The Santa Fe New Mexican's Weekly Magazine of Arts, Entertainment, and Culture
November 27, 2009
by Robert Nott
PAINTING IT RED IN BLACK AND WHITE
In the classic 1949 MGM musical On the Town, some of the main members of the ensemble sing a spirited homage to the notion of playing all night long, with such double-entendre-laced lyrics as, "There's a lot of nice things to do in the dark" and "We're riding on a rocket, we're going to really sock it!" The town was New York, but the idea of going on the town could fit any city where fun could be found at any time -- and in myriad ways.
On the Town: Photographs of Timeless Celebrations and Merriment, an exhibit of roughly 55 photos, gives you the famous and the forgotten celebrating life, love, lust, and liquor. It opens on Friday, Nov. 27, at the Monroe Gallery of Photography. "After the year we've all been through, it's time to have a little fun," gallery co-owner Sidney Monroe explained of the decision to mount the show. "There's a lot of different definitions for 'on the town.' It can be as simple as going to a diner or café for a meal or as opulent as Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow dressing up to go to Truman Capote's ball."
Too bad the photo of Frank and Mia, a 1966 shot by Harry Benson, makes the pair look as if they're going on the warpath. Sinatra offers the hint of a weak smile to the cameraman, but his look suggests either that he's not happy being caught in a silly black mask or that he's missing Ava Gardner. Farrow is looking down, probably wishing she were on the set of Roman Polanski's creepy thriller Rosemary's Baby instead.
Bob Gomel caught a lonely-looking Marilyn Monroe sitting at a dinner table, circa 1961. Balancing out her sorrow is another shot by Gomel of an aged Dr. Benjamin Spock, cigarette in mouth, shown cutting a rug in his (or somebody's) living room.
But it is the non-celebrities who seem to be having the most fun on the town. Gomel caught a peak moment at a party scene at Aspen's famed bar the Red Onion on a winter night in 1962. The bartender looks bemused as the mostly male crowd focuses on the antics of a group of sweater-clad ski bunnies who seem to have stumbled out of a Beach Party (or Ski Party, in this case) film to do an impromptu musical number. The venerable Red Onion closed in 2007, but is due to reopen sometime this year, based on recent newspaper reports. So, it may once again be a place to go on the town.
Other hangouts featured in the show were so much a part of their time that they must have closed by now. For instance, what's the status of Arnold's Café in Lovelady, Texas, where Guy Gillette photographed some diners contentedly sitting at the counter? "Arnold's burned down. It's not there anymore," said his son Guy Gillette Jr., who lives in nearby Crockett, Texas. "The picture was taken in '56 and it was a great little place but no more. That's me in the picture -- my brother and I and our grand-father. I'm the older of the two brothers. What we're having there is just sodas." (A king-size Coca-Cola cost 6 cents then, according to a placard.) "But the food was good as I recall -- real café chicken-fried steak style stuff."
In a follow-up message, Gillette said he talked to someone in the know who recalled the café burning sometime in the late 1960s.
And what about the Dreamland Dance Hall in Turnbridge, Vermont? Verner Reed shot five dispirited-looking people sitting and standing outside it, as if they are waiting for its doors to open, hoping to catch someone passing by who can spare them a dime. The hall, built in 1920 by a pair of residents involved with the Turnbridge World's Fair (which began in 1867 and is still an annual event), was a popular meeting place until the 1980s, according to local historian Euclid Farnham. So what happened to the place?
"I'll tell you what happened," Farnham said by phone. "Every so often we get tremendous snow years. And 25-some years ago we had 100 or 150 inches of snow; we had a mammoth blizzard and before anyone could get in there to shovel the roof off, the building collapsed under the weight of the snow. We were still using it as a dance hall even in the 1980s, but dances of that type had faded and the crowds were far less than we used to have. Interestingly, the dance floor was made up of old railroad ties. That sounds like a horrible dance floor but they sanded the railroad ties, and it was one of smoothest dance halls you can imagine. I learned to dance there."
On the Town also includes images of Times Square (which is still around), Hollywood's famed Villa Capri restaurant (built in 1957 and demolished in 2005), and a shot by Martha Holmes for Life of a fly-in drive-in, where you could pilot your plane onto a small landing field and then see a movie -- hopefully not Airport! Monroe Gallery's research shows that this unique combination was probably in Monmouth County, New Jersey, and some online bloggers suggest that the parts of the drive-in are still visible, though the drive-in closed long ago.
Many of the exhibit's photos were taken by men and women who had international reputations for covering wars, riots, tragedies, and political figures and events. But with these shots, these photojournalists, like the human subjects they focused on, clearly let down their hair.
"And collectively," Monroe noted of the exhibit, "you can't help but smile."
On the Town: Photographs of Timeless Celebrations and Merriment
Opening reception, 5-7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 27, through January 2010
Monroe Gallery of Photography, 112 Don Gaspar