Photo by James Bunoan A 65-year-old man is sitting by himself in the small but opulent and fully functional vaudeville theater he has installed in a top-floor suite of a downtown Santa Ana building that looks like a birthday cake. "I've been up here for eight years now," says Joseph J. Musil. He is surrounded by dozens of glowing miniature models of old movie palaces and grand playhouses that he has either faithfully reproduced from history books or passionately conjured from imagination. Each is about the size of a computer monitor and as compelling as a Nativity scene: the curtains rise and fall on pulleys, lights hang from hidden rigging and shine down on figurines of actors positioned about the stage, and the proscenia are decorated in lavish detail. "I love to look at them," Musil explains simply, "and this is my place." Pipe-organ music glugs through the room, drenching its fantastic furnishings in grandeur and whimsy, maybe a touch of sadness—and definitely some creepiness, too. Musil is wearing a tuxedo in the middle of a Thursday afternoon. Please don't get all weird on him.
"I get a lot of naysayers coming in here," Musil says with bewildered irritation. "Most people think it's beautiful; they seem to get it right away. But we have something up here that people cannot believe even exists, and that apparently bothers some of them."
Musil's corner of the world—and the glorious Santora Arts Building in Santa Ana—is kitschy and historic and spiritual and called the American Museum of Theatrical Design, a.k.a. the Salon of the Theaters. Self-guided tours go for three bucks a pop, but Musil can't guarantee what you'll get out of it.
"Some people look at all this, and they don't even really see it," Musil says. "All they can ask me is: 'What is this for? What do you do here? Why are you doing this?'"
Musil smiles when he considers such questions, but it's the way Vincent Price used to smile.
"I look at those people and say, 'To please me—that's why!'" Musil reports in simple, snippy triumph. "'Now get in your Mercedes, drive down to your boat in Newport and sail over to Catalina—and have a martini and a Quaalude, dear!'"
Even as he wraps up this tale of his satisfyingly snappy retort, Musil is looking at you in a way that suggests he probably doesn't say allof that to those people. But you cannot doubt he'd like to.
"Those are the kind of things so many of those people do," he contends, "and they think they're having fun!"
If it makes anybody feel any better, Musil makes a pretty good living in the American Museum of Theater Design. His small vaudeville stage, his display of miniature theaters, the drafting studio where he works—literally behind-the-scenes—is the creative nexus of a career that has spanned several successful decades. Musil is an architectural designer whose expertise in Art Deco and other period and atmospheric styles has made him the creative spark in the restoration of many California theater landmarks. Musil is the guy who oversaw the renovation of the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, where all the Disney movies get their premieres. His projects include the Crest Theater (Westwood), Alex Theater (Glendale), Universal City Walk Theatre (Studio City), the Long Beach Community Playhouse—and the proposed salvation of the Port Theater in Corona del Mar. He says he has another big project in Orange County that he won't talk about for fear of jinxing the thing.
But the delightful holiday revue that Musil presented on his own vaudeville stage in December—a marionette show featuring Russian puppeteer Eugene Seregin with a $4 admission—illustrates where he's really coming from, which is the summer of 1942.
"I was four years old, and my grandmother took me to the old Strand Theater on the Pike in Long Beach where I saw Lassie Come Home in Technicolor," Musil recalls with the clipped certainty of an oft-told personal parable. "The movie was wonderful, of course, but after the movie, there was also a grand stage show. I was blown away! The movie, the show—all in a theater that looked like an ancient temple!"
Musil is getting breathless.
"When I got home, I took out my building blocks and built a model of that theater. I announced, 'This is what I want to do!' I decided I wanted to spend my life making places like the one I had just visited. And I have followed my star!"
Maybe that dramatic "I have followed my star" stuff makes you cringe a little bit. Maybe Musil's lifelong indulgence of a childhood rush strikes you as unrealistic. Maybe everything about the Salon of the Theaters feels so childlike—so immature. Yet maybe you find yourself kind of liking it all a little bit anyway.
Now you're talking Musil's language.
"It's okay," he says understandingly. "We're living in a world and in an area that is so anal, that is so stamped-out, where everything is so uptight, and—I don't know—there just seems to be no originality, no fun, no magic. That's the problem that my little place begins to solve. This is a safety valve to heal the hurt we have to deal with on a daily basis. It is an antidote to the realities of life. That's the true value of entertainment."
Of course, the common complaint is that we have too much entertainment these days, that we are distracted by it to the point of ignorance of what we really need to know. Musil counters that our entertainment is too much like our daily lives to serve its proper function—and he centers his argument in the modern movie house.
"These aren't palaces of entertainment—they are stark rooms with the equivalent of giant television sets run by candy merchants who show films to get you to buy their candy," Musil says disgustedly. "They prove it with their lack of romance and showmanship. They prove it with the millions of ads they bombard you with. There's no love."
"That's the whole thing about entertainment," Musil says. "These are energy points that connect to deep, deep things inside us, things that please us, things that maybe bring a tear to our eye. These are things that most people don't realize they really need until they get to be adults. As children, we accepted everything, so it was easy. As adults, we have to process it a little more—maybe give ourselves permission or maybe just relax enough to react to the child that is still inside us. Through this true kind of showmanship, translated through this truly fantastic kind of architecture, we can often find the child in us again."
Sometimes, while somebody is strolling through the Salon of the Theaters, Musil gets the chance to witness their reconnection.
"People will stop on their way out and tell me, 'It's been so long since I've felt this way,' and they'll seem almost worried by their happy, childlike feelings," Musil recounts. "And I'll just tell them, 'It's okay. That's how you should feel when you go to church.'"
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