Firstly, lest the title fools you, I do not know Elaine Stritch personally. I’ve never met her and we travel in different circles, but those circles finally overlapped last Sunday. Sorta.
Elaine Stritch was in Chicago promoting her documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me which was playing at the Chicago International Film Festival. I didn’t know she was appearing herself, until my partner read the Facebook post announcing her participation in the screening. Knowing this, we headed out of our house early to get a good spot – not knowing exactly what Stritch was going to do that day.
We arrived for the 2.00pm showing at about 12.40. When we asked a volunteer if Stritch was performing, we got a confused answer from the young lady who wasn’t sure exactly what we were asking because English wasn’t her first language; we felt bad about asking the guy who was staffing the table right next to her, because we didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that we didn’t understand what she was saying, so we just strolled around the lobby, hoping to catch the eye of another volunteer. We then saw sanctions set up at the far side of the lobby with some gay guys sitting on the carpeted floor, and instinctively moved toward it knowing that they’re probably waiting to be seated for the Stritch documentary.
And to be honest, we were a little appalled that the line started so early – we took our place, starving because we’d just assume that we would be allowed into the theater like for any other kind of showing. Thankfully, my partner had a bag of gummy bears – I ate all the red ones, while he finished off the other colors – I especially don’t like the translucent white ones that are supposed to be pineapple. We saw ads for the concession and agreed that once we were allowed into the theater, we’d then grab two seats together and then I’d run and get us some food.
The line to get longer and longer as more people starting showing up. We waited patiently, but with some concern as the clock started inching closer to two o’clock, and we were still standing. Finally it was about two and a volunteer came out and announced that the Q&A for the preceding film went over, and the staff was trying to get everyone out of the theater before letting us in; she assured us that there’d be time to go to the restroom and the concession stand. The only problem was that by two o’clock, there a huge crowd that gathered in the lobby waiting to get in. In doomed hopes of efficiency, the volunteers started letting people in groups – kind of like what Southwest Airlines does; we were in the first group because we were there over an hour early.
We quickly found our seats, and I ran out to get food – because of the massive crowd though, the concession stand was swamped, not just with Elaine Stritch fans, but also with customers seeing other movies. I took my place and patiently waited to get to the front. The poor kid working the register was overwhelmed, frazzled and swamped. Not only that but I think the pressure was taking its toll on him because he was forgetting orders. I felt bad for the guy because I worked concession at a movie theater in high school, and when we were playing Disney’s Hercules, we were mobbed by unruly swarms of kids – so I got the concession worker’s precarious state.
To make things stickier, Stritch’s very gay PA appeared on the side, urgently whispering that Stritch needed popcorn. Unfortunately, the folks behind the counter may not have been her target audience, because they didn’t get why a sentence like “Elaine Stritch needs popcorn” is significant. The two ladies in front of me were trading snark and one of them spat from the side of her mouth, “I guess because it’s her movie, she gets her popcorn before paying customers.” Elaine would’ve approved.
When I got to the line, I put in my order and stood to the side, waiting for my food. Then a particularly frustrated patient shouted, “Sir, sir! Excuse me, but we’re trying to see a movie!”
“Are you?” The guy asked, “That’s great!” I stifled a laugh, but the guy wasn’t as pleased and demanded a manager.
I finally got my food and sorta-rushed to the theater, and found that they already started the movie without me, and I missed like a good 10 minutes (I walked in the middle of Stritch bellowing Stephen Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here” from Follies). A little peeved and disappointed, I quickly got over it because Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is fantastic (a proper review will follow).
At the end of the movie, we all gave Stritch a standing ovation. She was gracious and looked lovely in white. Then we all settled back into our seats for Q&A. I’m not sure who the moderator was, but while being a very nice man, he wasn’t great the interviewing. The questions were little more than fan gushing, and at one point he made a slight tangent toward Angela Lansbury, to which Stritch gruffly responded, “Can we stop talking about her?”
Elaine Stritch has the timing and the imagination of a stand-up comic, so her part of the Q&A (the A, I guess) was lively and amusing. She professed her love for her audience, letting us know that we were the reason she kept on performing.
My partner tried to take as many pictures from his phone as he could, but they came out grainy and strange – like the pics of the Loch Ness monster or Big Foot. I was content though with a shadowy, grainy suggestion of Elaine Stritch over nothing any day. We left the theater and we saw that she was still holding court in the lobby and a crowd formed. Because my partner’s tall like a basketball player, he towered over everyone else, and was able to take some decent shots of her; he then ordered me to stand behind her, so that I could get in the picture. I demurred, worried that she’d spy me and yell at me, or that one of her security personnel might think I was trying something, but egged on by he and another movie goer, I sprinted behind her and basically photobombed her picture with someone.
We left the theater talking about how stylish Stritch was and good the movie was. It was then that I learned that missed some funny bits when I was out getting food, which is what prompted me to write to the folks at the Chicago International Film Festival to calmly suggest that they try another way of letting people in next time. Still even if I missed the beginning of the film, I still had a lovely time.