Visionary Update: What Happened to Roger Wilson?
Written by Editors
Monday, 03 August 2009 14:23
Way back in 2006, that halcyon Year Zero, dreams of what a rebuilt, re-imagined New Orleans could be hung on low branches. A Jazz Park could be built around Duncan Plaza; a cruise ship dock could beckon visitors to the Upper Nine; a world-class teaching hospital could materialize in abandoned back-of-town; solar panels could power Cutthroat City; and a new, great white way could light up Canal Street. The Mayor's State of the City entreated us to believe it.
Amid those heady days, who could blame us? We were intoxicated with our signifigance, with the singularity of our shared experience. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, we'd made peace with the manifold blessings and pains of the city, as the verse well-utilized by Alcoholics Anonymous goes:
God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
It also brings to mind the very alcoholic character of W.P. Mayhew, played by John Mahoney in the Coen Brothers' 1991 Barton Fink. Mayhew, whose drunken, Faulknerian rages are among the film's best scenes, is confronted by the eponymous Fink for drowning his talent in bourbon. In response, Mayhew crows
"I'm building a levee--
gulp by gulp, brick by brick.
Putting up a levee
to keep that raging river of manure
from lapping at my door."
(see the screenplay here).
Fink, who arrives in Hollywood from the New York theatre, repeatedly espouses his desire to write a picture "for the common man," while suffering the difficulties of a "life of the mind." At the same time, he ignores the stories of his "common man" neighbor, John Goodman's Charlie Muntz, insurance salesman and serial killer. In the final scene, a shotgun toting Goodman runs through the burning halls of a hotel, screaming "I AM THE LIFE OF THE MIND!" before heil-ing Hitler and committing suicide.
Following the storm, by virtue of remaining in New Orleans, everyone had an idea. In fact, by sticking it out or by returning early in the Reconstruction, we were living ideas. After years of quietly slouching in neglect, the storms of 2005 brought the concept of "change" early to our shores and invigorated all of us to rebuild. The fleur de lis became a symbol of defiance of, rather than acquiescence to, historic forces.
In this Ur-Reconstruction, when anything seemed possible, the idea of redeveloping Canal Street's historic theaters to attract major first-run productions attracted serious attention. The project was steered by Roger Wilson, star of the Porky's franchise and a native New Orleanian. Wilson's Broadway South LLC received considerable praise and attention (see "Leading Roles," Gambit Weekly cover story, Nov. 11, 2006). For a particular treat, click below to view the trailer for Satan's Bed, a 1965 exploitation flick co-produced by Wilson and starring Yoko Ono.
In January, 2009 NOLAFugees examined the status of Broadway South; the news was not good. Though the Mahalia Jackson had re-opened and a deal signed to restore the Saenger, the plan of collectively running a theatre district had been dismissed. News of Roger Wilson, Broadway South's primary mover, was in short supply.
Good for Roger Wilson. It's re-assuring to know that when the hope and aspirations for the "life of the mind" stall out, we each may find the "common man" inside us. One can always get back into the service industry. As both the editors (and most of the writers) of NOLAFugees can attest, the service industry will always take you back; no matter how far you overreach, when you fall on your face she will give you shelter. East Hampton is a well-known playground for the rich, so the tips must be fantastic; Sean Combs has a house there, made infamous for his "White Parties." And if launching a multi-million dollar theatre redevelopment plan isn't enough to get you "back to Hollywood," it is comforting to know that a bartending gig still might. Even if things don't turn out as planned, even if what could be doesn't come to pass, still there are happy endings.
Barton Fink, on the other hand, ends with a deep sense of dread. The final sequence finds the writer dazedly wandering on the beach; he carries a box that may or may not have a human head in it. He's just been notified that he must remain in Hollywood and under contract by a brutally capitalist studio chief, punishment for writing "a fruity movie about suffering". Trapped in purgatory, he wanders into a picture that has hung above his desk throughout the film, leaving no doubt that due to his own hubris, he's been caught in events beyond his control.
So hats off to you, Mr. Wilson.
In the meantime, development at the far end of the CBD along Canal Street is quiet. Now that The Canal Street Hotel has been closed, the only anchor properties are the Fisk Building's Social Services office and the V.I.P. Health Club, 1401 Canal, "offering oriental body relaxation." Fortunately, the V.I.P. is ideally situated between the recently funded Iberville renovation and Tulane's School of Tropical Medicine. When the Bio-Innovation Center opens, and the new VA hospital gets built, and the streetcar runs again, business will be booming. At the moment, it is a space somewhere between the "life of the mind" and the "theatre of the common man."
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