Like most aspects of his stunningly successful 15 years at the helm of iconic shop and globally celebrated label Mississippi Records, the origins of Eric Isaacson's second career as frontman of Hollywood Theatre's Music & Film series came about because of a happy accident. Eager to get him out from behind the counter, a friend (Grouper's Liz Harris) had suggested that the longtime shopkeeper see for himself how revered his label had become overseas. At her urging, Isaacson contacted a European booking agent, who much to his surprise, asked him what he would do onstage.
"I had never thought of this possibility," Isaacson says, "but was so desperate to get a tour I pulled—completely out of my ass—a loose description of a lecture, slideshow and film presentation."
To warm up for what would become a tour of 86 shows in 95 days, Isaacson held a practice run at Hollywood Theatre that sold out its 384-seat main space with half again as many people still in line. Venue director Doug Whyte then discussed collaborating on a series of events.
"Seeing him at his shop," Whyte reflects, "I never would have guessed this was a talent he had or something he'd be doing. There's not a huge, commanding stage presence, but he comes across as authentic—just, like a normal, mild-mannered guy up there who's really knowledgeable about music and film and has a singular take on how these things affect society and culture."
Whyte adds that Isaacson is not afraid to share his strong opinions and unique point of view. If he offends the audience—like an entire theater filled with people looking forward to a screening of The Blues Brothers—he's OK with that. "Listening to Eric talk for 15 minutes beforehand about how the Blues Brothers ruined blues music probably wasn't what they were expecting," Whyte continues.
Isaacson's disparaging remarks across a description of the 1980 Belushi romp led to a particularly confrontational presentation. "After receiving death threats from Blues Brothers fans," he explains, "a dark part of me was hoping I'd get murdered for talking shit to an audience full of dudes in fedoras, suits and sunglasses. What a way to go."
Held more or less monthly the first half of each year since 2014, the Music & Film series presentations have ranged from relatively traditional showings to far-flung discourses illustrated via PowerPoint slideshows. This latest installment is the first of a two-part event celebrating Mississippi Records' 15th anniversary.
"Amazingly, the Hollywood lets me do whatever I want, no matter how weird," Isaacson admits, "and they somehow manage to get butts in seats for even the most esoteric shows." His talk on the history of pre-Nashville country music received live steel guitar accompaniment. During an exhibition of Andy Kaufman clips intended as a conceptual homage to the comedian-provocateur, the host suffered "a somewhat real nervous breakdown onstage, abandoning the audience halfway through, going out the side door straight to a bar to get blitzed while still wearing the tuxedo rented for the night. A lot of folks walked out on that show demanding their money back, which I considered a great victory."
One way or another, Isaacson's talks at Hollywood Theatre all lead back to the shop. When first offered a sweetheart deal ($500 a month!) for the commercial space 15 years ago, he would have preferred more experience working at movie theaters and video retail, and it was by no means certain he'd decide to sell records, though that seems to have been the wisest choice. Recalling past ambitions, Isaacson believes he "had the hubris" to believe the store could become a cultural force in the world. "Records and books are as close as we get to genuine physical totems of meaning and continuity," he adds. "Every culture needs those."
SEE IT: The Space Lady, Marisa Anderson and Dragging an Ox Through Water play, with short films between acts and a slideshow by Eric Isaacson, at Hollywood Theatre, 4122 NE Sandy Blvd., hollywoodtheatre.org, on Friday, Nov. 30. 8 pm. $10.