Forty years ago today, August 8, 1980, my mom drove my brother and me to Kansas City in our 1976 Ford LTD for the opening day of the film I had been breathlessly awaiting all summer long. That three-hour car ride from our rural home-town to the city, was the final step in my three-month anticipation for the release of this film. We went to the theater in a beautiful district of Kansas City known as The Plaza. It’s a lovely area designed to replicate Seville, Spain with dozens of gorgeous fountains and sculptures in addition to 15 blocks of shops and restaurants housed in Spanish-inspired architecture. The Plaza is a genuinely beautiful, romantic space, and to this eleven-year-old, starry-eyed Missouri farm girl, The Plaza was almost like stepping inside a fantasy world. There could not have been a more inspired setting in my home state for me to see Xanadu for the first time.
In 1980, the world of American popular music was experiencing one of its most creative peaks. The fusion of disco and R&B, with the emerging sounds of hip-hop, new wave, and punk in New York City, make that time and place my ideal time-travel destination, if ever such a trip were to present itself to me. There is a vast wealth of music from that time period I now have an appreciation for that I did not yet know existed in 1980. For me, as I entered into my second decade of life during the summer of 1980, the two artists influencing my rural American existence more-so than any other at the time were Olivia Newton-John and Electric Light Orchestra. I had admired Olivia since I was four years old, when her American breakthrough album and single Let Me Be There dominated the country charts in 1973. I still love this album, and my copy from 1973 hangs in the listening gallery (my living room) today. Her talent was recognized with the award for the Country Music Association’s female vocalist of the year in 1974, and a string of country hits followed throughout the decade. Olivia remained one of my favorite vocalists of the 1970s. Then, in 1978 she appeared in the film version of the musical, Grease, making her all the more captivating to me, as my dream in life at that time was to become a Broadway star.
I was absolutely spellbound from the very first time I heard Electric Light Orchestra in 1975 at Topp Cats Roller Rink. It was indeed a Strange Magic. That classically arranged string intro so gracefully eases into a typical mid-1970s voice and guitar ballad piece, and then, WOW! All sorts of soaring, sonic sounds unlike anything I had ever heard before came rushing in and around the strings and guitar to reach a stirring crescendo. Today, 45 years later, as I listen to this song, I can recall that heady experience of the rink floor moving under six-year-old me, and I am lifted—body, mind, and spirit. And then there is the elegant and haunting One Summer Dream, my all-time favorite ELO track. Because this song was always designated as a “couples only” selection at Topp Cats, whenever I heard that gorgeous string arrangement intro over the PA system, I would go and hide out in the corner on the benches. This is how and when I began to crave the sensation of feeling music in a physical way. By sitting directly under the speaker mounted in that corner, and leaning my head back, against that wall, I could feel the beat reverberate through me. ELO was mine, all mine. Previous to discovering ELO at Topp Cats, my musical tastes had been formed from listening to the records of the adults in my family or from watching an artist on television with my family. Because of my experience at Topp Cats, I will forever feel a deeply personal connection with Electric Light Orchestra.
In 1980, nothing in life could have been more magical than a film featuring a soundtrack from my favorite female vocalist AND my favorite band. No other album before or perhaps since has given me the intense thrill that the ten tracks of the Xanadu soundtrack produced for me as an eleven-year-old super fan of Olivia Newton-John and Electric Light Orchestra. Olivia’s single Magic was the first track to be released from the forthcoming soundtrack. The track was released during the week of my eleventh birthday. I, of course, found this not at all coincidental, but rather, purely magical. The song remained at number one on the pop charts for four weeks that summer. I was absolutely enchanted and wholeheartedly believed in the magic of those lyrics. Every word of that ethereal and intriguing song resonated with a message that inspired me to keep dreaming about one day finding my place in the music industry, in some glittering and glamorous city, far from my rural home. Three other singles, I’m Alive and All Over the World both by ELO, and the title track, a collaboration from both artists, were all released during the summer in advance of the film. Throughout that summer, I floated around the roller rink floor at Topp Cats on the weekends and in my basement on weekdays, as I listened to these 45RPM records, and fantasized about the plot of the forthcoming film. I could not wait for summer to end because of the intensity of my anticipation for Xanadu‘s release.
Xanadu the film, did not disappoint. Not me, anyway. The critics, however, had a very different opinion of this love story musical on roller skates that featured multiple over-the-top fantastical dance scenes that merged the electric sounds of 1980s disco with 1940s big band music, and a bizarre Disney-esque animated scene that seems to make absolutely no connection with the rest of the film. The amazingly-high-tech-for-its-time-special-effects that now actually make me laugh out loud, brought the nine Muses to life from a mural on the Venice Beach Boardwalk within minutes of the film’s opening. This is where we first see Kira, the roller-skating muse, one of the nine daughters of Zeus, played by Olivia Newton-John. Her sisters are a multi-racial ensemble of goddesses, a bold and inspiring cinematic depiction for 1980. Kira then roller skates up and down the city’s coast from Zuma Beach in Malibu to the Boardwalk in Venice, to bring two music-loving, but disgruntled by the industry, individuals together to convert the illustrious but decaying architectural icon, the Pan Pacific Auditorium, into a roller-disco-meets-big-band-nightclub. Once she brings the two men together there, she recites Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1797 poem about Kubla Khan’s palace to the two dreamers, and magically, Xanadu is rebuilt. Then there is the classically impeccable dancing of none other than Gene Kelly, himself, in what would be his final film role, reprising his role as Danny McGuire from his 1944 film Cover Girl. All this, along with the breathtaking backdrop of the beach and the palm trees and the gorgeous art-deco architecture of Los Angeles, was Xanadu. What’s not to love when you’re a pre-teen farmer’s daughter who has lived inside her fantasy of becoming a part of the entertainment business since she could walk and talk? I was captivated, and that’s putting it mildly, obsessed, is more accurate.
My mom kindly bought a cassette version of the Xanadu Soundtrack and a special edition Xanadu magazine at Sam Goody before we left the city. Our 1976 Ford LTD did not come equipped with a cassette player, but we kept a portable, battery-powered cassette player in the back seat of our car. That night on the long ride home from the city, we listened to three hours of Electric Light Orchestra and Olivia Newton-John. I tried to keep my eyes closed all the way home as I listened to the soundtrack in an effort to permanently embed the visual scene associated with each track into my brain. I knew it would be several months before the film would play our local theater and I didn’t want to forget a single celluloid moment. In 1980, my goal was to see the film nine times. I was certain that by achieving this “magic” number of screenings, all of my dreams would come true and I would grow up and find my way to a life in the music business. When the film finally arrived in my hometown around Christmas-time, it played once a day for a week, so I missed my goal by one screening. That ninth theatrical viewing became reality in 2018. I held a private screening in the theater I was managing at the time, for my daughter and her friends. My daughter’s generation has found this film to be a fantastically nostalgic romp through 1980s excess. I’m thrilled that Xanadu has found an appreciative audience after all these years. To add to the personal magical affection we share for this film, we discovered that night as the credits rolled across the big screen, that Xanadu had been choreographed by Kenny Ortega, the same man who made High School Musical, the musical sensation of my daughter’s generation. Within a year of that ninth screening, I became the owner of a music festival. So perhaps the magic of that ninth theatrical viewing of Xanadu did indeed have something to do with making my dreams come true, it just took me 38 years to make that happen. I turned out to be the Danny McGuire of my Xanadu, returning to the music business after my 20-year absence from it.
After seeing Xanadu in 1980, I had to embellish my roller style a bit, to emulate my new screen heroine, Kira, Zeus’s roller-skating daughter. I adorned my white roller skates with shiny silver sticker letters bearing my initials “TNL” on the back spine of each skate under my newly purchased leg warmers. I also dressed in frilly peasant blouses and flowing prairie skirts in pastel colors at the roller rink. I hung nine (one for each of the muses) of my grandma’s scarves from an elastic belt around my waist, in my effort to replicate the muses’ fluttering layered dresses, as I floated around the rink floor at Topp Cats. Yep, I really did that. I also attempted to replicate some of the dancing scenes at home. I was particularly captivated by the ending scene during which Kira magically transforms her visual appearance and musical style from 1940s siren, to 1980s punk, to rhinestone cowgirl in a three-minute scene for a song titled Fool Country, which did not make the soundtrack but appeared as a B-side on one of the singles.
My daughter and I watched Xanadu last night to celebrate the 40th anniversary of this film. I confess, I still love it because I can still recall the magical influence it had over me in 1980. Since I was three years old, I had wanted to become a dancer, or singer, or literally anything that would connect me to the glitter and glamour of some sort of music-related career. Until Xanadu, nearly all of my favorite media had allowed me glimpses inside New York’s entertainment industry and/or New York City itself–Funny Girl, That Girl, The Goodbye Girl, Mahogany, Annie, The Wiz and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Xanadu was my first exposure to Los Angeles, and instantly, I was enamored. From the moment I saw that opening scene featuring Gene Kelly playing clarinet on the majestic rocks at Zuma Beach, my fascination for NY was magically transported to LA. The awareness of Los Angeles as a launching point for my future career could be somewhat tethered in reality, and that concept became obsessively compelling for me as an eleven-year-old. I had a great aunt and uncle who lived in Los Angeles, and perhaps one day I could go and visit them there. Seven years after seeing Xanadu, I would do just that. By the late 1980s, a number of young women had been declared supermodels due to appearances in rock music videos. I aspired to become the next Paulina Porizkova. I believed a career as a fashion model would be my role in the music industry, since I had proven to have no dance or vocal talent, nor any ability to play a musical instrument, despite my best efforts to acquire some sort of entertaining skill throughout my childhood. By the time I graduated from high school, Paulina was my idol, and her husband, Ric Ocasek, lead singer for the new wave band, The Cars, was my ideal man. And The Cars’ 1984 hit song Magic, is still my favorite summer anthem. I arrived in Los Angeles three weeks after graduating from high school and was signed by the same agency that represented Porizkova by the end of the summer of 1987. Quite magical for a naive country girl from Missouri.
During my first week in Los Angeles, by pure chance, a friend took me to Zuma Beach, where I witnessed for the first time, the beauty of the sun as it melts into the Pacific Ocean at dusk. That experience from 33 years ago lives in my mind and heart as if it happened last night. Not only was I spellbound by the majesty of the ocean, but at the realization that I was in the place where Gene Kelly had played his clarinet in the opening scene of Xanadu. In 1988, my favorite photoshoot during my brief career in Los Angeles took place on those same rocks where Xanadu had given me my first look at Los Angeles. By the end of the 1980s, I realized model was not the role for me. I returned to Missouri, intent on becoming a music journalist. Thirty summers later, my daughter and I made a trip to Los Angeles to see Electric Light Orchestra’s first US tour in nearly 30 years. During that trip, I photographed my daughter in that same spot at Zuma, to ensure her dreams would one day come true as well, because I still consider Zuma Beach in Malibu to be the most magical place in the world. I try to make a pilgrimage to those rocks, to be “suspended in time” in my zen zone, every time I visit the glittering city of the angels. Zuma is my connection to that eleven-year-old farm girl inside me who believed her dreams could come true at the beginning of the 1980s, as well as to that eighteen-year-old girl in me, who actually got a shot at making her dreams come true in Los Angeles at the end of the 1980s. Throughout the four decades since then, my belief in those lyrics “we have to believe we are magic, nothing can stand in our way,” has ebbed and flowed. I thought that today, on the 40th anniversary of Xanadu, smack in the middle of a year of unprecedented challenge for not only me, but nearly everyone in this country, we could all use a little bit of magic. We have to believe the magic is within each of us, we don’t have to be kissed by a muse for inspiration. Every one of us has the very human ability to inspire one another through compassion, kindness and empathy. Let’s be better humans, to all humans “all over the world”.