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You Are About to Be Sucked into the Xanadu Universe Xanadu means something to everyone...a chance meeting leads Kelsey down its mystifyingly dark and unremitting paths

You Are About to Be Sucked into the Xanadu Universe

Xanadu means something to everyone...a chance meeting leads Kelsey down its mystifyingly dark and unremitting paths

by Kelsey Osgood, Editor, NYC
first published: April, 2008

approximate reading time: minutes

this is a case for the existential detectives

1 Wednesday, February 15, 2008: Print Shop Benefit Art Auction, West 37th Street, Approximately 8:15. I had asked a well-connected friend of mine if her mother would consider inviting me to a benefit she was running. While there, I meet a friend of my friend's mother, who has frizzy red hair and wears glasses and her speech is less linear than any I have ever heard.
"So do you go to NYU as well?"
"No, I went to Columbia, but I graduated about a year ago."
"And what do you do now?"
"Well, it's complicated...I have a bunch of different jobs. My friends say I'm supposed to tell people I freelance because it's just too difficult to explain."
"Freelance what? Write? Edit?"
"Yeah, I do a lot of editing and research stuff...take dictation...why, do you have something that..."
"I do. I have a project that I'm working on right now and I could really use another pair of eyes, if you have the time."
"Yeah, I'd love to."
"What it is is that I'm doing this book...I just need someone to kind of look it over and see's you see, have you ever seen a Broadway show?"
"I've seen a bunch, yeah."
"Okay, so you know those glossy hardcover books they sell there...well, what I'm putting together is not exactly that but it's more like between that and a program. It's not hardcover but it's larger format and has both text and pictures and it's for the musical Xanadu. Have you seen Xanadu?"
"Um, no, but I've heard of it."
"Okay so it's about a Greek muse that comes to Earth and inspires this artist and so I did a lot of interviews with people involved in the musical and asked them about their own muses and the know, the creative process...and, so I could also use someone to do some transcribing if you're up for it."
"I do type..." I struggle for the metaphor. The red wine has slowed me down. " a racehorse."
That makes no sense, self.
"I'd pay you $20 an hour and you'd totally be a part of the book! Yeah, I think it would be really cool, I'd love to have you take a look. You know, just look over it, maybe do some editing. Here's my number and email address, just give me a call some time tomorrow. "

2. Friday, February 17, 2008, phone call made from Starwich Salads and Sandwiches on Lexington Avenue at approximately 10:30 AM to Amanda Salsburger, frizzy red-haired woman.
"Okay, so like I was telling you, Xanadu is all about this Greek muse that comes to Earth in order to inspire this down-and-out artist so a lot of these interviews I did with...well, the first two are with the set designer and the guy who...well, he does sets but he also did video. That's the longest one, you'll see at the top of the website, it's something like one-hundred and eight minutes or something. And it's really interesting, I think you'll find it really interesting....especially...well, you'll hear, in the first interview, the two people, Tom and James, they knew each other as kids and ended up working on the show together...and I think just thinks it's fascinating because Xanadu just seems to bring so many people together in such...I mean, isn't that just so weird?"
"Yeah, it is."
"Okay so just take a look at the interview, get through as much as you can...edit it, you know what I really are those interviews in the New York Times Magazine, you know, toward the front, the one page interviews? So just feel free to edit out the ums and my stupid questions and just call me or email me if you have any questions."

3. First interview of production designer and scenic designer, February 11, 2008, transcribed Sunday, February 19, 2008.
Amanda: Okay, hi guys, OK, hi. Hi, Tom, how are you?
Tom: I'm good
Amanda: Good. I just wanted to get you both on the phone one, because I talked to James the other day briefly, and I now have heard a little bit about your connection, how you guys know each other and I wanted to talk about that. Maybe we should just start with that. Why don't we start? How do you guys know each other?
Tom: James?
James: Yeah, no, go ahead, feel free.
Tom: I think you can tell the beginnings of it much better than I.
James: The beginnings of it?

4. Sunday, February 19, 2008. Conversation with friend Becka Abbott while walking to get iced coffees around 4:45 PM.
"Oh my God, you are going to LOVE this...guess what my new freelance job is."
"I'm transcribing and editing interviews about the musical Xanadu."
"Is that really how it goes?"
"Yes. Remember that girl Chrissie I told you about? The one that only liked white kid food like buttered noodles and went to the Olive Garden in Times Square to read? She was obsessed with Xanadu."
"She would be."
"That's how I know it."
"I think this lady may give me free tickets."
"That's amazing!"
"If she gives me two, do you want to come?
"Definitely. We should go wearing fur and sunglasses. I don't know why fur and sunglasses, but for some reason that makes sense to me."
"Me, too. It makes sense in the sense that it doesn't make sense."

5. First Interview, February 11, transcribed Tuesday, February 21, 2008 and edited later Tuesday evening.

Have you ever worked on a show that has a similar cult following?
Tom: Last season I worked on the show Grey Gardens, which is also loosely based on a cult film from the seventies. It was very interesting to compare and contrast because with Grey Gardens, there are these men and women who are incredible fans that know every line in the film and they would come to the theater dressed up, almost like a Rocky Horror thing. They would mouth along and hoot and holler at the moments when they got a little something from the film. I think Xanadu has really tapped into that times ten or times a hundred. It's just amazing to me that people embrace it considering that it's based on a film that is widely acknowledged as terrible. But still, people are crazy about it and they're going out of their way to figure out how to sit on stage and how to be a part of the show. Everyone wants to be a part of it.

6. Gchat with Einar Benediktsson that began at 2:28 PM, Wednesday, February 22 while at an office on Madison Avenue. Conversation begins as a response to my status message, which says "Xannnnnnadu."
Einar: hey what's the deal with xanadu? what is xanadu?
me: oh my g
so i have another freelance job
Einar: it's been popping up in my life all over in the last week
really random
Einar: ok...
me: and i'm transcribing these interviews that this woman did
with people who are involved in the broadway production of xanadu
which is this really cheesy 80s musical about a muse that comes to life
it's all on rollerskates
Einar: ok...
me: and i think she's going to give me free tickets
Einar: yeah there was a movie with olivia newton john right?
me: yes
where else has the topic of XANADU arisen?!?!
Einar: ok. that's pretty cool
but that can't be all there's to it
I think there's some bigger connection
some underlying current that I am just discovering
me: between xanadu and your life???
Einar: yes
me: wow
Einar: ok so it started a week ago when I was reading the economist, and there was an article about poor urban black los angelites moving to small towns towards the inland of california. and the accompanying picture to the article was a picture of these hippies in the seventies trying to climb a fence, and the caption read "Can they see Xanadu?"
and I thought to myself "Xanadu, where have I heard this?"
then I was reading the icelandic news, and there was a mention of this old danish pop star from the 80's and 90's called Kim Larsen and I remember this song I really liked with him. so I stared reading about him a bit, and I found about his band Gasolin
and I realized oh I like Gasolin, I never realized that Kim Larsen was the front man for that band...
anyways, I dug up some songs, including this song I really liked a few years back called This Is My Life
and I started listening to it
and there was the line "I think I see ghost of Xanadu"
and then a couple of days later, your away message
so... there's something going on here
me: this is a case for the existential detectives
Einar: yeah!
Einar: also interesting because I just finished reading this book The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami and it's really all about those type of existential questions and undercurrents and concepts that dictate or influence your life and whether or not you have control over it and so on
Einar: and the guy in the book, the classic anti-hero by the way, keeps hearing this Wind up bird kind of chirping or winding up time with his cries, kind of a "I'm coming to haunt you" type of cry
me: ok
Einar: and there's a bunch of characters in the book that are connected in various ways, but specifically only a handful of characters can hear the bird cry and it's usually something indicating something bad, some previous bad behavior or events that are coming towards judgment or whatever, and anyways everything in the book sort of leads back to the second world war and these japanese atrocities and other ww2 secrets that happened, where else, in MONGOLIA
inner mongolia to be exact
which is the location of XANADU
me: oh my god
this is huge
and obviously i'm connected somehow
Einar: correct
me: maybe you're supposed to come see the play with me!
Einar: maybe!
oh my god
this is huge
Einar: oh man, so I'm thinking about it now
but somebody doesn't want me to dig too deep
because.. there's a fire drill
me: hurry cause my mind is swirling

7. Results when searching for "Xanadu" on, during above conversation. 

Xanadu, also Zanadu, Shangdu or Shang-tu was the summer capital of Kublai Khan's Mongol Empire, which covered much of Asia and also encroached upon eastern Europe. The city was located in what is now called Inner Mongolia, 275 km north of Beijing, about 28 km northwest of the modern town of Duolun. The capital consisted of the square-shaped "Outer City" (2,200 metres square), "Inner City" (1,400 metres square), and the palace, where Kublai Khan stayed in summer. The palace was 550 metres square, 40% the size of the Forbidden City in Beijing. The most visible modern-day remnants are the earthen walls though there is also a (ground-level) circular brick platform in the centre of the inner enclosure. Xanadu was visited by Venetian explorer Marco Polo in 1275; it became fabled as a metaphor for opulence.

8. Interview with scenic designer James Traylor, February 11, 2008 and transcribed the afternoon of Thursday, February 23, 2008.

James: When you get into the song "All Over the World" the theater kind of goes through a transformation, but we didn't have the desire or the resources to completely renovate the entire place so we just altered a few things, and added a couple bits here and there and just completed it with the sign. So there's definitely an avoidance of it being spectacle-driven theater deliberately but when we get towards the end and things start really moving and we go to Mount Olympus and we have Pegasus flying up, we wanted to bring in some really fun elements that would allow the magic to start taking over. So the show is scenically, sort of deliberately weighted towards the end, and then culminating with the mirror ball.
Amanda: And you talked about that...Stacy talked about that, how you had to go to China to get all the mirror balls.
James: Yeah, they came from all over the place, I don't know, mirror balls from every corner of the world.
Amanda: I think she picked up every mirror ball in the United States and there weren't enough.
James: That's true. There was originally in the design there were a lot more. There were well over a hundred-something more than you see now. I mean, it looks perfectly fine now. It was always something I wanted to do but never did it. So, you have no idea what it's going to be like when you put several hundred mirror balls on stage.
Amanda: Well where did that come from, that you always wanted to do that?
James: I don't know, I just thought that the mirror ball was such a cute little shining star of a piece of decor and it has such a great vibe to it and we always call it this disco thing, but it goes way back to probably the 1920s. The idea is very, very old. It kind of means sort of ballroom or dance place or happy place. So seeing one as the focus is always the way it's done so I thought, you know, more of thinking about it in terms of star fields or planets or that kind of thing. Do an entire solar system of mirror balls. I thought also it was our one moment scenically when we could go to a little bit of excess with Xanadu and so I thought, 'Why not that?' I guess was my desire...They're every size, the big mirror balls are huge, and the little ones are like two inches in diameter. They're all different sizes.
Amanda: There is this grandness. It is planetary. It is the planets.
James: It gets all sort of celestial at that point anyway, right?

9. Continuation of conversation #7
Einar: ok so this musical...
me: yeah
i'm learning about it right
Einar: ok. let me know if you get tickets or whatever. I think is something I have
to pursue further
I think this is something that might lead to some sort of opulence
me: well because of xanadu
and what it represents
that makes sense
Einar: exactly
me: oh
one second
Einar: kelsey you play a role in something big that's being played out right now
that's beyond our understanding. pretty exciting stuff. I'm going to deal with it the only way I know how to: see what happens. this isn't the time to rush out and make rash decisions or take on big trips, if anything, I'm going to sit around and go about my everyday life even more intensely then before.
me: wow
that was a great speech
Einar: thanks

10. Transcribing interview from February 11, 2008, evening of Thursday, February 23, at the townhouse on West 88th Street around 8:02 PM. 

Amanda: And how was the opening conceived? When they come out...
James: Oh well, the idea of putting holes in walls or putting up fake walls wasn't really that appealing. We were looking at all these really, really brilliant, fun perspective chalk drawings where, you know, people are drawing them on the floor, but they were really high end and the artwork was extraordinary. We just found that more appealing and the elevating the stage was a more realizable idea and we realized we'd be able to use it for other parts of the show, you know, bringing up, you know, Tony Robbins from Mount Olympus and all that sort of thing and...
Amanda: And the skates and then the phone booth.
James: Right, so it solved a bunch of problems.

11. 8:03 PM, same night.
"Wait a second...Becka, you have to listen to this."
"Is he saying 'Tony Robbins'? Is Tony Robbins in the Broadway production of Xanadu? Could my life be that spectacular?"
"That would be so amazing."
"We have to look this up. What's the website?"
"About? Media?"
"Ooo, there's a section called Xana-fun!"
"Let's try About. Here we go...Cast....damn, it's Tony ROBERTS."
"It was too good to be true."

12. 9:44, same night, Becka Abbott and I are watching Lost at the apartment of Sandra Amari and Elizabeth Martone. Hurley and Sawyer are in one of the Others' cabins looking through VHS tapes.
"What do you want to watch?" Hurley asks. "Xanadu?"
"My GOD."
"BECKA!" He pops it in the VCR.

13. Excerpted from the Entertainment Weekly Lost message board, garnered while searching for the significance of the reference in the television show. Research. I'm not a dork. 

Oceanic816 The opening lyrics to the song, Xanadu: A place where nobody dared to go/The love that we came to know/They call it Xanadu/And now Open your eyes and see/What we have made is real/We are in Xanadu

Kate Sawyer All about Xanadu! Wikipedia says that movie Xanadu (which Hurley put in the vcr) is based on a 1947 movie "Down to Earth." In the 1947 movie, a muse is frustrated about a Broadway producer who is making a play based on Air Force Pilots who survive a crash on a mountain! The muse-played by Rita Hayworth- is frustrated with the leadership and takes things under her wings. Thanks to her inference, it becomes a hit and everyone involved becomes famous...that's what happened in the movie Xanadu is based on.

Jim T By the way, I saw "Xanadu" last week on Broadway and I loved it! (and yes, I am a straight man)

14. Gchat conversation with friend Meghan Dolan, Friday, February 24 while at Madison Avenue.

me: oh i just got an email from my old editor
meghan: saying what
at vogue?
me: no from this lit mag i used to write for
meghan: weirddd - do they want you fulltime
me: no
he just wants me to submit pieces
i'm trying to think of what i should write about
meghan: YES!
me: you know about the whole xanadu situation right???
meghan: that youre obsessed
me: did i send you the conversation i had with einar?
meghan: haha no!
me: omg it's amazing
meghan: yes! i BET!
omg send

15. Search of my Gmail archives for the word "Xanadu" produces the following, among other results. 

Original email from the publisher of OutsideLeft on July 27, 2007:
a message from your friends at
Hi Everyone, hope all is well. I know, some of you may only have very tenuous reasons for appearing on this mailing list, if at all, but here you are. Apologies accepted?
Recently I happened to see the Brian Jonestown Massacre movie, Dig! Some say it is the best rocknroll movie of all time. Others, doubtless, (most likely among them, Anton Alfred Newcombe) may call it the worst.
Anyway, the BJM are coming back to Echo Park and in the most obscure of links, this must be the time for us to compile the Outsideleft writers' WORST ROCKNROLL FILMS OF ALL TIME.
Use the template below and email your worst to me! We're going to publish them all with an intro from Sam, at the beginning of August. And we're going to incorporate a readers poll. I think.
Copy this for as many films you care to list...

Thanks for helping
More about the changes sort of happening slowly at O/L soon.

16. My response sent on July 30, 2007 (look carefully, or you may miss it): 

Okay after much deliberation I've come up with three.
1. Glitter
Starring: Mariah Carey, Terrence Howard, Eric Benet, Da Brat
Director: Vondie Curtis-Hall
Synopsis: Direct quote from IMDB: "In music she found her dream, her love, herself." I could stop there while you're still retching, but I'll continue: semi-autobiographical story about a young woman who dreams of being a big star.
How it got the greenlight: Mariah, I'm assuming. Girlfriend got money. The idea for the film bounced around studios for three years before it was given the go-ahead.
What went wrong: I'm biased against people who try to do the actor-singer thing most of the time, especially when they try to spread their dramatic wings by starring in a movie where they basically play, um, their own self. The story is just so worn out. Rags to riches BLAH BLAH BLAH. Plus, Mariah can't act. As a funny aside, I met a kid a few years ago who said he was the pledge master for his fraternity in college and as one of the hazing events he locked all the rushes in a room and told them they would have to watch this film. They thought they had it made, but by the end they were screaming and clawing at the walls.

2. Tommy
Starring: Oliver Reed, Ann-Margret, Roger Daltry
Director: Ken Russell
Synopsis: A young boy becomes deaf, dumb and blind after witnessing his father's murder at the hands of his mom and stepfather (very Greek and tragic of them). Despite his handicap he becomes a master at pinball and later, after he "recovers" his senses, a spiritual guru.
How it got the greenlight: Tommy was successful as a staged production before they made the movie version.
What went wrong: Look, I really like The Who as well as the music of Tommy, but after watching Ann-Margret writhe around in a puddle of baked beans that was projected from her television, I had to reevaluate.

3. Can't Stop the Music
Starring: Steve Guttenberg and the Village People
Director: Nancy Walker
Synopsis: This is the story of an NYC DJ (played by Guttenberg) who, along with the object of his unrequited love and her lawyer boyfriend, helps in the formation of disco super group the Village People!
How it got the greenlight: Beats me.
What Went Wrong: This movie is known to some as the film that officially killed disco, but I wonder how that is possible. Come on: Steve Guttenberg rollerskating? The Village People kinda sorta pretending to be straight? Lots of male skin shots? quotes: "a jaw-dropping experience for everyone." Customers who bought this item also bought "Xanadu", "Roller Boogie" starring Linda Blair and "Dante's Cove."

Runners-up include: Rock Star with Mark Wahlberg, Grease 2, and the Apple, the last scene of which involves God descending to earth in a golden limousine.

17. Interview with original screenwriter of Xanadu on February 8, 2008. Transcribed the afternoon of Friday, February 24, 2008 in a really cold corner of the local Starbucks.

HG: When I first saw the movie I was sitting there watching it and suddenly there was a cartoon and a carousel and singing and I was thinking, "I don't know what this is." At the end of the film I walked out. It should have been wonderful. I think it was sliced to pieces. I think there was such a potential there to make it bigger than it was. It's obviously a cult movie now. Its got its own feeling and people love it all over the place but it could have been different. It could have been better.

18. Dinner in Greenwich Village for a friend's birthday, Friday February 24, 9:18 PM, I strike up a conversation with her friend from childhood, whom I've never met. 

"Well, it's a really long story, but essentially, Xanadu has taken over my life."
"Xanadu. Hm. Interesting. And how, exactly, did that happen?"
"I did this job transcribing these interviews for this woman, and all the interviews are of people who are involved in the musical. Like the first one was the scenic designer and the set decorator and then there was the screenwriter of the movie and then the ELO archivist. I ask you, what the fuck does the ELO archivist do?"
"ELO the band?"
"That job doesn't exist. I refuse to believe it. All the guy talks about is how ELO was the biggest band in 1977. In any case, I'm listening to hours upon hours of people talking about Xanadu and chalk murals that come to life and roller skating and Olivia Newton-John and a fucking...giant wooden Pegasus that flies through the air."
"Yeah. The set is designed with hundreds of mirror balls, just like, disco balls everywhere. Anyway, my friend saw my gchat away message one day and we started talking about Xanadu..."

19. Interrupting text message number one from Meghan Dolan, 9:21: 

"OMG I was just watching Monk and this woman came in and was asking him something about his work and this guy said

20. Interrupting text message number two from Meghan Dolan, 9:22: 

the XANADU corporation I almost DIED"

21. Continuation of conversation in #16.

"Right, so, friend said Xanadu was popping up all over his life and I told him about my job and now it's just, like, Xanadu references are everywhere. I can't do anything without hearing some sort of Xanadu reference."
"Yeah, it happens like that sometimes. But it's just because you're looking for it. That happened to me recently with Grace Jones. Not on as large of a scale as yours, but still it was really random. People kept comparing other people to Grace Jones."
"But seriously, this is huge. I've mentioned it to a few friends of mine and now they're noticing Xanadu references everywhere!." "Funny because my eyebrow waxer, who has been my waxer for like five years or something, was talking about his friend was coming into town and he had to go see a Broadway show and his friend wanted to see Xanadu and he was really pissed about it. I can't believe I have to go see a show, he said. Xanadu, I mean, seriously! But then the next time I went I asked him how it was and he was like, I LOVED it!"
"Everyone really likes it! Really, something is going on here. I think the only way to find out is to go see the show. I'm kind of scared. I mean, what do you think will happen to me when I see it? Do you think it will be like staring into the abyss? Will my head implode?"
"Maybe you'll reach Nirvana."

22. Search results from for "XANADU CORPORATION" on Saturday, February 25. 

"Project Xanadu was the first hypertext project. Founded in 1960 by Ted Nelson, the project contrasts its vision with that of paper: "Today's popular software simulates paper. The World Wide Web (another imitation of paper) trivializes our original hypertext model with one-way never-breaking links and no management of version or contents." During his first year as a graduate student at Harvard, Nelson began implementing the system which contained the basic outline of what would become Project Xanadu: a word processor capable of storing multiple versions, and displaying the differences between these versions. Though he did not complete this implementation, a mockup of the system proved sufficient to inspire interest in others.
"On top of this basic idea, Nelson wanted to facilitate nonsequential writing, in which the reader could choose his or her own path through an electronic document. HE built upon this idea in a paper to the ACM in 1965, calling the new idea "zippered lists." In 1967, while working for Harcourt, Brace, he named his project Xanadu, in honour of the poem "Kubla Khan" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge."

23. Interview with James Traylor, February 11, Transcribed Sunday, February 26, 2008. 

Anything unexpected? Anything different from other projects? Anything good or bad about it?
James: I wish I had more, I mean, it wasn't a particularly complex piece. Once we couldn't do the thing on the stage, what we wanted to do fell into place pretty quickly. I mean, it was, you's Xanadu. I'm not sure exactly how interesting I can make it.

24. Conversation with Amanda Salsburger in the hallway outside of the bathroom in the offices on Madison Avenue at 11:32 on Monday, February 27, 2008

"Kelsey, Amanda. Hi. You have just been fabulous so far and..I mean, I'm just so thankful that I went to the Lower East Side Print Shop Benefit!"
"It's really just like, another Xanadu moment!"

25. Apartment of Liz Martone and Sandra Amari, Wednesday, March 1, 2008, watching TV.
Liz says, "Oh dude, I almost texted you today! I saw a guy walking into the subway wearing a hat that said Xanadu on it."

26. Just when I think I've exited, I do AM New York crossword puzzle, Thursday 8:24 AM, 1st Avenue uptown bus. 

43 Down. Xanadu Group
(Answer: ELO. Biggest band in the late seventies. Have their own archivist.)

27. First interview transcribed, again. 

Amanda: Any other last minute things? Guys? Thank you, thank you, cause I think it's really...just tell me the year you were in ninth grade, James.
James: 1980.
Amanda: Okay, so there is a convergence here for Xanadu.
James: There always is. 


Kelsey Osgood
Editor, NYC

NY editor, Kelsey's interests include eavesdropping, thaumaturgy, Pick-Up Sticks, and going on "adventures."
about Kelsey Osgood »»



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