BOOKS | Patricia Hampl celebrates F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Fitzgerald Theater


Saturday night marked the 100th anniversary of the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. To honor its namesake, Minnesota Public Radio presented another fine St. Paul writer, Patricia Hampl, reading her essay “The Big Time” along with Scott’s granddaughter, Eleanor Lanahan, and great-granddaughter, Blake Hazard. (I say “Scott” rather than F. Scott, or Mr. Fitzgerald, because that’s the name to which he was referred to throughout the evening. Since I’m a St. Paul girl myself, we are, after all, comrades.) It was a casual affair celebrating a grand theater and a larger-than-life novelist. We St. Paulites don’t like to make too much of a fuss around things.

In Scott’s time, I’m supposing the theater (then the Shubert Theatre) was filled with dreamers and escapists such as himself—those who were celebrating the roaring 20s and those who were taking a respite from the desolate 30s. It’s an elegant, stoic, and (dare I say) glamorous theater now. Hampl’s essay helps us revisit that time by telling us the story of the short-lived but dynamic years of Scott’s life in St. Paul, New York, and eventually Hollywood. Hampl integrated her own adolescent passion for Scott and the intense ups and downs that only a great “crush” can bring with Fitzgerald’s detailed letters to family and friends, journal writings on the very dull St. Paul to the life-sucking but oh-so-interesting NYC. Weeks spent writing in cramped St. Paul attic rooms yielded to years spent partying with the literary jet-set of New York.

The essay resonated with this St. Paul girl in ways that were familiar (Catholic school experiences, Ramsey Hill and Summit Avenue architecture, and all that), funny (just how does an adolescent schoolgirl respond when Sister Mary Claire tells you she actually danced with Scott during a cotillion and still became a nun?), and desperate (reciting poetry outside one of the many Scott residences while secretly placing a red rose at the steps). Hampl writes great drama that made me realize just how similar Scott’s desperation to get out of St. Paul was to my own, and no doubt, many others’. It’s lovely here, and familiar, and familial, but it’s not Hollywood or New York, and for some of us, that means it’s often dull. But once a St. Paulite, always a St. Paulite, and even Scott was born and died on Laurel Avenues—half a continent away, which one can construe as fortuitous or frightening.

Perfectly accompanied by music performed and selected by another local great, Dan Chouinard, with a superb horn duo, the essay illustrated a point brought up during Lanahan’s introduction: stories are best when they are read out loud. I wasn’t sure I agreed with that, but Hampl did prove the point with her reading. She was whimsical, she was serious, she was tender, and she was nervy. The music, popular songs of the Jazz Age and beyond, resonated with her voice—or in fine jazz tradition, took over for a while in the way great music can. The performance flowed. It was lovely and dynamic. Hazard charmed and lulled us in the final act, her narrative singing voice letting us know the people leave but the memories stay forever. And the new, huge, mural of F. Scott Fitzgerald being painted on the side of the theater will help with that.