Copyright 1992, 1995 by Kathy Biehl. All rights reserved. Permission is granted for electronic replication of this article only if you include the copyright notice.

It's not often that the greatest composer of all time comes to town, especially since he's dead and appearing in proxy via a porcelain bust bearing the ill effects of a dive into the Rio Grande. Houston first had him for a weekend in June, 1992, the Compendium lured him here (with assistance from the Orange Show Foundation), and my circadian rhythm has yet to recover from the experience. The visit's stated purpose was a Sunday evening event at the Orange Show, but the real thrust turned out to be an insidious and pervasive stupidity that spiraled out from the my pathcrossing with my most prolific correspondent, Wagner's caretaker doc. Doc usually uses Wagner as the focus of his travel photographs (which he's compiled into four photo-essay travelogues: Wagner's Hollywood, Wagner's Albuquerque [my fave]; Wagner's Mysterious San Diego and Wagner Statewide/part the first: the South [Doc's fave]). The Houston expedition nudged the Wagner project slightly higher up the scale of technology, since it was recorded with both a camera and a camcorder. Not that the advance was any great leap as if to keep the participants from taking either the project or their abilities too seriously, the borrowed camcorder was missing its instruction booklet. The resulting video, Wagner's Houston, is destined to be labeled a seminal work establishing the oeuvre of cinema bête.

Random highlights:
Wagner appeared detached at his formal introduction to his hostess. The head and torso had come apart during the flight. One of Doc's first acts in the fragrant Bayou City was serving as human vise for his just-glued companion.

Among the sites visited by W & Co: the beer can house, Anderson Fair Blue Squirrel Theatre (formerly Retail Restaurant), the Flower Man's house, the Tien-Hou Buddhist-Taoist temple, Rice University (including graduate student commons Valhalla), the Holder's Pest Control neon cockroach, the Fine Arts Department of the Houston Public Library, Howard Hughes' grave, Charlie's Coffee Shop during peak drag-queen hours, innumerable public statuary installations (from Joan Miró to a pyramidical pile of tires), the knight still standing guard at the shuttered Sir Loin Inn, the atomic-sized crab and gun-toting shrimp at Christie's, Wagner's (not pronounced "vawgner") Hardware, and, of course, P.O. Box 542327 77254-2327.

"Stupid" ranked high among the most-repeated descriptive adjectives of the weekend's activities (others being: insane, dada, annoying).

The public classical music station actually read public service announcements about the event. More than once, even. Mentioning the name of this 'zine over the airways, even. On receipt of the first such report I immediately rang up the announcer and personally invited him to join the festivities at the Orange Show. He did not discourage her brainstorm to bring Wagner by the station ("We're open 24 hours a day and our listeners are free to bring a bust of Wagner to the station any time they want to") and later sealed his own fate as Wagner-visitee by using this event as the topic for shift-changing banter with another program announcer who just so happens to be a subscriber to this 'zine, albeit not voluntarily. When the entourage descended upon the station, the latter program host refused to come out of the production room, but the former, as well as the program director, we'll have you know, quite graciously greeted the greatest composer of all time. Who says classical music lovers need be stodgy?

His schedule precluded an offered trip to a spa but did make room for head removal and regluing with polyvinyl acetate. After his surgery an obnoxious bar patron mistook him for Thomas Jefferson.

Doc says he's easily amused, but not easily impressed, to which I chime in, "me, too!" Both were thunderstruck, however, by Rex Celestis' unexpected contributions to the video dubbing one of his personal statues Our Reticent Lady of the High Seas of Androgyny and Ambiguity and prepping an artificial intelligence computer program to speak greetings to the visitors, which concluded with "Wagner is the big of bigs, the great of greats, the highest of the most high."

People kept trying to take Doc's belongings from him during lunch. At Goode Company Barbecue, which besides splendiferous victuals boasts a plethora of dust-coated Texana and near-antique cultural artifacts, the manager approached the collaborators, while they were holding trays about to order, and asked if they'd been photographing a statue in the iced longnecks. As I thought, "Oh, shit, we've contaminated the ice," the manager requested to see the statue. Doc produced W from his black canvas traveling bag and the manager took it, thanked them and walked away. Here my memory blanks out, but Doc later related that I vociferously took issue with this turn of events and insisted that the statue belonged to my companion. The manager finally really looked at what was in his hands and quickly returned it. When we arrived at the register, the cashier said their checks had been taken care of. Wagner had bought us lunch.

The next time the lunch hour rolled around, Doc was digitally punctuating what was probably the 120th anecdote to pass between them when the waitress said, "Hey, no tapping on the table" and made as if to take his plate away.

Another first in the Wagner travels (besides being accused of stealing his own property) was draining commentary by a passer-by. A man with a very large dog was struck by the tableaux: a man wearing a ponytail and a black "Death to the Pixies" T-shirt holding up, in his left hand, a bust against the backdrop of a house stuccoed with plaster cast face masks and sighting the scene through a camera held in his right hand. "You're clearly doing something very strange indeed," the onlooker announced in a vaguely British accent, divining that it must not have anything to do with the Pixies "because you display a certain antipathy to them." The pair explained the nature of their mission, whereupon the visitor burst out, "Why would you do that? He was a terrible person!" (Which, in case it needs explaining, is exactly the point.) This is the only time that anyone has approached Wagner's visual chronicler to ask what the hell he's doing.

The visit ended with a lunar eclipse watch on the roof of the Orange Show museum. Wagner enjoyed a place of honor next to a cutout of O.S. creator Jeff McKissack, behind several flickering citronella candles.

Excerpted from Ladies' Fetish & Taboo Society Compendium of Urban Anthropology
Sum-sum-summertime '92, Vol. V, No. 2

More Wagner?

Back to cafe menu