In the Memorial Day weekend movie listings, you might have noticed an unusual matching of showtime and feature: The United Artists Union Square 14 scheduled the G-rated animated horse movie Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron at … 1:40 a.m.
“We show late movies a lot,” explained a manager at the Union Square 14, who declined to give his name. “When Star Wars [ Episode II-Attack of the Clones ] opened, we had it playing around the clock. Now we’ve got it at 1:50 in the morning. So we figured, we might as well put Spirit on at 1:40, since we’d wind up leaving at the same time anyway.”
But that didn’t quite answer the question of who would attend Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron at 1:40 a.m. At 1:35 a.m. on Sunday, May 26, the answer appeared to be: nobody.
Then a man and woman walked into the theater. The man was Stuart Kroth, an accountant with dark, thinning hair who wore a light button-down shirt and dark trousers and looked to be in his early 40’s. Mr. Kroth’s female companion would only identify herself as “a friend.”
Mr. Kroth said he was an animated-film enthusiast. “I saw The Lion King when it was in theaters seven times,” he said. “I saw the Broadway show three times. In my opinion, it’s the greatest animated film.” Then he reconsidered: “I’d say it’s tied with Shrek . You’ve heard of that one?”
Mr. Kroth said he’d heard that Spirit was on a par with The Lion King . He added that he and his friend were going to see Spirit and then drive off to Atlantic City, only to return to New York a few hours later and see Star Wars: Episode II in the morning. He did not seem to think there was anything unusual about this itinerary.
Then the trailers began, and Mr. Kroth and his friend headed for the back of the theater. A few minutes into Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron , a trio of teenagers wandered in, but they left after only a few minutes. Turned out they were members of the theater’s cleaning crew, killing time before their shift started.
Two members of the cleaning crew returned around 2:45 a.m., just as Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron was leading his fellow horses in a revolt against the evil railroad bosses. The cleaning duo wandered up and down the aisles, mid-movie, shoving trash into plastic bags.
Not long afterward, Spirit was reunited with his true love, a fetching painted mare named Rain, and they gamboled into the sunset as Bryan Adams crooned on the soundtrack, “And now I know it’s true / My every road leads to you.”
A little after 3 a.m., Spirit ended. Mr. Kroth escaped without giving a post-show interview. He and his companion were seen walking out of the theater onto 13th Street, set to spirit off to New Jersey.
This Piece: A Reunion Special
ME: Do I remember when I first thought of this piece? Sure. I remember it like it was yesterday, because it was yesterday. I was in the gym, watching a TV report about the recent wave of sitcom reunions: The Mary Tyler Moore Show , The Cosby Show , M*A*S*H . Then it hit me, right there at the Versatrainer: Why not write a parody reunion for a show that couldn’t possibly have generated enough nostalgia yet? For example, the Osbournes could get together one week after the end of their first season and reminisce as if the experience was decades old. I showered and got dressed, and when I got out onto the street, I called my friend Dave.
DAVE: That’s true. He did.
ME: I ran the idea by Dave, and at first he was skeptical.
DAVE: I wouldn’t say skeptical; I would say disinterested. I was sitting at home waiting for food to be delivered. I wasn’t really focusing.
ME: But you saw immediately why an Osbournes reunion would be preposterous, right?
DAVE: I don’t have cable.
ME: Oh, right. That’s why I said that it could also be a Baby Bob reunion. I can’t believe you actually like that show.
DAVE: I didn’t say I liked it. I said that I thought it was funny, the way the baby talks like a real person. Anyway, all I know is that you were off the phone by the time the food came.
ME: Then I called my youngest brother, who lives in Washington. He wasn’t home.
MY BROTHER: I was at work, but I called you back.
ME: By that time, I had formulated the idea a little bit better. Instead of staging a fake reunion, like an Osbournes reunion or a Baby Bob reunion, I would write a more conceptual piece about the strange bastard genre of reunion specials: the talking-head interviews with the various people responsible for an idea, the high-minded insights achieved through hindsight.
MY BROTHER: That seemed like a pretty good idea. I said it would also have to include some heartwarming anecdotes. Human-interest stuff. And I told you this story about a kid I saw in the street when I first moved to Washington. Remember? I saw a little boy crying on the street, and I asked him what was wrong, and he said, through sobs, “I lost my story.” Remember how I was trying to make some kind of universal pathos out of that, because that’s the case with so many of us, that we have lost our stories?
ME: I remember, but I thought you were joking. You think that should be in the piece?
MY BROTHER: Definitely.
ME: I’ll think about it.
MY BROTHER: So wait a second. After you talked to me, what happened? You sat down and started to write?
ME: Yes. I started a version, then threw it out. It was too tentative. That’s when I decided I needed a dissenting voice.
MY BROTHER: Why?
ME: Well, so many of these kinds of humor pieces suffer from too much boosterism too early on. They miss the opportunity to be hardened in the crucible of criticism. That’s when I called Steve.
STEVE: It was kind of late by that time.
STEVE: No problem.
ME: I forget what we talked about.
STEVE: You had this idea for this piece, and you were explaining to me how you thought that this recent boomlet of reunion shows was a direct response to the recent climate of uncertainty and fear. You said it was the broadcast equivalent of comfort food.
ME: Oh, right.
STEVE: And I said that I thought that while those things were possibly true, your execution was idiotic. That to keep things conceptual was deadly stupid. Sitcom reunions succeed only because the original sitcoms succeeded, and they succeeded because they had recognizable character types: the neighbor who is obsessed with his crackpot inventions, the intense conspiracy theorist. That’s comedy.
ME: You were yelling, as I recall.
STEVE: I had to yell. I was trying out a new way of making popcorn by cooking it inside the hood of my car, and it was noisy with the engine revving.
ME: Weren’t you also wearing some kind of special tinfoil cowboy hat?
STEVE: It directs the heat toward the popcorn. Anyway, I was yelling at you for being stupid and you were amplifying your argument, saying that these reunion specials are intimately connected to post–Sept. 11 anxiety, that nostalgia is almost always a mild form of depression.
ME: I said that?
STEVE: Yes. And then you said that you think that maybe the government has even instructed the networks to run these specials. You said that’s why the Mary Tyler Moore reunion had a Ted Knight tribute, because fixing on the death of one of a set of beloved characters gives us a sanctioned way to experience our overall sense of sadness and mourning.
ME: Wow. I must have really been rambling.
STEVE: You were.
STEVE: Did I tell you I met McLean Stevenson once?
STEVE: It was many years ago, in the Minneapolis airport. He signed the back of my plane ticket. He was a wonderful man. So sad that he’s gone. I always felt a kind of kinship with him.
ME: He was never my favorite.
STEVE: It was a different time then.