I survived watching all three “Pirates” movies in a row.
Here in Los Angeles, Captain Jack Sparrow is a regular fixture in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, where aspiring actors woo tourists every day dressed as Darth Vader, Spider-Man and, of course, Johnny Depp’s popular “Pirates of the Caribbean” character.
But beginning at noon on May 24, the real costume contest went down across the street at the Disney-owned El Capitan Theater, where 1,000 “Pirates” fans gathered for a 10-hour back-to-back-to-back marathon of the full trilogy. Any way you slice it, that’s a lot of “Pirates” — or, as far as this crowd was concerned, not nearly enough. The most enthusiastic among them had also reserved seats for the midnight show and turned right back around to see “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” again as soon as they got out.
Me, I half-expected the ushers to hand out buttons commending our stamina when the marathon finally ended, but these fans certainly don’t think of themselves as survivors. For them, the event was a privilege, not only to revisit the original two movies on the big screen but also to be among the first audiences to see the third. At $100 per ticket, they’d paid for the right to be first (the event sold out within five days of being announced), but then Buena Vista went and decided to open the movie at 8 p.m., giving New York auds a 100-minute jump on this crowd.
Needless to say, these were not casual fans, and someone like me, who half-hoped there might be someone to crack wise with through the duration, was the oddball here. At least one in five patrons came dressed in pirate attire — sporting everything from the generic bandana-and-eyepatch look to a handmade “Beware the Kraken” T-shirt — and of those in costume, at least one in five had specifically patterned his look after Johnny Depp’s character.
“Pirate attire is encouraged,” said the letter that accompanied the ticket in the mail. “However, any real weapons will need to be checked at the door.” The last thing Disney needs is some amateur swashbuckler accidentally putting a kid’s eye out during intermission, so ushers stood guard at the entrance to collect pistols, cutlasses and other potentially dangerous accessories. (Did the six-movie “Star Wars” marathon, which began a day earlier at the Los Angeles Convention Center, have the same problem with light sabers, I wonder?)
If prizes had been given out, Richard Maldonado would have surely made the final cut. I did a double take when I first spotted him during the lunch break, thinking that he might in fact be Johnny Depp. From his beaded dreadlocks to the custom boots (made by a man in Texas who’d been hired to outfit the extras in the sequels, he said), Maldonado had captured not only Captain Jack’s look, but also the character’s rum-drunk swagger.
“I knew as soon as I saw the first movie in 2003 that’s what I wanted to be for Halloween,” he told me, pointing to his tricorner hat. “This was the first thing I learned to make.” After seeing a similar replica listed on eBay for $800, he went down to the library, checked out some books and taught himself how to make authentic-looking pirate hats. Now, he sells them on eBay, too. “It’s still a sideline, but I made more than my regular job last year.”
Nearby, a woman wore a Maldonado original, a “designer” version silk-screened with a pattern of gold skull-and-crossbones and Louis Vuitton logos. Maldonado was clearly no stranger to this circle, and friends who recognized him from other Pirate fests (like the one coming up next weekend in Corona) stopped to admire the latest additions to his costume.
Not so far away, another impersonator posed for pictures with a gaggle of young ladies dressed as wenches. Unlike Maldonado, the man wore a false beard, but the costume was otherwise convincing. Deflecting my questions without breaking character, he said, “I don’t really understand the concept, but there are many people dressed up as me,” before staggered off as only Jack Sparrow can.
For years, pirates were a neglected subset of the Renaissance fair crowd, one enthusiast explained. “Now, they’re a dime a dozen.” Jerry Bruckheimer’s trilogy has brought new meaning into their lives. I could find only two young men inspired by Orlando Bloom’s character, William Turner. Everyone else wanted to be Jack Sparrow, including a handful queuing up to use the ladies’ room.
James Ramsey traveled all the way from Abilene, Texas, to attend the event. He, too, makes his own Captain Jack attire, originally developing the character for Halloween. “The first year, I looked more like Captain Turner,” he said. “The next year, I found a pattern at Wal-Mart and did the jacket. I’ve been working on it ever since.” Now, he runs his own lawn business, but does parties on weekends.
Not everyone was so enthusiastic. One father, flanked by his teen daughter and young son, offered a status report to the outside world by cell phone between movies. “We were all yawning through the first movie,” he said. “I don’t know if we’re going to make it.”
But defections, if any, were rare. No one bought a ticket who didn’t intend to stay for the third movie. And “Pirates” fans are a rowdy bunch — not in the “rape, pillage and plunder” mold of their screen idols, necessarily, but more like teen girls at an ‘N Sync concert. And the event’s perky hosts, no doubt ported over from Disneyland for the day, knew just how to push their buttons.
An innocuous “Who’s ready to see ‘Curse of the Black Pearl?'” was met with a shrieking more terrifying than the Kraken, a frenzied noise repeated during the onscreen entrances of Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom and Depp — in every movie.
The day was rumored to have its share of “special guests,” and the crowd clearly anticipated that at least one of those three would show. Instead, the good folks at Disney produced Martin Klebba, who plays the dwarf pirate Marty, and wenches Vanessa Branch and Lauren Maher.
The guests improved between each movie, with Jack Davenport (Admiral Norrington) trotted out before “Dead Man’s Chest.” That gave the fans reason to suspect someone big might introduce the latest installment — but they would have to settle for Naomie Harris, the voodoo priestess whose part grows significantly in the third movie.
That third movie is still a blur for me. Yes, I sat through all 168 minutes of it, all the way to the “10 years later” episode buried at credits’ end, but there comes a moment when any reasonable human can stand only so much of a good thing — and that, dear friends, occurs about 90 minutes into the original film when Sparrow and Turner first visit the Isla de Muerta. After that, things have a way of repeating themselves.
Even the ushers seemed impressed. “They’ve been here all day,” mused one, whose shift began at 5:30 (just as the second film was entering the final stretch). But the crowd didn’t seem to mind. A stunt conceived as an act of cinemasochism on my part was anything but for these fans. And a Disneyland fixture that had become a mere movie for me had never ceased to be a theme-park attraction in their eyes. And now, exiting their theater, it was clear: They wanted to ride the whole thing over again.