Far beyond Penn’s campus, nestled behind Cobbs Creek, stands the Tower Theater, a historic gem of a music venue that is the hallmark (if not the only) attraction that the West Philadelphia suburb of Upper Darby boasts. The theater, grand and elegant, will be hosting acts from Harry Styles to Tracy Morgan in the coming months.
This weekend, I did not go to the Tower Theater to see one of those exciting and relevant performers; rather, my friends and I went to see a screening of Monty Python and the Holy Grail followed by a talk given by John Cleese himself. Maybe we, as college students on the bridge between two phases of our lives, were looking to reminisce a childhood in which Cleese appeared as Nearly Headless Nick in the Harry Potter series and the King in Shrek 2. Or maybe we were just looking for something new to do with our Friday night. Either way, we walked into the Tower Theater with Philadelphia’s most fabulously nerdy residents and watched our show.
The film was so prominent in my childhood, and it felt surreal to watch it beside a group of people I've met in college. Though not a single one of us is from the same state, each of us has the same collective popular culture memory. The childhood experience of watching Terry Gilliam clink coconut shells together in the movie was fittingly transported into our new lives in Philly, as the Philadelphian Monty Python geeks around us clinked their own coconut shells they had brought to the screening.
Though it was a nostalgic experience, John Cleese’s speech—in which he mentioned his double hip replacement, knee replacements, hearing aid, and enlarged prostate—reminded us why we were there: we are all much older than we were the first time we watched the Holy Grail.
Cleese responded to the theater's palpable focus on passage of time. Cleese spoke of his mother’s century–long lifetime: he noted how “she lived through the First World War, the Great Depression, the rise of fascism and the Second World War, the atomic bomb, the rise of technology, and 9/11, yet she didn’t seem to notice any of it.” He encouraged the audience to observe and appreciate the world events happening around us as we live, so as not to miss the rich period of history we are so lucky to be living in.
Cleese continued to delight the large crowd with wit as well as existential advice, talking about everything from politics to trauma. He maintained that the only way America will ever be out of its current political bind is to “Make America Great Britain Again,” but he also recalled how comedy can heal even the most divisive and traumatic excesses of the political sphere.
After an hour and a half of Cleese’s biting, take–no–prisoners humor, my group left the Tower Theater pleased that we had revisited a childhood memory in the context of our lives in Philadelphia and at Penn. Moreover, I was thrilled to have discovered the beautiful Tower Theater. Whether or not you think you may want to see Harry Styles in the coming months, I highly recommend trying to get off campus—especially westward— and see a show. You have no idea what unique experience you might stumble upon.