By now I'm sure you've seen the television ads for The Center For the Performing Arts, in Carmel. They feature a wash of pastel colors and an artist's rendering of the Center's signature venue, The Palladium.
The Palladium is just one of four performance spaces at The Center. There are also a 500-seat proscenium theater, a 200-seat studio theater and an outdoor amphitheater.
But The Palladium is the trademark. Based on a villa designed by Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio near Vicenza, in Italy, the Palladium is an unabashed throwback. Its limestone dome rises up from what once was a farmer's field like some fantasy concocted on a backlot at MGM during the 1930's. The sight of the place conjures images of women in bustled gowns and men in top hats, of carriages and brass-tipped canes.
In creating this old world setting, the good people of Carmel are seemingly flying in the face of contemporary cultural trends. Nowadays, the vast majority of our cultural institutions are practically falling over themselves with populist fervor, doing all they can to seem as easy going and down home as a corner bar or shopping mall.
It used to be that cultural institutions were about uplift and aspiration. We dressed up to go to the symphony or museum, where we were introduced to achievements that stood for the best stuff human beings could create.
In the very act of putting on our best clothes for these experiences, struggling unsuccessfully with that tie or wiping the dust off dress shoes that were a size too small, we momentarily stepped out of our everyday selves in preparation for something we might not understand but were advised would be extraordinary.
Well, all of this fell to pieces like the pages of an old paperback copy of Pride and Prejudice. A generation raised on rock concerts and theme parks spread the news that going to museums or concert halls was for stiffs. And as the administrators responsible for attracting people saw their clientele dwindling and, worse, aging, they began trying to make themselves over in order to be more cool, or hip, or whatever it was that drew crowds.
So orchestras began playing movie themes and serving cocktails. Museums opened ever-larger gift shops. Everybody invested in lasers and digital projectors. As for dressing up, forget it.
Today, the people found in cultural venues dress the same as they do at airports. That is to say, for the most part, they dress like big-bodied children.
Let's face it: we Americans, regardless of income level or education, have never gotten the hang of casual dress. From back alleys to country clubs, we turn ourselves into walking advertisements for tourist traps and fashion brands, with logos, legends and dopey one-liners scrawled across our tops and bottoms.
Men are particularly clueless. If America is such a land of opportunity, why is it so many American men insist on dressing like adolescents? There was a time when most kids couldn't wait to grow up – that's where all the good stuff was waiting. Now, apparently, the future is so bleak, young men present themselves as though they're trying to prolong their teen years as long as they can.
Somewhere along the line, the idea got around that there was something confining about dressing thoughtfully. It was considered to be a sign of conformity that went with a buttoned-up corporate job and an inhibited way of life. It meant that you cared too much about what other people thought, that you were uptight.
The same went for the places we used to associate with dressing up. As people came to present themselves more casually, they also began to take museums and concert halls less seriously. Now if we are mystified or bored by what we find in these places, it's the fault of the art being offered. Taking the time to acquire a taste for something we don't get immediately is as old-fashioned as a Homburg hat.
Our dressed-down approach to culture reflects our political attitudes. While having a truly smart guy as president seems a good thing in theory, it appears most of us are put off by this in practice. Better to have someone as pissed-off by what goes on in the world as the rest of us. That's leadership!
So I am delighted by Carmel's decision to create a cultural venue that evokes a more rarefied world. It's a bold move that promises nothing less than a recasting of our cultural expectations. Although I doubt The Palladium will require people to dress a certain way, its very design constitutes a kind of dress code. The first person to walk in there wearing a t-shirt or ball cap is bound to feel a little weird, like they've stepped back in time.
Then, as scheduled to perform in January as part of The Palladium's Grand Opening, Neil Sedaka will take the stage, and the effect will be complete.