Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.
—attributed to every dying English actor since Richard Burbage (1567-1619)
Young Frankenstein (1974) and Count Bubba, Down Home Vampire (last Friday)
The guy in Row S, seat 18 was dead, all right. There was no mistaking it. For one thing, he hadn’t laughed once during the Blind Man scene in Young Frankenstein, which is indication enough that all brain function has ceased. For another, there was the whole staring-straight-ahead-and-not-breathing scenario, and the lack of a pulse, which was good enough to convince me.
“Were you the one who found him?” I asked Anthony (not Tony, mind you), the ticket taker/usher/projectionist. Anthony, a Cinema Studies major at Rutgers University, is nineteen years old, and a film geek from head to toe (sorry, Anthony, but it’s true). He was wearing black jeans, a T-shirt with a picture of Martin Scorsese on it, and a puzzled expression that indicated he was wondering how to work this event into his next screenplay. Anthony shook his head.
“Sophie found him,” he said, indicating our snack stand attendant/ticket seller/clean up girl, who was standing to one side, biting both her lips and ignoring her cell phone, which was playing a Killers song by way of ringing. Sophie was, in her own high-school junior way, freaked out. I considered gesturing her over, then realized she wanted to stay as far away from our non-respiring patron as possible, so I walked to her side instead.
“It’s okay, Sophie,” I told her. “Just tell me what happened.”
She avoided looking toward the man, who appeared to be in his early forties, maybe five years older than me, and dressed for a late April evening out in Midland Heights, New Jersey: pink polo shirt, with the proper reptile depicted on the left breast, tan khakis, no socks, and penny loafers that looked to have last been shined during the Clinton Administration. His box of popcorn was still on his lap, although there was very little left in it. The popcorn had spilled onto the floor at some point, but the carton remained in his hands.
“I was picking up the wrappers and whatever,” she said, her usual teenage indifference betrayed by her wavering voice. “I saw him sitting there as the people filed out, and I didn’t think anything. You know, some people just sit there and wait for everybody else to leave. But then they all, like, left, and he didn’t move. And when I went over to see …” Sophie fluttered her left hand in a gesture of futility, and then it went to her mouth. She didn’t want us to see her cry; it would ruin her image. Sophie was the Midland Heights version of Goth, which is to say, she wore all black and straightened her hair. But her clothes were clean and pressed, her makeup leaned toward pinks (which didn’t have much effect on her pale complexion) and her shoes were open toe sandals. She was about as Gothic as Kelly Clarkson, but she was in there pitching.
“Okay,” I said. “Did you call 911 like I asked you to?” It had been the first sentence out of my mouth when Anthony had informed me someone had died laughing—or in this case, not laughing—in our theatre. Sophie nodded earnestly, just as her cell phone stopped playing music. “Good. I think everyone had better stay put until the cops get here. They’ll want to talk to us.”
“Mr. Freed?” Anthony refuses to call me “Elliot,” even though Sophie, three years his junior, does. He thinks that just because I once sold a novel to a film company, and the movie was actually made, that I now have a direct line to Quentin Tarantino and must be treated with every respect. He’s wrong. I looked at him. “Should we close his eyes or something?”
I think Sophie’s hands went to her belly at that point. Not that she actually has a belly, but if there were one, that’s where it would be. Sophie actually looked a little like a girl scarecrow dressed for an evening out at Dracula’s place.
I shook my head. “No. Don’t touch anything. Once the police get here…”
“When are they getting here, already?” Sophie asked. Her voice sounded about eight years old. “It’s been hours.”
I smiled with one side of my mouth. “It’s been nine minutes, honey. Take it easy. Do you want to go and wait in the lobby?” She nodded, and was out the door in roughly the same time it takes a Pauly Shore movie to go to DVD.
Anthony and I spent a few uncomfortable moments staring at each other, then he broke the tension by staring at the ceiling, while I completed a close study of the “Exit” sign to the left of the screen, rather than look at him or our less animated guest. Normally, Anthony would be asking me about some obscure movie he’d seen in class that week, and I’d be telling him I didn’t know much about it, but let’s say we were a touch preoccupied at the moment. A dead guy staring at a blank movie screen will do that for you.
Luckily, the sirens started just seconds later, which gave us a clear agenda, even if we didn’t know what it would be yet. The people who handled these situations had arrived.
The EMTs got inside first, rolling a gurney and acting like it was an episode of E.R. Clearly, we idiot civilians couldn’t be trusted to tell when someone was dead, and it would be in their purview to resurrect my guest and show us all how ignorant we had been. Even medical people spend too much time watching television, and sincerely believe they, too, can be heroes in every possible situation. I had given up that attitude two years earlier, when my wife the doctor had decided she’d prefer to be married to another doctor. And then six months later, married him.
“Stand aside,” the taller one said, despite the fact that neither Anthony nor I was standing anywhere near the stiff in Row S, Seat 18. He and his partner rushed to the seat, and blocked my view as their arms flailed and they barked orders at each other. After a few moments, the second EMT, eager for his role in the drama, looked dolefully at me.
“This man’s dead,” he said solemnly. If he’d said, “he’s dead, Jim,” he could have been DeForest Kelley on Star Trek; that’s how perfectly final his words were.
“No kidding,” I told him. “I thought he just wanted to get into tomorrow night’s show without paying a second time.”
He stared at me a moment, but was unable to react to my insubordinate behavior with anything except surprise. It was lucky for him that the police arrived at that moment. It was probably lucky for me, too, as I was feeling sorry about being so snotty, and was about to apologize.
Two uniformed Midland Heights police officers walked through the open door to the auditorium, a blonde woman and a youngish man who looked to be of Indian or Pakistani descent. They nodded to the EMT who had just pronounced the dead man dead, and the blonde officer took a look at the guest of honor, who was now considerably more disheveled than he had been, but no more animate.
“What do you think?” she asked the taller EMT, who was probably the senior technician. He was about forty, and the flecks of grey at his temples gave him that look of authority that works so well in commercials for Lipitor and other cholesterol-lowering drugs.
He puffed himself up at the sight of the attractive cop in her mid-thirties. “Heart attack,” he said. “It’s just a guess, but it looks like it hit him so fast he didn’t even blink before he was dead.”
The blonde officer turned to me. “Did you notice him during the film?” she asked.
I shook my head. “Nice to meet you, too,” I told her. “I’m Elliot Freed. I own the theatre.”
Her eyes widened a bit, and she almost smiled. “I’m sorry. It’s my first dead movie patron.”
She nodded. “That’s Officer Patel,” she said, indicating her partner, “and I’m Officer Levant.”
Officer Patel was questioning Anthony over to one side. “I’ve never met anyone named Levant before.” I’d seen Oscar Levant in some old movies, and was wondering if she were some descendant.
“It used to be Levine, they tell me.”
My eyebrows probably rose. “You don’t look it,” I told her. I can say that because I do look it.
She pursed her lips, but not in a nice way. “My ex-husband,” she said. “Given name is Baldwin.”
“I didn’t mean to react that way,” I apologized. “I’m a little shook up.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she responded. “It’s understandable. Now…”
“I noticed he wasn’t laughing, during Young Frankenstein,” I told her. “But everyone’s entitled to have bad taste if they want to.”
“What scene wasn’t he laughing at?” She seemed to mean it.
“The Blind Man scene,” I answered.
Levant looked surprised. “You should have called us sooner,” she said.
Really? Could I have saved his life if I’d taken the talents of Mel Brooks more seriously? Levant smiled at my worried expression. “Calm down,” she said. “I’m kidding. You’d think the owner of a theatre that only shows comedies would have a better sense of humor.”
“I usually do, when everyone who walks in walks out again. I’m not used to the police knowing the Mel Brooks oeuvre so well. Officer, I really didn’t notice anything unusual about …”
Patel, who had put on latex gloves and approached the body, was reading the driver’s license from the wallet he’d extracted from my deceased guest’s side pocket. “Mr. Vincent Ansella,” he said.
” … about Mr. Ansella at all, until Anthony told me something was wrong.” I gestured toward Anthony, who was seated in Row R, seat 2. He looked like, well, like he’d been in the same room with a dead body too long, and he was staring at Officer Levant in a way that made me notice how well she filled out her uniform. I’d never seen Anthony look at anyone like that before. I turned toward Levant again. “Any way we can get Mr. Ansella out of here now? I think my staff is getting a little spooked.”
Levant shook her head. “I’m sorry, Mr. Freed,” she said. “We’ll have to wait until the detectives have been through.”
I sat down. Row U, seat 1. “There have to be detectives, even when it’s, um, natural causes?”
Levant nodded. “Procedure. We’re never sure about anything until the autopsy, so then if anything looks suspicious, the detectives have seen the scene.”
“They’ve seen the scene?” I smiled at Levant with the left side of my mouth. I’m told that’s my rakish grin. Okay, so I’m not really told that, but nobody’s ever specifically told me it isn’t rakish.
“You’d prefer if I said they’ve surveyed the area of the myocardial infarction?” Levant answered.
I didn’t have the time (or the wit, to be honest) to retort in an amusing manner, because the rear door opened wide, and a very large African American man who looked like Colin Powell’s stunt double walked in, dressed in jeans and a denim shirt. Behind him, Sophie slipped through the half-opened door with another uniformed cop behind her. She looked even paler than usual, which for Sophie is saying a lot. There are polar bears with more pigment in their faces than Sophie.
Levant noticed the plainclothes guy immediately, and her face lost its playful expression. “Chief,” she said.
Since the man was clearly not the head of a Native American tribe, I took him to be the head of the Midland Heights Police Department. He walked up to me and put out his hand. “Barry Dutton,” he said.
“No,” I told him. “Elliot Freed. But I get that a lot.”
The chief smiled. He reminded me of someone, I thought from television, but I couldn’t remember who. “I’m Barry Dutton,” he said. “I’m the chief of police. Sorry for your trouble tonight.”
“More his trouble than mine,” I said, indicating the guest of honor.
Chief Dutton surveyed the scene: the man’s body was now slumped to one side in his seat, the popcorn box at a forty-five degree angle in a hand that was only going to clamp more severely around it, his mouth wide open, his eyes the same, staring at a gigantic Teri Garr who wasn’t there. “Heart attack?” he asked Officer Levant.
“EMS says it looks like,” she answered. “Mr. Freed here says nobody noticed anything unusual during the movie, except that the man wasn’t laughing.”
“The first movie or the second?” Dutton asked.
“We’re showing Count Bubba, Down Home Vampire, so I try not to be in the auditorium during the second movie,” I said. “I noticed he wasn’t laughing at the first.”
Dutton suddenly looked interested. “What movie?” he asked.
“Young Frankenstein,” Levant told him.
The younger EMT’s eyes narrowed, as if someone had told him something mentally taxing. “Isn’t that old?” he asked.
“It was followed by the new Rob Schneider,” I explained. “If you come for the classic, you can stay for the new comedy for free.” The truth is, one ticket buys you admission to both films, since we show the classic first, but it sounds better if you say something’s free. People like that. In theory.
“Now, Rob Schneider is funny,” the EMT said. “But why go to a theatre to see some old movie you can get on DVD?”
Since there was a dead man in the room, I decided against explaining the communal experience of watching a comedy among others who might laugh. Levant stifled a grin.
Dutton gave the EMT a look that said, “less Roger Ebert, more Dr. House,” then turned to me. “You noticed him not laughing during the first movie and you didn’t do anything?”
I blinked. “He’s allowed to have bad taste.”
“What about between movies? Anybody notice if he got up, talked to other people, moved?”
“We run a series of trailers and reminders to go out to the snack bar during the break,” I told him. “We don’t turn on the lights between movies, so nobody would have noticed.”
“Why don’t you turn on the lights?” Dutton didn’t seem suspicious so much as curious.
“Frankly, we’re not always sure we’ll be able to get the projector started again after we turn it off,” I told him honestly. “We like to keep it going.”
“Do you recognize him?”
“No, but I didn’t even sell him the ticket.”
I gestured toward Sophie, who looked like a Goth deer caught in Goth headlights. Her eyes were wider than I’d ever seen them, at least in the three months I’d known her, and she seemed awfully scared. I walked to her side. “Sophie sells the tickets,” I told Dutton, and then turned to her. “You didn’t know the man, did you, Sophie?”
She shook her head a little and looked like she might cry. I had a sudden urge to adopt her, which might or might not have met with her parents’ approval.
“Don’t worry,” Dutton told her. “Nothing bad is going to happen.”
“Can we move away from… him?” Sophie asked in a tiny voice, pointing at the audience member least likely to return for another visit.
“Of course,” Dutton said. We shuffled up the aisle toward the auditorium doors, and stopped about thirty feet from the EMTs and their patient. On the way, I saw Dutton take Officer Levant aside and say something quietly to her. It must have been that he thought Sophie might be more comfortable talking to a woman, because Levant stepped between us and smiled gently at Sophie. “Did you notice if the man was alone or with somebody when he bought his ticket, Sophie?” she asked.
Sophie shook her head a little. “I don’t really remember, but I think he was alone,” she said.
I gestured to Anthony, who had been avidly watching the EMTs put Mr. Ansella in a body bag, no doubt filing it away for use in a movie one day. Anthony’s a nice kid, but nothing has ever happened to him that he wouldn’t someday write into a script. He walked over to us with his hands in his pockets, staring at Officer Levant with an odd expression I took to be lust. She, noticing, looked discouragingly at him, and I felt for the kid. Look at the officer under different circumstances, I might have had the same expression. On Anthony, it was strangely touching in its hopelessness.
“Anthony is the usher, and he keeps an eye on the house during the show,” I told Levant and Chief Dutton. “Was Mr. Ansella sitting with anyone, Anthony?”
Anthony seemed to be considering the question, or maybe he was thinking about the incredible leap forward in special effects technology that The Lord of the Rings trilogy represented. All I know for sure is that he furrowed his brow. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I mean, I wasn’t paying special attention to the guy, but I think I remember a woman sitting next to him during the first movie, but not the second one. Blonde, I think.”
“Just sitting next to him, or with him?” Dutton asked.
“I don’t know. I wasn’t really paying attention to them, and it’s really dark in here during the movie. I see most of it from the projection booth,” Anthony told her.
The taller EMT walked over to Dutton. “I think we’ve about done it, Chief. Can we take him out of here?”
“How long’s he been dead?” Dutton asked.
“I’m not the M.E., but I’d say two or three hours.”
Dutton nodded, and said, “Take him. But tell the M.E. to take a look right away. I want to be able to tell Mr. Ansella’s next of kin what happened to him for sure.”
The EMT popped a stick of gum into his mouth and walked away, giving Dutton a mock salute. I hoped it was sugary gum. Anyone who thinks Rob Schneider is funnier than Gene Wilder deserves tooth decay.
Officer Patel walked over carrying a sealed plastic bag. “I’ve got his personal effects, Chief,” he said. “Wallet, cell phone, keys, a couple of ATM receipts. No prescriptions that would indicate a medical condition, nothing special.”
Dutton looked at me, then at the area where Mr. Ansella had been seated. He turned to me and asked, “Do you sell cheddar popcorn?”
It took me a moment to realize he was serious. “No,” I told him. “We pop our own. It’s butter or nothing.”
Dutton nodded. “Bag some of the popcorn,” he told Patel. “It was the last thing he ate. Maybe got some stuck in his throat or something, the M.E. might want to see if it matches what he finds.” Patel took another plastic bag from his pocket and walked back to Row S.
Dutton took another look at the scene as the ambulance personnel prepared to roll Ansella’s body up the aisle. Sophie looked absolutely horrified, and Anthony, fascinated. With Dutton’s approval, I told them they could go home, that I’d close up. I don’t think it took an entire second before Sophie was out the door. She was only a few moments ahead of Mr. Ansella’s body.
Patel gave Row S one last examination, and went to the lobby on Dutton’s orders, taking the rest of the popcorn box with him as an afterthought in another plastic bag.
Dutton looked up at the balcony. “Was there anybody up there?” he asked.
“No. The balcony is a little shaky, and I don’t keep it open. Besides, we didn’t have what you’d call an overflow crowd tonight,” I told him. Dutton took that in, and then stuck out his hand and smiled.
“Sorry again for the trouble,” he said. “Good night, Mr. Freed.” He turned toward Levant. “Officer.” Patel walked up the aisle, checking at the door to make sure he hadn’t overlooked a Junior Mints box that might be evidence in Ansella’s heart attack. He hadn’t, so he exited, too.
Levant watched as I got the broom from the lobby and swept up what was left.
“This bothers you,” she said. “You put on a good show, but it bothers you.”
“Of course it bothers me. I bought the theatre because I wanted people to have a good time. I wasn’t prepared for one of them to have his last time here. How many people have a heart attack watching Cloris Leachman?”
Levant raised her left eyebrow. “It’s not your fault the man died.”
“I know. Officer Levant?”
“I know it’s not my fault, Leslie. I’d just prefer the guy died of natural causes somewhere else.”
She nodded, and turned to walk up the aisle. “I have to go file my report, Mr. Freed.”
“Elliot. And thanks. Sorry we didn’t get to meet under less morbid circumstances.”
“I’m sure we’ll meet again, Elliot,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“I was watching Chief Dutton,” she said, as if that explained things.
I nodded, but I’m sure I looked puzzled.
“He saw something,” Levant said. “I’m willing to bet you that was no heart attack tonight.”