By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
ItisEasterSundayon the second floor of the Crowne Plaza Hotel near LAX. I walk down a hallway and hear the excited, lilting voice of a young boy: “How do you spell atheist?”
This voice comes from a tyke with an impressive mullet hair-do, happily sequestered in the Kids Camp, as his parents participate in the 11th Annual Stars of Freethought Convention, sponsored by the Atheist Alliance International. They are a well-groomed, nice-looking bunch of mostly white folks who have come from around the country to gather with their fellow nonbelievers. You might think, why bother getting together? Why not just stay away from church and relax?
Gathering is just a natural instinct. Whether you’re a Catholic or a Ted Nugent fan or a wolf, there’s a specialized get-together just for you. And here there have been many attractions for the practicing atheist, if that’s not a contradiction. Talks on things like “America’s Most Hated Woman: The Life and Gruesome Death of Madalyn Murray O’Hair,” “Einstein’s Religion” and “The Religious Roots of Homophobia and Sexophobia.”
But today, Sunday, the alleged anniversary of the alleged Son of the alleged God’s alleged Resurrection, while millions are dolled up in their finery, glowing with Belief and slipping into pews, the atheists are sitting down to a nice breakfast, awaiting the arrival of a Thomas Jefferson impersonator. Next to me are Steve and Shirley, who’ve come from St. Paul, Minnesota (the state is a bastion for atheists). They are pleasant and friendly in that Midwestern way that’s almost heartbreaking. They’re middle-aged, and look so normal (by cynical, hip L.A. standards) as to be almost invisible.
They met at an atheist get-together 15 years ago. Shirley is a second-generation atheist. Steve wrestled his way out of Catholicism.
“I had to pick a confirmation name,” he tells me. “It was the early ’60s, so I picked Fabian. The priest said there was no way I could use that name, but I had found that there was a Pope Fabian. He had to do it.”
Anyone here will tell you that everybody is born an atheist. But, like Steve (a.k.a. Fabian), they’ve gone through their own trials to shed the skin of the religion in which they were inculcated. Even Thomas Jefferson had to deal with these questions, according to the guy dressed as Founding Father T.J. Oh, he’s good, he knows his Jefferson. He talks about things like the need for separation of church and state, and freedom of reason. He says things like “Whether my neighbor believes in one or 20 gods, it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” There is much applause.
After the dead-president experience, the Future of Freethought Parade takes place. A handful of kids get up onstage to show what they’ve created in the Kids Camp. One adorable little girl lifts a T-shirt and announces what she’s written on it.
“Jesus, No, No, No, No, No.”
Then vehement non-God enthusiasts Penn and Teller are honored with the Richard Dawkins Award. Named for the “world’s most famous atheist,” it’s being given to the gifted magic team for being, well, good atheists. Penn speaks, as always, but then the professionally mum Teller steps up to the mike:
“I’d like to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who appeared to me last night and said, ‘I’d like you to spend the anniversary of my specious Resurrection in a room full of fuckin’ atheists.’ ”
Everybody laughs, and so do I. Here’s one certainty: We’ll all be seeing each other in hell, or not at all.
Super Mario Battles King Kong
JustasthebarkeroutsideGrauman’s Chinese Theater began to entice the trickle of early-bird tourists to come in from the sun and visit the room where “just hours from now, Sandra Bullock will appear for the premiere of MissCongeniality2,”a picket line emerged on the shiny black sidewalk. This wasn’t a labor dispute but a lobbying effort to grant a new star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame to a short, mustachioed Italian plumber from Japan. His name: Mario.
Nintendo PR women frantically flagged down youngsters and other passersby to take part in their “protest,” doling out ready-made picket signs: “Video Game Characters Are People Too!!!”
A Southern woman with a pink leather purse made a frown. “Well, I don’t think so. How much does it cost?”
As Mario — or at least a guy in an oversize Mario head — pulled up in a red Mustang convertible, a guy shooting b-roll video footage stage-directed the half-dozen drafted activists to circle and chant: “Ma-ri-o! Ma-ri-o!”
“What you’re seeing here is what Hollywood was built on — hype!” bellowed Hollywood’s 81-year-old, Emmy-winning honorary mayor, Johnny Grant, as he posed with Mario to accept an Internet petition signed by 3,300 people who want to see a new category for video-game stars added to the Walk of Fame. Nintendo’s is far from the first such star-lobbying stunt.
“King Kongis a good example,” recalled Grant. “He followed me for a week, went into every restaurant I was in. He didn’t get a star. Probably should have.”
“If Donald Duck is on the Walk of Fame, why not video-game characters?” argued gamer Kishan Shah, 12, of Cranford, New Jersey, one of those confoundingly short middle-schoolers with glasses and braces and thatches of peach fuzz. Indeed, Mickey Mouse received the first non-human star in 1978; Lassie and Godzilla have also been honored. But it’s been about 20 years since the last new category of stars was added, for Live Performance.
Certainly video games can compete with movies in terms of dollars. Sandra Bullock’s 23 movies have to date grossed roughly $1.25 billion worldwide (according to Boxofficemojo.com), while Nintendo says Mario’s 80-plus video games have generated $7 billion. (An ill-conceived Mario movie spinoff grossed $20 million, while no Sandra Bullock video games have yet hit store shelves.) Overall, the movie industry saw box-office sales of $9.54 billion in 2004 (MPAA); video-game sales were $7.3 billion (according to the Entertainment Software Association). The best-ever opening for a movie was Spider-Man2’s$40.4 million; Halo2for the Xbox saw first-weekend sales of $125 million.
Even so, Mayor Grant, a bit out of his element — he continually referred to the games as “videos” — was politely skeptical of Mario’s chances.
“I’m noncommittal . . . Well, really, I’m not,” Grant admitted, after explaining that the full 45-member board of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce will debate and then vote democratically on the video-game star measure.
“I believe in the tradition that we’ve established here. I know that, along the way, ‘videos’ will play an even more important role, and that we’ll probably have a category for it. But it was the motion pictures, radio and television that built Hollywood — notvideo [games]. I got several phone calls before I came over here this morning, from people in the [movie] industry saying, ‘Don’t do it!’ ”
On the flip side, the mayor received some 20 letters from “big guys” in the video-game industry.
“I think as video games and interactive entertainment and movies merge more,” argued Nintendo public-relations manager Tom Harlin, “they’re going to become very similar industries, as opposed to competitors.”
To which Grant retorted, “The Walk of Fame is to honor people, and to promote tourism. And who’s going to promote more tourists from around the world right now: Sandra Bullock or Mario?”
Sandra Bullock got her star last week.