God Save the Clown [Eastsideweek, November 14, 1990, published in conjunction with a showing of Ben Hur at The Egyptian Theatre]
A funny thing happened on the way to the Crucifixion
Your average person would probably name the chariot race as the single most memorable event in the 1959 film version of Ben Hur. I, however, will never forget the Crucifixion, or to be precisely accurate, the events immediately prior to the Crucifixion. I never saw the Crucifixion itself. Those who know me to be an (oxymoron her) staunch Unitarian--in my youth, a devout follower of the magnificently named Rev. Chadbourne Spring of the East Shore Unitarian Church--might be surprised to hear that Jesus/ agonies on the road to Calvary made such a lasting impression. But that's because of my brother.
It is 1959, and Ben Hur is playing at the cozy Bel-Vue Theater, up the street from the Kandy Kane Restaurant (where, thanks to decades of Saturday cowboy movie matinees, the fortunes of so many Bellevue dentists were guaranteed). I am 12, my brother is 15, and we have gone to see Ben Hur without my parents. My brother and I did nothing together without my parents, beginning at the ages of 6 and 3, respectively, and continuing to this day, so I don't see how we could have been there, together and alone, but nevertheless we were.
So far, we have been entertained by the Roman galley battle, thrilled by the chariot race, bored spitless by the Charlton Heston/Haya Hrareet love scenes, and amused by the lepers. And now comes Jesus to finally wrap things up as only He can. Even though we are card-carrying East Shore Unitarian Youth, my brother and I know who this Guy is, because every Sunday morning for years we've studied Jesus, the Carpenter's Son, by Sophia L. Fahs, and also because my grandmother has been secretly slipping us the Methodist line whenever we visit.
Ben Hur has just opened, it's a weekend night, and the theater is packed. We are an island of junior disbelievers in a sea of Eastsiders even more devout than Granny. As Jesus takes the cross and heads up the road, many in the Bel-Vue are sobbing quietly. It is then that my brother strikes. Right after Jesus falls the second time, he leans over and whispers in my ear, "You drop that cross one more time, buddy, and you're out of the parade."
I go up like a rocket, coca-Cola gushes from my nose and, as I remember, my ears. I scream with laugher, and cannot stop, even after the Coke stops flowing. Almost under control, I look up at the screen just as He hits the pavement for the third time. I'm lost again, while inside the theater, what has till then been a hushed silence turns into an ominous silence. (Then quiet sobbing turns into audible growling.) A voice rings out.
'YOU!' says an usher, pointing his flashlight in my direction. He is clearly not a Unitarian, and just as clearly has caught me in the act, so even the kid's last refuge ("What? Who? Me?") is useless. Two minutes later I am on the street in front of the Crabapple Restaurant, with my brother, who graciously follows me out.
It is many years before I realize the profound religious significance of this event. I, alone in history, have been ejected from the Crucifixion. I have been ejected from the Crucifixion by a 16-year-old Bellevue High School student with a flashlight. And I don't even have the religious background to console my self by knowing that He would forgive me my sin.
There are some movies you just can't review, no matter how long it's been.