In the final scene of the film Lady from Shanghai, Orson Welles leaves the mortally wounded Rita Hayworth lying amid broken mirrors on the funhouse floor. He walks outside into the dawn of San Francisco’s Playland at the Beach. The camera follows him as he crosses the parking lot, panning past the Dodger Car ride, the midway entrance, and the Deluxe Café. Orson continues walking toward the Great Highway and the Pacific Ocean as the closing credits cover the screen.
The year was 1947. Welles had been struggling with Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn to get this film made. Cohn was furious that Rita Hayworth had cut her hair short at Welle’s behest for the movie. And the screenplay was so convoluted, no one could really figure it out. Filming had started the previous October. Now it was January and the project was wrapping up.
My mom and dad had been struggling too. On the same day the climactic Funhouse scene was shot, my dad was working for his in-laws as a short order cook at the very same Deluxe Café. He spent the day flipping burgers, dipping candied apples, and making milkshakes in what was then the typical Greek diner (as typified in the famous SNL skit with John Belushi, Bill Murray and Dan Akroyd). He was about to become a father for the first time. Meanwhile, my mom spent most of that day amid the crowd of onlookers across the street who were waiting for a glimpse of the great Orson Welles. She often tells the story of how she and her friends waited for hours to get that one quick look at the man who was bringing Hollywood to Playland.
And I was there too, in a manner of speaking…curled up in my mother’s womb in my fifth month of existence. And while I cannot say for sure that this event inspired me in any way as a future film student and rabid cinema-phile, it must have awakened some primal celluloid, sprocket hole, dream factory, fantasy escape mechanism that I carry with me to this day. The love of film noir. The comforting embrace of a darkened movie theater. The joy of looking at all of those lost landscape locations like Playland at the Beach.
My last visit to Playland was on a foggy night in 1969 when I wandered down there from my flat on 38th avenue. I was a stoned student with no money and a film can full of weed in my pocket. And by this time a seedy element had taken over the area and the great amusements along the midway were already slated for demolition. The Funhouse was abandoned. The Deluxe Café was already gone. And I got accosted on the beach that evening by two black kids who took the last of my weed.
But because of Orson Welles, I can always go back to that final scene in Lady From Shanghai. I can watch him crossing the parking lot, think about my dad working hard at the Deluxe Café, and imagine my mom standing just out of camera range waiting for that moment of glamour and magic that would momentarily rekindle her dreams and invariably touch the unborn child within.