|The Los Angeles Times July 23, 2002
A Man and His Muse
By Reed Johnson
Dance and fitness teacher Ken Anderson has discovered he's a part of a secret society of
fans-confirmed by a sold-out sing-along.
Because there on the screen, playing a modern-day Greek muse named Kira, was pop
chanteuse Olivia Newton-John in all her big-haired '80's styled Olivia glory. Alas, it was a role
that throttled the Aussie diva's budding film career and ushered in a period of personal and
professional upheaval-though she did meet her future (and now-ex) husband, Matt Lattanzi,
on the set.
The movie was, of course, “Xanadu,” arguably the best musical comedy ever made about
supernatural love and roller-skating. A meringue-light, proto-New Age remake of “Down To
Earth” (1947), it was shot in and around a fetching-looking Los Angeles and boasted dippy
dialogue, sizzling dance sequences and an instantly catchy disco-boogie score by Electric
Light Orchestra and John Farrar, Newton-John's longtime producer. "In the early '80's, they
didn't kick you out after one screening, so every time I went I saw it multiple times," Anderson
was recalling the other day.
Most critics pummeled the corny, innocuous little film, which opened on August 8, 1980. Film
critic/historian Leonard Maltin's verdict was typical. The movie, he wrote, was "designed as a
showcase for the singer, but the only thing it showcased is her total lack of screen charisma."
But in years to come, the campy flick with the thumping backbeat would transform the lives
of scores of “Xanadudes” and “Xanadames,” creating an underground cult of 'Museheads'.
Gradually, Anderson has discovered that he's a part of a secret society, whose strength was
confirmed by last Thursday night's sold-out “Xanadu Sing-Along” at the John Ford
Amphitheater in Hollywood, part of Outfest 2002, the annual L. A. gay and lesbian film
"It wasn't a good movie, by a long shot, even I knew that," Anderson said. "In retrospect I
can't even figure out was it was, but it had this huge, transcendent effect on me."
To put it mildly. Today Anderson, 44, is still living in his own private “Xanadu” dream after
being inspired by the movie's dynamic choreography to chuck film school in favor of a
career as a Santa Monica dance and fitness instructor. He even drives a silver sports car with
“Zanadu” vanity licenses plate (some unknown soul had already claimed “Xanadu”). He has
seen the film scads of times over the years, owns the DVD and the video versions, wears
tank tops with the “Xanadu” logo during his workout classes and can expound in minute
detail the film's socio-cultural signifiers.
"I remember there was this feeling that the '80's were going to be very different from the
'70's", he said, "and the movie had the feeling that there was going to be all these different
races and generations and music styles mixing together, and that it was going to be
something different. And now it seems very naive, but there really was something euphoric
The muse appears. The muse goes away.
Perhaps it takes a special kind of person to see utopian idealism in a movie set in a roller-
skating palace. Still, “Xanadu” does have a philosophical streak. What else would you expect
from a film about a Greek demi-goddess who springs to life from a Venice Beach mural and
inspires a frustrated commercial painter, Sonny Malone, played to somnambulant perfection
by Michael Beck, to hold fast to his dreams?
“Xanadu”'s other star, the late tap-dancing matinee idol Gene Kelly, brings a debonair cross-
generational touch to the role of Danny McGuire, a former big band musician, who long ago
sold out his dream and became a construction magnet, but yearns for one last shot at
running a jazz club.
Given the iconic casting and over-the-top plot, it was all but inevitable that “Xanadu” would
be embraced as a gay cultural touchstone, a camp classic beloved for its visual sensuality,
inadvertent double-enterdres and aura of sincere sweetness. Even its director, Robert
Greenwald, who went on to helm “The Burning Bed,” has trouble comprehending how the
phenomenon took off.
"I know that there was a huge following among young teenage girls because I've gotten
letters over the years," he said. "To be a little bit elliptical, it was a time in my own life when
retreating into a fantasy world was a highly desirable and necessary thing for me."
Shannon Kelley, programming director for Outfest 2002, remembers seeing “Xanadu” with “a
couple of other nerd friends" at a mall in his hometown of Gallup, N. M. "I wasn't immediately
won over. I went to see it for Gene Kelly, that's how gay I was. I didn't think they respected the
legacy of Gene Kelly."
Now he's a total convert. "The things that are the most innocent about it are the things that are
easiest to love," Kelley said. "It's a mess of a movie, but it's our mess."
What better way to pay homage, Outest reasoned, than with a “Xanadu” sing-along at the
Ford Amphitheater, that arcadian bower perched above the Hollywood Freeway's roar,
across from the Bowl? And what better way to put aside errant thoughts of, oh, the swooning
stock market, global warming and the pending U. S. /Iraq war?
And so it was then that, following the example of “The Sound Of Music,” “Grease,” “Mary
Poppins”' and other Hollywood classics recently reborn as group karaoke-fests, what some
billed as the world's first official “Xanadu” sing-along was held Thursday.
Outfest braced for some 1,200 Museheads to show up (which they did), to lift champagne
flutes, shout preemptive wisecracks at the screen, flick their butane lighters during the
ballads and cheer the main characters toward a Hollywood happy ending. Costumes and
props were encouraged but, for safety reasons, roller skates weren't. "But we'll be skating in
our hearts," Kelley predicted.
A kind of “Wizard Of Oz” for the pre-Reagan era, “Xanadu” was a fairy tale that spoke in code
language to its times and its largely closeted devotees. Much like “The Wizard Of Oz,” which
gained pathos in hindsight because it opened in 1939, on the eve of global warfare,
“Xanadu” was a harmless cinematic bonbon that could be savored guiltlessly before life
started going to hell for some of those who cherished it: It premiered the summer before the
first murky news of an obscure "gay cancer" hit the headlines.
It also was a great date movie, whether your date had a beard or not. "It was one of those test
movies," said Anderson, who is gay. "If you could sit through the movie, if you got it, you were
sort of like my kind of person."
Pretty ironic considering that, for a time, Anderson "couldn't tell anybody" about his secret
“Xanadu” passion. Instead he'd claim that his license plate referred to the fabulous mansion
in “Citizen Kane” or to Coleridge's famous poem. For Anderson, “Xanadu” was the celluloid
love that dared not say its name.
(This may be the place to recall that Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1772-1834, writes of Xanadu
in the first line of his poem “Kubla Khan” as an enchanted palace within a walled garden, "a
stately pleasure dome." In a famous literary footnote, Coleridge later said he had written the
poem immediately upon waking from a long dream, scribbling his recollections down as fast
as he can. But before he could finish, a businessman banging on his door broke the poet's
train of thought. The remainder of “Kubla Khan” consists of Coleridge's fervent plea that a
muse materialize and help him retrieve his fleeting impressions. The poem’s imagery is
lush, hallucinatory, extravagant. Reading it you may think, "Wow, what drugs was THIS guy
on?" (According to Coleridge, it was prescription drugs).
Anderson and other fans also believe that “Xanadu” is one of the most evocative films ever
set in Los Angeles, a city that always seems to be half asleep, dreaming contentedly of itself.
In the movie, L. A. appears at its most air-headed and ephemeral, but also at its most
tolerant and open-minded. Museheads take pride in pointing out that the cast is ethnically
mixed (though largely in nonspeaking roles).
The city also looks ravishing, attired in the kind of late-afternoon light that locals describe as
"pearly". You might say that Los Angeles itself is “Xanadu”'s muse. "It (the movie) reveals
more about the time and place than I think it meant to," said Larry Wilson, a professional
magician and friend of Anderson's. "It's so L.A., in the clothes and the look and the people's
Needless to say, Anderson was heartbroken when he found out he couldn't attend the sing-
along. But he has the best excuse: by an all-but-unimaginable coincidence, he had decided
to design an entire weekend of his dance-exercise class around a “Xanadu” theme, and he
would need to spend the day of the sing-along getting ready for it.
His plans were all set. He would play only music from the soundtrack, plus some other
classic Olivia and ELO stuff. He would decorate the Quest fitness and spiritual center in Santa
Monica, where he works as an independent contractor, with “Xanadu” paraphernalia.
Much of the handiwork was done by his partner, Bruce Zwinge, who runs the costume shop
for Cal State L.A.'s theater department. There'd be “Xanadu”-themed contests and a
giveaway throughout the two-day event, which was held Saturday and Sunday, two days after
the sing-along. Zwinge said that his partner had dreamed of throwing a “Xanadu” party for
years, and only learned of the sing-along by accident a couple of weeks ago. "I was
shocked," Zwinge said.
While Anderson and Zwinge were gearing up for the big weekend bash, the sing-along went
ahead at the Ford. Co-presented by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, it
attracted hard-core Museheads and Oliviaists, as well as the merely kitsch-curious. "Every
time you see it, it gets better, I guess because it's not as bad as you remember, " said Rod
Pinks, wearing a blue Olivia T-shirt as he sat with his friend Les Perkins munching baloney
sandwiches and potato chips before the show.
Mia Jenner, a petite woman with blond hair, turned up in a long skirt, a “Xanadu” t-shirt and
roller skates, but she wasn't in danger of losing her footing at the steep hillside venue.
Named “Miss Roller City 2001” after a Riverside County rink, Jenner says she took up
skating in the early '80s after seeing “Xanadu.” "I pretended I was Olivia Newton-John," she
said, "because she got to be in a cartoon in the movie and she got the guy in the movie and
she had sisters."
After a brief warmup by the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles, the movie finally started, and
clapping erupted as soon as the first images flickered up on the 17-by-39-foot screen. There
were big cheers for Olivia and Gene Kelly's opening credits, and a few scattered boos for
poor Michael Beck. But everyone cheered at the part where Newton-John skates up behind
Beck on the Santa Monica promenade and kisses him, then vanishes.
As the action progressed, the interactions got louder and hotter. Any sign of skin-an open
shirt revealing luxuriant chest hair, too-tight shorts on either a male or female-was greeted
with whistles and applause.
L. A. looked even better than remembered: Venice Beach, the downtown skyline, the
Hollywood Bowl and the Pan Pacific Auditorium, an Art Deco landmark that burned down a
few years after the film was shot. Empathic yells greeted Newton-John's most memorable
line: "It must be frustrating to waste you talents on things that don't matter to you."
About 2-1 males-to-females, the crowd put its own spin on the same-sex dialogue, as when
Danny proposes that he and Sonny should open a nightclub together:
Danny: Kid, you're going to be my partner!
Sonny: I don't know the first thing about being a partner!
Danny: It's easy!
Man seated in front of me: Sugar Daddy!!
The movie is ludicrous, touching, excruciatingly badly-acted in parts and, well…strangely
and utterly charming. By the time Newton-John launched into the theme song finale,
everyone was on their feet, swaying and dancing in the aisles.
Then, too soon, the lights came up and the crowd was racing toward the parking lot. Already
the evening had begun to recede. In the cold light of the day, this ethereal scene would be
hard to recapture. The muse had left the building, and Miss Roller City 2001 was nowhere in
Two nights and a day have elapsed since the sing-along. It's one of those magical
midsummer Saturday afternoons in Santa Monica. On the sidewalk outside Quest fitness
center, a modest two story red brick building at the corner of Broadway and 19th Street,
Olivia Newton-John's voice can be heard from the inside, just a few blocks from where a
good chunk of “Xanadu” was filmed a generation earlier.
Dripping sweat from every visible pore and shouting exhortation through a head mike,
Anderson is pulling his spandex-clad pupils through an Olympian workout. Several sport
“Xanadu” t-shirts and black caps emblazoned with white letters: “Ken Anderson Xanadu
“Ken Anderson's Xanadu Weekend-A Place Where Dreams Come True” read the flier out
front, and it was clear that many of his students believed it. "It's such an amazing thing.
Because what (“Xanadu”) is saying is anything can change somebody's life, anything can be
your muse. And in Ken's case, it's literally true," said Larry Wilson, the magician, who was
wearing a cream-colored tuxedo and acting as the event's master of ceremonies.
For the weekend, the studio was festooned with purple, blue and white balloons. A giant
reproduction of the “Xanadu” logo hung on a wall. Outside the studio's front doors, Zwinge
had built a miniature replica of the Pan Pacific towers.
After the 1 and 1/2-hour workout ended and the 30 or so attendees toweled off and grabbed
bottled water, it was time to hand out the door prizes, followed by the day's piece de
resistance: a karaoke screening of “Xanadu.”
"He really follows his own heart more than anybody I've ever met," said Janet Andrea, a
lawyer, as she watched Anderson dance with another student, imitating Kelly and Newton-
John. "He's writing a book on “Rosemary's Baby”-his other favorite movie. This is the movie
that changed his life."
A pleasant thought occurs: Maybe Anderson did find a way to make movies his life after all.
Outside the studio, the gentle Santa Monica light danced across the palm trees and the
freeway entrance signs. For an instant, an ocean breeze rose up and brushed my face, like a
hand. Then the moment passed by and was gone.
© 2002 The Los Angeles Times.
1. Xanadu Olivia Newton-John
2. Escapade Janet Jackson
3. Are You There With Another Girl? Dionne Warwick
4. You're So Vain Carly Simon
5. Sugar Town Nancy Sinatra
6. 7 Day Weekend Grace Jones
7. Sweet Talking Woman Electric Light Orchestra
8. Calling Occupants (of Interplanetary Craft) Carpenters
9. Red Letter Day Pet Shop Boys
10. Miss Me In The Morning Mike D’Abo
1. Into The Nightlife Cyndi Lauper
2. Frozen Tami Chynn
3. Another Way To Die Alicia Keyes/Jack White
4. Whole Lotta Love MaryJ. Blige
5. Girl Davy Jones
6. When The Boys Meet The Girls Sister Sledge
7. My Mistake Diana Ross/ Marvin Gaye
8. What Comes Around Goes Around Kid Sensation
9. One on One To Be Continued
10. Let The Good Times In The Partridge Family
|SEE VIDEO CLIPS OF CLASS CHOREOGRAPHY
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All That Jazz
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It's Always Fair Weather
The Young Girls of Rochefort
Can't Stop The Music