This, to begin, is the El Rey theatre. It has been the El Rey theatre since it was built in 1936, designed by Clifford Balch. Clifford Balch was active in California in the 1930s, but then so were a lot of people. That doesn’t make it, or him, special. ‘El Rey’, in Spanish, means ‘The King’.
In 1821, when Mexico was declared independent from Spain, the members of various European royal houses were solicited. Would they like to become the first King of Mexico? Tragically, the wording of the invitation is lost. The idea in itself is by no means absurd. In 1832 the new nation of Greece, keen on statehood but unsure of how to go about it, ended up with Otto of Bavaria as its first ruler. After a disappointing innings, he was deposed by nationalists, and replaced by George I. George I of Greece was Danish, married a Russian to whom he spoke German in private, and raised his children to speak English. These are not the sort of starts you recover from easily. The Greek monarchy was abolished by a military junta, but once democratic government was reestablished the people singularly failed to welcome them back, and the court of Constantine, as it was, convened from then on in London. Perhaps they met for tea with the Italian royal family, also in exile, Umberto III reaching the end of his life unable to set foot on home soil. Prince Michael of Romania, the only known Soviet monarch, might have joined them. Romanian royalists, unsure of the quality of the much-loved nonagenarian’s descendants, offered the crown of Romania in exile to Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales. He politely declined.
These are young nations—nations with long local histories but little sense of statehood. Nations that have tottered between tyrant, despot and domino democracies in the small centuries since their beginning. Still, though, European nations, with familiar borders and lines of retreat, made for more promising adventures for second sons with healthy brothers. Mexico? Even as New Spain, horribly distant. As Mexico, a vast land named for the empire under its feet, it was a horrifying prospect. No aristocrat took the risk, and local boy Augustin I was crowned, rather anti-climactically, the nation’s first emperor, officially until a real aristocrat could be persuaded. He did not live long enough to see the transition.
None of this is going through the mind of Steven Seagal, as he sits in the dressing room of the El Rey theatre in West Hollywood and prepares to play the Blues with his band, Thunderbox. For the occasion, Seagal has selected a Japanese tunic, high-necked, sleeveless, in a rather disquieting pink. It takes a very manly man to walk on stage with an audience at his front and a blues band at his back wearing a shiny pink silk muscle tunic, but logically if anyone in the world can do it, it will be Steven Seagal.
Seagal stretches and thinks, suddenly, of kings. Specifically, of Carl Gustav Folke Hubertus Bonadotte, the sixteenth Carl to ascend the throne of Sweden. Carl Gustav is an admirer of Seagal’s work, and Seagal thinks of him as a friend, although he is not entirely sure which of them has the celebrity high ground. Checking his name on IMDB, as it is now traditional for associates in Southern California to do, reveals that Carl Gustav XVI has only four credits to his name, one of which was just an episode of a TV series. On the other hand, he is the King of Sweden. Seagal is aware on one level that all he actually had to do to become the King of Sweden was to be born and then not die, but it’s still an impressive trick to pull off—a shell-game too fast for the eye even of a well-travelled American.
As the bearer of the reincarnated spirit of the holy Treasure Revealer of Palyul Monastery, Seagal can’t help but wonder which of these honours, to put it bluntly, wins. These states—incarnation and aristocracy—are at least somewhat similar—one the same spirit passing from body to body, the other the passage of blood, recorded, gauged for purity, transplanted and on occasion revealed to be the same colour as that of its subjects, as it was in the case of the two emperors of Mexico. Logically, Seagal figures, it must be the one which doesn’t involve cousins marrying.
Among King Carl Gustav’s many godparents: the Crown Prince and Princess of Denmark, shortly thereafter elevated to the role of King Frederick IX of Denmark and Ingrid, Queen Consort. Ingrid was the daughter of Crown Prince Gustav Adolf, Carl Gustav’s grandfather. Ingrid’s youngest daughter, Anne-Marie, married Constantine II of Greece, shortly before his accession, which probably seemed quite a good idea at the time. Constantine was young, handsome and athletic, won an Olympic gold medal in 1960 and gave every impression of having that rare quality in a European aristocrat, an even number of toes. By the end of 1967 he was an exile in Rome, and by 1975 Greece had been declared a Republic. Twice.
Seagal’s estate at Santa Ines is an easy drive from Solvang, the Danish town that grew around the Mission there like Chateau Seagal’s cabernet grapes—a French strain. King Charles Gustav XVI is a descendant of Charles XIV of Sweden, born Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte in France. Jean-Claude van Damme, a French-speaking native of Belgium, once punched out a snake while trying to escape a military unit led by Lance Henriksen. Although Seagal’s commitment to animal rights would prevent him from ever performing such an act on screen, he is nonetheless mildly annoyed that he did not at least think of it.
Gloria, who works at the bar of the El Rey theatre, requested and received Jean-Claude van Damme’s autograph two weeks previously, with the sole intention of relating the incident for humorous effect to her boyfriend, who has not given her an opportunity to do so since. Gloria does not yet consciously or officially know that she and her boyfriend have broken up, but in lieu of this knowledge she has conceived a deadly irritation with Jean-Claude van Damme. She will serve drinks through the night with a face like thunder, to the point where more intuitive audience members, of whom there are few, will actively avoid her. Shortly before the end of the night, which has begun with her boyfriend’s phone being answered by another woman, she will use the autographed napkin, quite deliberately, to clean up a beer spill.
The woman who answered Gloria’s boyfriend’s mobile phone, Esperanza, is quite closely related physically to Gloria’s boyfriend and very distantly related genealogically to Agustin de Iturbe, the first Emperor of Mexico. Strictly speaking, this means that she is also very distantly related to the second Emperor of Mexico, as he adopted the grandchildren of Agustin as heirs, but magnanimity carries no pedigree.
Seagal is practising some riffs in his dressing room, muttering ‘no second takes’.
Gloria’s almost ex has been attempting to work out a convincing way to merge fact and fiction for the space of a fortnight. In fact, he has been racking his brains so hard that he absent-mindedly left his phone by Esperanza’s bed. This has set in motion a series of events that will include Esperanza calling Gloria back, a short conversation, an even shorter conversation between Esperanza and the phone’s owner when he returns in the middle of that call, and a dash to the El Rey to make amends which concludes with a meaty connection first between his face and a beer-sodden paper napkin featuring the indecipherable remains of Jean-Claude van Damme’s signature and second between a kitten-heeled shoe and his scrotum, delivered with a force and technique that would not have been out of place in Steven Seagal’s Above the Law.
Back in the dressing room, Seagal is thinking very seriously about changing his shirt. The pink seemed very Californian, very kappa-maki and mineral water, but now… really, did bluesmen wear mandarin collars? Thunderbox are all serious bluesmen, after all. He’d be a fool not to realise that there might be some resentment at his headliner status—although the idea of touring as Steven Seagal’s Thunderbox never even got off the ground, being both disrespectful to fine musicians and too prone to parody. Steven Seagal is nobody’s fool.
About as far away as Esperanza’s home at another compass point, a young woman is excitedly telling a man she met on the Internet that Steven Fucking Seagal is playing not a mile from her. They speculate excitedly about what his singing voice sounds like, but neither wants to break the spell by finding out.
Maximilian, the second Emperor of Mexico, lived significantly longer than the first, although this is not to say he survived long in any broader sense. His unhappy death marked the end of the imperial experiment and the end of any hope of establishing a respectable royal family in Mexico. Perhaps it was the dry, acid soil—an unhealthy transplantation. The Americas have proved a poor ground for monarchs, forced instead to cultivate chat show hosts, work-out gurus, masters of aikido themselves retransplanted behind a blues guitar and commendable success in the Polish video market.
Steven Seagal is changing his shirt for no man. He had a moment there, but it’s gone. He is Steven Seagal.
Ten minutes, Mr. Seagal and Gloria just wants him to take his unpleasant status as reminder of Jean-Claude van Damme, whom she is now blaming personally for her boyfriend never calling, probably having slept around from the moment she met him, never getting over his ex, not really being her boyfriend in anything but a highly specific sense, and take it out of her workplace.
It should be banned, she thinks furiously, like smoking.
Maximilian was the second son of the Archduke Franz Carl of the Austro-Hungarian empire—and, coincidentally, the husband of Princess Charlotte of Belgium, the Daughter of King Leopold, Duke of Saxe-Coburg Gotha, which is the only connection between the Emperor Maximilian and Jean-Claude van Damme. Archduke Franz Carl fathered him on Sophie Friederike Dorothee Wilhelmine, Princess of Bavaria, daughter of Maximilian I of Bavaria and Friederike Karoline Wilhelmine, Margravine of Baden. Before Karoline of Baden, though, Maximilian of Bavaria was married to Marie Wilhelmine Auguste, Landgravine of Hesse-Darmstadt, who died in 1796 and was replaced with startling speed. Among the issue from this bedding, Ludwig I of Bavaria. His useless second son was Otto, who became the King of Greece. Unnecessary children, unwanted seeds, sent out to nursery beds, then hacked down. Weeds.
Maximilian died in 1867, in front of a firing squad purporting to represent the people he thought had voted to make him their ruler. Seven rifle shots, one hitting his face, and despite this his body embalmed and put on display by the Republican forces. A second son’s end. The El Rey theatre was not named for him.
Steven Seagal on stage. He is the motherfucking king. The shirt was a good idea. The shirt was definitely a good idea.
At the bar, somebody spills beer, and Gloria produces a paper napkin with a bright, terrible smile. Then her phone rings.
By Dan, 19 July, 2006; direct link.