In the autumn of 1983, I was beginning my sophomore year at N.Y.U. film school, but anything I may learned in a classroom that semester felt insignificant compared to the excitement surrounding the November 18th release of Yentl, Barbra Streisand’s first musical film in six years. Someone once said that all you had to do was point a camera at Miss Streisand while she sang and you could count the money, such was her preternatural gift to communicate through song and to a camera, so by 1983 her fan base was actually fairly rabid for anything resembling a singing Streisand. Still, nothing quite prepared me for the sociological phenomena of going to see Yentl at the Ziegfeld theater in Manhattan on the film’s opening night.
I should mention that the Ziegfeld theater was (and, I believe remains) the only really large old-fashioned-style movie theater in Manhattan. It even has a mezzanine and easily seats over a thousand people. I went with my mother, my new best friend Elisa Casas who lived across the hall in Weinstein dorm, and my ex-boyfriend Steven Stern (another big Barbra fan). Thank God we got there early because the line wrapped around the block. It looked like every gay man in Manhattan and his mother (in my case, literally) was in attendance, ostensibly to see the film but, as I was about to learn, really to have some facsimile of seeing and hearing Barbra Streisand sing. There was a celebratory feeling in the air that was palpable. My mother said, “Why is everyone so excited, I mean, it’s not like she is singing live or anything.” My mother just didn’t get it—and there was a lot more she wasn’t going to get before the night was over.
Columbia Records had released the soundtrack album a few weeks earlier, on November 8th, and by the 18th I knew every word to every song. I thought—and still think—that the score is magnificent, with some of the best, most satisfying Streisand vocal performances ever. A few days after the opening, on November 24th, to be precise, I remember my cousin Richard’s sister Phyllis disparaging the music in her thick Long Island accent over Thanksgiving dinner, “I have bought the album and there’s only two good songs, “Papa Can You Hear Me” and that one where she’s picking up the dishes and singing about the food—everything else blends together,” which I think says far more about Phyllis’ ears than it does about the score of Yentl. (By the way, I am the first person to hold Barbra’s feet to the fire when she has a misstep and am the farthest thing from the kind of fan that thinks everything she does is great—but the score of Yentl is a stunning piece of music.) But I digress.
Back on 54th street we waited in the cold and slowly we started to move, snaking toward the entrance and then into the lobby of the 1969 pseudo-movie palace (I say “pseudo” because, though large, the Ziegfeld really just tips its hat to the opulence of the great movie places and, in actually fact, looks like a rather stripped-down 1969 party space, with the occasional glass display of former Ziegfeld girl Billie Burke’s dress or Flo Ziegfield’s walking stick, to remind you that this is in no way that). As we moved toward the door, I noticed that the queens began to become fairly unhinged, as if they were about to actually meet Barbra Streisand, some of the most enthusiastic of the bunch actually jumping up and down. Once inside, there was a mad dash for seating in a frenzy that looked more like the gay version of the Black Friday Walmart stampede that can sometimes be so dangerous.
As I remember, we got excellent seats right in the very front of the mezzanine (Elisa has always been quite good at this particular New York sport). Everywhere we looked there were jubilant people. This was the closest many young people had ever gotten to a live Streisand concert experience and this audience was not about to let the simple detail that Barbra Streisand wasn’t, you know, actually there, in any way rain on their parade. It was as if the room was engaged in a massive, homosexual Ouija Board-like initiative to move past the limitations of time and space and bring the star, though still very much living and probably at that exact moment eating marzipan in Malibu, into the room with us. Well like the movie’s tag line, “nothing’s impossible.” And you know what? It really worked—except for my mother.
The film began and the room was hushed. When Barbra appeared on screen (was it the scene in the fish market? Someone will correct me if I’m wrong) the audience erupted in wild applause, as if she were there. After every song, the audience showered the screen with shouts of approval and rapturous love. Sometimes you would miss dialogue because the audience was still reacting to the end of the last number. I doubt Barbra considered this in the editing room or else she would have left room for the ovations like directors do when in a live production.
And so it went for the balance of the movie. My mother couldn’t get past the audience, “What the hell is happening here?” she kept asking with a laugh. In the film’s last moments when Barbra is holding that last, endless note in “A Piece of Sky,” the 70-piece orchestra whipping us into a frenzy as the camera pans away across the ocean in that wonderful helicopter shot, the audience, by now behaving as if under the effect of a powerful narcotic, rose en masse in a rainbow colored standing ovation that lasted for quite some time. My mother remained in her seat, which one could reasonably have interpreted as homophobic at that point, but was actually attributed to the fact that she was the only person in the theater who was unwilling to participate in the seance, tenaciously clinging to the inconvenient reality that we had, in fact, just watched a movie.
After the film we walked back outside. Steven and I were exhilarated but fairly wrung out from the whole experience. All of the emotion plus the concentration required to move the Ouija board and make Barbra be there was exhausting. I asked my mother if she liked the movie and she answered clinically, “Well, I’m not sure—it was hard for me to get past the audience’s reaction to the film.” This annoyed me at the time, but looking back I can see her point. There was so much happening from a psychological and cultural anthropological perspective that, at least for her, it was hard for her to parse out if the film had actually accomplished anything based on its own merits.
The opening of Yentl was a gay happening of sorts and really as much about a pent-up cultural desire to hear Barbra Streisand sing live. It makes you realize how much money the singer forfeited by not touring in the 1970s or 1980s. Of course that was her prerogative, but what you ended up with on November 18, 1983, was two thousand frantic queens (and my mother) using the power of their imaginations to close the gap between fantasy and reality. Luckily we had a wonderful Michel LeGrand/Alan and Marilyn Bergman score to help with the heavy lifting.
And now its been 30 years: Steven has been gone for 25 of those years; Elisa is still very much in my life; and my mom is still apt to have a cerebral rather than emotional responses to things. Oh, and Yentl is still a fine movie; if you haven’t seen it, or haven’t seen it in a long time, here is “Papa Can You Hear Me” (one of the two songs cousin Richard’s sister Phyllis approved of on Thanksgiving, 1983), plus some other Stargazing piece you may enjoy.
More Barbra Streisand in Stargazing:
In Honor of Barbra Streisand’s 70th Birthday: How America’s Greatest Voice Helped Me Find My Own
A Gay Man Comes of Age: Stargayzing Guest Columnist John Richkus Remembers November 1, 1970: The Night Barbra Streisand Sang for Bella Abzug
Making Lists: On Collecting, the Acquisitive Personality, and Eight Things Barbra Streisand Did in 1971!
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Everyone’s a Shopper: Me and My Jewish Mother Visit Masada
Rags To Bitches: The Little Reality Show That Couldn’t, or Didn’t, But Should’ve
ThomasNovember 18, 2013 at 8:52 pm
Towards the end of the piece you start referring to Yentl as Yenta, Auto correct gone wrong I hope.
David MunkNovember 18, 2013 at 9:13 pm
indeed. lemme fix this.. Obviously being Jewish I’m all too well aware of the difference!
EZJuly 17, 2014 at 3:39 pm
My best friend and I both have fun recounting our “First Time I Saw Yentl” stories. Mine was New Year’s Eve 1983–a 15 year old alone in a shopping mall cinema in southwest Missouri. Magical.