Seeing Fantasia at San Francisco’s Castro Theater
When I was ten, my mother announced she wanted to throw me a birthday party. I protested feebly.
I said, “I’m not sure… It’s okay… You don’t have to…”
Eventually, of course, I had to assent. I had no choice.
Inside I was quaking. A voice in my head screamed, “No, God, please, no.”
I knew by then what a birthday party meant.
My mother loved theme parties and went all out. Hers had to be the best parties imaginable. They had to be better than anyone else’s —more lavish, more charming. More expensive.
When I turned seven, my mom threw me a Snoopy party. Everything, but everything, was Snoopy-themed. There were Snoopy balloons, plasticware with little Snoopy heads, Snoopy blankets, Snoopy wash cloths and dish towels, Snoopy hand soaps, a big black, blue, and white Snoopy cake, a Snoopy cake-cutter, you name it.
She made my dad wear this massive, weird Snoopy head. I remember him feeling his way tentatively down the back steps of our house to surprise the children in the garden. The steps were made of cement, and there was no hand railing. I watched him from the laundry room window, praying he wouldn’t fall.
A year or two before that, it was Raggedy Ann and Andy for my birthday. The back lawn was strewn with children seated primly on a huge, yellow-and-white plaid blanket with a big Raggedy Ann and Andy emblem splashed in the middle.
In both cases, I watched from the sidelines, bathed in sweat, barely breathing. My mother began drinking in the morning. By the time the party was in swing, she was besotted.
She swayed, stumbled, spilled food from collapsing paper plates, cut her fingers, slipped from chairs. I watched as she slurred her words, chastised my friends, as her face crumpled, as her blue eyes glassed over.
I prayed she wouldn’t drop the cake, a feat she performed several times over the years (except the time she actually threw a cake against the side of the neighbor’s house, where it slowly slid down, a little plastic airplane affixing itself to a black-painted shingle).
My job throughout these events was to remain as calm as possible, pretend nothing unusual was afoot, and pretend to have fun. It was critical that I betray nothing, that I appear happy, and grateful, to not incur her wrath or tip off to the “guests” that anything was amiss.
It was a lot of work. I knew something was wrong with my mother. That it was somehow associated with my birthday party. That she would get worse. These were certainties.
For obvious reasons then, I dreaded the arrival of my 10th birthday. But arrive it did. On the appointed day in late April, bright sunshine spilled into my bedroom. I slipped out of bed, tip-toed to the door, and paused. My mother was in the kitchen. I could hear her knife cutting rhythmically on the board.
I got dressed and went downstairs. The swinging door to the kitchen was closed. That was a bad sign. She tended to hide a cup or glass behind the fruit bowl in the kitchen. That was her drinking den.
Around midday, children began to arrive, dropped off by their parents. Eventually, a gaggle of them were tearing through the house, seven or eight, or as many as would fit into our yellow Chevy station wagon.
I stole glances at the parents dropping their children off with a blithe goodbye. Didn’t they know this woman, my mother, would shortly be transporting their precious offspring in a car? To the city, no less?
My mother had decided we would see Disney’s re-released 1940 classic Fantasia at the newly renovated Castro Theater in San Francisco, a 25-minute drive away. I had no idea what Fantasia was. It didn’t matter.
Wasn’t she already lit? Couldn’t these parents tell?
I don’t know how much time elapsed between the time these kids were dropped off and we departed for the theater.
I only knew that by the time we did so, she was fully trashed. Obliterated.
The drive was harrowing. The two back seats and the way-back were filled with my tussling, rambunctious, and oblivious classmates. They shrieked and hollered, blissfully unaware their lives hung in the balance.
I on the other hand was hyper-aware. I perched on the edge of my seat, my shoulders turned toward my mother. I made sure my face appeared relaxed, the way a kid’s face should look at her party, in case any of my “friends” happened to register my presence.
I studied my mother as she drove very badly over the bridge, watching for a flutter of her eyelids. I was practiced at this. I watched the road she wove all over. I felt and heard the bumps we crossed, prayed when she was in the far left lane and I could see the slate blue water pitching below. I noted with gratitude and relief the cars that flit swiftly from our path.
Somehow, we made it. Somehow, we found seats.
When the movie ended, people began to stand up. My guests stood up. Credits rolled on the screen. The theater began to empty.
My mother didn’t move.
My friends milled around in the aisle. They stood in groups of two or three. They stole glances at my mother, slumped in her seat. I studiously avoided looking into their faces.
The lights flicked on. Ushers appeared with brooms and dustpans.
I leaned down and said with forced casualness, “Mom? Mom, wake up! The movie’s over.” I said, “Mom. Mom, please!” I shook her arm. I pulled her blouse. I leaned close to her ear and hissed, “Mom!”
I have no memory of getting out of the theater, finding the car, or driving home. I remember only a cavern in my head, and a sickness in my belly.
I remember only the exhaustion of fighting with pure will power to keep us all alive, to pretend to have a good time, to shield other people’s children from the danger they were in, to get my mother up and acting like some kind of adult.
I remember a panoply of skidding, colliding images on the screen, a sickening intensity of color, a cacophony of sound. The faux gold leaf paint in the theater, the ushers with their clap-clapping dust-pans.
What is tragic about this story, of course, is that my mother was perfect. She was beautiful, talented. She had class and style. She was unique. She had excellent taste. That’s why she chose Fantasia. That’s why she picked out such original outfits for me, Mary Quandt, cable-knit knee-highs, everything matchy-match.
My mother was a perfectionist. She castigated herself for every perceived error. She could not live with herself. She’d rather abandon her child than risk doing something imperfectly.
She made these perfect parties and then she got so trashed that she destroyed them.
Self-destructive, in a word.
The tragedy, of course, the next level of tragedy down, anyway, is the confusion this creates in a child. The mother who goes all out to make everything perfect and then destroys it.
The story of my life.
Or one of them. Thankfully, just one of them.