward the theater. He was made famous for being in the Secret movie. I remembered reading previously that he had a home in the area.

Because of my budget and the high cost of staying in Telluride, I had found a low cost room but it was about a thirty to forty minute drive from the theater in an area called Rico. When I arrived at the small town that looked more like a ghost town I found the Inn was rickety and strange looking. It seemed like miners in the early 1900’s would’ve stayed there. I was glad to be able to go to bed and decided to miss the showing of the first movie at the Herzog theater that night.

I fell asleep early and woke up to find a rat running across my room. In the shared bathroom I found a cartoon book about being a disciple of Jesus and the operator of the hotel was listening to a sermon. It seemed a bit out of context as the discussion I had with him while checking in was weird. He said it was suspected that the hotel had ghosts in the past.

Still excited, though, to be going back to the festival I got to the meeting at the Chuck Jones Theater a little early. There I met all the volunteers I would be working with and I started feeling like I was a kid at summer camp. We introduced ourselves and told each other what our favorite movies were. My role was an evening shift usher inside the theater. The first day they had us work the day shift to learn our roles. The night shift volunteers would then return to work the evening movies.

After the day shift ended I walked around the mountain village area. I was still a little sleepy from the travel and missing a night’s sleep, but at the same time excited to be at the festival, I walked past the Madeline hotel’s restaurant and saw Jennifer Garner having dinner with her friends like she was just one of us. Our managers told us at the first meeting that the actors like to go to Telluride because they don’t get bombarded by people asking for pictures and autographs so we were not to request it from them.

I walked around some more and a man was playing his guitar and singing like the songs were just for me. It seemed as though I was in a dream as I continued to walk around awestruck wondering how I had gotten there.

The evening shifts brought more amazement as I helped seat actors like Tom Hanks and Jennifer Garner as their movies Sully and Wakefield were premiering at the show. I had heard that Amy Adams was going to be there during the day shift.

When the movie La La Land premiered my dream-like state erupted with such pleasure as I was reminded of my growing up years in Los Angeles and the musicals I loved. One of the benefits of volunteering inside the theater was that we got to see most of the movies during our shift. Over the remaining time at the festival I heard the songs from the movie both in my head and around town. The buzz about La La Land was all over the festival. There was another movie that got some attention too that year, Moonlight.

I seated the Moonlight movie’s VIP group and one of them was making comments to me. He was talking about Jesus and inferring that I was sort of like the sacrifice. When both movies were up for best picture at the Oscars the next year I wanted La La Land to win and was disappointed when after they announced it had won, they came back and said there had been a mistake and the best picture went to Moonlight. I had hoped for a different ending to the La La Land movie, my only complaint of it really. The volunteers at Telluride were all talking about it. Some of them said they liked it because it had a different ending than expected but I guess the Sound of Music memories in me hoped for a better outcome.

The last day of the film festival, Labor Day, they had a picnic in the park surrounded by more awe inspiring mountains and Emma Stone was there with a panel talking about La La Land with the director and moderator. I took in all the beauty of the mountains, the sunlight, the flowers spelling out Show on the ground, the catered picnic food and was content and in a peaceful joy. After the picnic I walked around the town catching glimpses of other actors I tried to put names to. Although I was tired, I was happy to be a part of the 43rd Annual Telluride Film Festival.

I’ve seen rumors online that a couple new musicals will be coming out this year. I hope the organizers of the Telluride Festival [no one knows what the movies will be until they get to the show] will run them and bring back the musical atmosphere from that first year I volunteered. There’s something about adding sing–along music and a good ending to a movie that makes it timeless, sort of like the Sound of Music.