The Man Who Came to Dinner

"Kill the bunny."
-- Vince Vaughn, in Swingers

What the hell is hip? What's trendy, in, retro, mod, kickin', bitchin', sweet, dope, or rad? And what -- in the name of all that was once simply known as "cool" -- is "The Bomb"?

I don't know.
I've never known.
What's more, I have on occasion marveled at those individuals who seem to maneuver in and out of the changing times so seamlessly you'd think they must possess the secret access code to www.whattowear/thisweek.com.

These were my thoughts as I reclined in a tacky but comfortable love seat to watch the opening scenes of the 1996 film that some credit for giving birth to what we have come to know, locally, as the Mission District Hipster -- Swingers.

With my date's legs casually draped across mine, I reached for my beer and another slice of pizza as one swinger astutely counseled another:

"There's nothing wrong with letting the beautiful babies know that you're money. And that you wanna party."

The best thing was that we weren't watching the video at my house. Or her house. Or any house. We weren't even watching a video.

We were, instead, lounging in unprecedented style at Oakland's Parkway Theater. And, as special guests of Will the Thrill (self-proclaimed Lounge Lizard King and MC of the Parkway's "Midnight Lounge"), we were getting the royal treatment.

Mr. Thrill has been hosting the "Midnight Lounge" since the Parkway reopened exactly two years ago. He invited us to join him for his final midnight show as he prepared to shift gears into prime time at the Parkway, where he'll be presenting "Thrillville Theater" every Thursday night at 9.

Our evening started in Thrillville itself, Will's apropos nickname for his postage-stamp studio across Lake Merritt from the theater.

What Thrillville lacks in square footage it more than makes up in hipster memorabilia. Virtually every inch is covered by some sort of medium -- videos, CDs, album covers, posters, books, magazines, and rows of autographed pictures -- all paying homage to the pulp, sci-fi, film noir, and Rat Pack eras of yore. It is a shrine to all things kitsch, with a preponderance of exhibits dedicated to the King and the Chairman of the Board.

I arrived with a donation for the Thrillville collection -- a hardcover "book" that opens to reveal a bottle of Elvis cologne. Dressed in a black and gray Hugh Hefner-esque robe, suede slippers, and a tiki idol necklace, Will rewarded me with a perfect vodka martini (shaken, not stirred).

Monica, Tiki Goddess of the "Midnight Lounge" and Will's "Lovely Assistant"/girlfriend/Elvis Babe, emerged from behind a bamboo shade, decked out in a flowing, satin evening dress with substantial powder-blue eye shadow to match.

These people, I gathered, take their personas seriously.
The tour of Thrillville is an extensive one, even though it can be taken entirely from your seat on the leopard-skin sofa/bed.

While we tripped down memory lane, Monica presented us with a buffet of extraordinary appetizers. Highlights included garlic toast with smoked salmon, sun-dried tomatoes and capers, sauteed bites of scallop with spinach and onions, and awesome homemade samosalike treats she called "salmon potato thingies."

Will followed this with a comprehensive recital of his eventful life story. As the son of a B-movie character actor (Robert Viharo), Will was often exposed to the "darker side" of Hollywood, which served only to strengthen his obsession with previous generations.

His elaborate tale is like the plot of a Bukowski novel: "I was friends with Mickey Rourke. Living in his house. Then one day I got a call from his agent saying I had to clear out. No explanation. I delivered blood for a while. Started writing detective novels while living above a strip joint in the Hotel Europa." The story climaxed with his decision to tie the knot: "I married this woman I knew for a month," he explained with a smirk. "Being a lounge lizard, I had to have an ex-wife. So I decided to get it over with. We got engaged after two weeks. Married two weeks later. And divorced five months after that."

The experience paved the way for his fateful meeting with Monica Tiki Goddess of the "Midnight Lounge":

Will: "Back then I was pulling lovely assistants out of the audience."
Monica: "I showed him my Elvis tattoo."
Will: "After a few more drinks she'll show you, too."
Barry: "What got you into Elvis?"
Monica: "Birth, I think. I've always felt that the King was my calling."

Realizing I was in danger of slipping completely into the surreal milieu of Thrillville, I took a personal timeout to assess whether the background music I was hearing was real or imagined.

Real. (Ultra Lounge, "the greatest music collection of all time.")
Whew.
As the swinging Elvis clock on the wall approached "Midnight Lounge" time, William Viharo slipped quietly into the "phone booth" closet to transform himself into his alter ego: Will the Thrill.

After he emerged wearing a sharp velvet smoking jacket, black sunglasses, and a "This is Sinatra's world, we just live in it" pin, we headed downstairs to caravan our way to the Parkway. We followed Monica around the lake in her undercover hip-mobile, a purple Mitsubishi Mirage coupe. The only sign of her true identity was the license plate frame reading, "Elvis rocks this ride."

Entering the Parkway we slipped past the growing crowd of local would-be swingers to meet theater co-owners Catherine Campbell and Kyle Fischer. Catherine showed us around the vintage 1926 theater that she and Kyle re-created as a modern-day speak-easy, with two 150-seat theaters, both of which double as restaurants and/or pubs.

The popcorn stand looked ordinary enough, except for the full pub menu hanging above it. We placed our order and received two pints of Sierra Nevada Pale and a metal stand with a plastic letter denoting our order. I made a mental note about the amazing premium pitcher prices ($8!) for future reference. Then Monica ushered us past the anxious masses awaiting entry and into the cavernous theater space, where we were honored with a VIP front-row love seat adjacent to Will and Monica's.

As workers cleared away the dishes from the previous show, we soaked up the unusual atmosphere of the place. The theater is divided into three tiers. The foremost one is filled with 20 or so love seats and matching end tables for your viewing/dining pleasure. The upper tiers resemble the Copacabana, with individual chairs and cocktail tables all facing forward. Above the screen is a beautiful proscenium arch adorned with intricate Egyptian-style carvings.

On this particular evening the stage was set for Will the Thrill's final "Midnight Lounge" pre-show. Monica straightened the authentic midway carnival wheel, placed the prizes by Will's rattan chair, and set the decorative tiki masks along the length of the stage.

Suddenly, the doors were flung open and two streams of twenty- to thirtysomethings rushed in from either side of the room, literally diving to secure one of the coveted love seats up front. Once those seats were filled, the remaining viewers were stuck with the consolation chairs in back.

The plastic letter resting on our end table soon brought waiters bearing a healthy sampling of the Parkway's menu. A house salad with red wine vinaigrette and crumbled blue cheese was surprisingly good. The buffalo wings were actually a step above the standard deep-fried sports-bar version, with a dark, smoky, dare-I-say complex sauce. Our custom-baked pizza (the Parkway's mainstay), which included our selected toppings of tomatoes, garlic, and feta, was unbelievably tasty -- remember, we were in a movie theater.

More-than-decent food, on the cheap, with pitchers of beer and only $5 admission. Why haven't you been to the Parkway yet?

The din of the crowd settled to a murmur as Will took the stage. Before introducing the evening's film selection, Will the Thrill announced his move to Thursdays while revealing the theater's biggest news: The ubiquitous Rocky Horror Picture Show has found a new home at the Parkway -- with beer.

Will moved into his usual shtick with hipster trivia, one-liners, and prizes. Monica spun the giant wheel, rewarding tickets 81 and lucky-69 with additional gifts.

And then, Will proceeded to do what I'd neglected to ask him not to do: introduce The Man Who Came to Dinner. To a pathetic trickle of knee-jerk applause, he presented me with a telling gift, The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste. I reached up to the stage to shake his hand. And then, in a poorly executed attempt to blend with the evening's theme, I bypassed what would have been the appropriate kiss on Monica's long-black-glove-covered hand in favor of an awkward peck on her cheek. Will covered for me gracefully by announcing, "Yeah, yeah. You already got your free pizza."

With my tail between my legs I returned to my love seat for a brief interlude of self-critical reflection. Then, tangling my legs together with my date's, I kicked back, reached for my Sierra, and reclined in cinematic luxury as Swingers took the big screen to temporarily reassure me:

"You're so money. And you don't even know it."
Viva la Parkway.

By Barry Levine

Want to host The Man Who Came to Dinner? E-mail SFDinner@aol.com and tell us what's cookin'.

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