Saturday, September 22, 2018

Blisters and ciphers and stops, oh my! The exhilaration of accompanying 'Wings' on the Orpheum's Mighty Wurlitzer in Sioux City, Iowa

'Wings' on the Orpheum's big screen, with tiny me playing the mighty Wurlitzer. (Click to enlarge.) Photo by Dave Gross.

Last weekend I had the privilege of playing an enormous Wurlitzer theatre organ in Sioux City, Iowa. But that's not all!

I also ran 6.2 miles in North Sioux City, South Dakota, thus bagging No. 38 in my quest to run at least 10K in all 50 states.

You can read about that project here.

But about the organ: what a thrill to return to the beautifully restored Orpheum Theatre as part of the Sioux City International Film Festival.

The annual festival is focused on new and emerging filmmakers from all around the world.

But in recent years, they've included a silent film/live music component. This is in part, I gather, because the Orpheum and its Wurlitzer pipe organ are just too special to be left out.

Checking out the Wurlitzer prior to the show.

And I would agree. Not many communities can boast of a restored 1927 movie palace AND a working theatre organ in its original installation.

But the Orpheum can. And one of the reasons for this is a dedicated community of supporters that keeps the organ playable.

As you can imagine, anything with thousands of moving parts all in need of constant calibration is bound to need some regular attention.

This is mind-numbing to me. I mean, I can't keep up with maintaining my lawnmower!

So Sioux City is blessed with some folks who look after the Wurlitzer year in and year out, which enables people such as me to drop into town and play it.

One is Rick Darrow, whose company Darrow Pipe & Organ maintains church organs all over the Midwest.

Rick lives right in Sioux City, and seems to have adopted the Orpheum's Wurlitzer. He and his son Tom maintain it, tune it, and keep it in working order.

You can tell Rick is the organ go-to guy. When I sat down at the console and pulled out one of the "trays" with arrays of control buttons on them, I found a piece of ornate molding painted in gold, with a note addressed to Rick that it was a piece of trim that somehow got loose and fell off a side of the bench.

Rick Darrow at the console of the Orpheum's Mighty Wurlitzer.

Rick was kind enough to show me around the console when I first came out to Sioux City last year. And Tom was on hand last time to pull any ciphers (meaning pipes that get stuck in the open position) and troubleshoot during the performance.

This time around, I came in Sunday prior to the show. Sure enough, a big low D flat in a bass pipe got stuck open. I called Tom and he said he'd be right over, but then Orpheum manager Tim went into the pipe chamber and fixed it. That's a well-loved organ with a lot of people looking out for it!

Inside the Orpheum: the organ and the screen.

And then there's Dave Solberg, a local guy who's played the organ for 63 years and is still going strong. Dave, who knows the Wurlitzer inside out, showed me his custom settings, which I used during the performance.

And how about Irving Jensen, a local businessman and philanthropist whose financial contributions have kept the Orpheum and its Wurlitzer in tip-top shape?

I had the privilege to meet Mr. Jensen, a delightful gentleman who takes great pride in seeing the theater and organ in action, as it was last Sunday.

A hasty selfie threesome of me, Irving Jensen, and Dave Solberg.

For me, last Sunday was a chance to use this wonderful instrument to create live music to accompany 'Wings' (1927), the 2½-hour long winner of 'Best Picture' at the first-ever Academy Awards.

I know the film pretty well, and I've developed some solid musical material to go with it. So I was able to concentrate on what Rick Darrow calls the "orchestration," finding the right stop combos and volume levels and settings, and managing so many other variables to create a satisfying musical score.

A couple of hours isn't enough time to even begin to assimilate everything a big theatre organ can do. But once the film started, I found I was able to anticipate key scenes in 'Wings' and make use of some of the Wurlitzer's capabilities.

I attempt to blend in with Clara Bow and Buddy Rogers.

For instance: in the scenes where it's important that Clara Bow's dress truly sparkles, I was able to set up the solo keyboard (the top of three) so it played all the "tinkly bell" stops such as glockenspiel, etc.

And in the medal-pinning scene, I made use of the Wurlitzer's snare drum effect, which is triggered by a separate foot pedal way off to the right.

Speaking of pedals: I'm still fairly new to playing theatre organ, and so I still have to really think about what my feet are doing down there with all the pedals.

What happened Sunday was surprising: after 2½ hours of continuous playing, plus several hours of warming up, I developed unexpected blisters on the top of my smaller toes on my left foot.

Occupational hazard? I think it was mostly a function of wearing the wrong socks and shoes, and also from not stretching beforehand. Duly noted.

And it wasn't that serious, as after a couple of hours, I was able to get out on the road and run those 6.2 miles.

But the best part of the whole experience was what happened afterwards. Dozens of people, mostly families with kids, came down to the console to learn more about the instrument and ask questions.

And it reminded me how unearthly bizarre and complex an organ console looks like to most people: a cross section between the cockpit of a 747 and a carnival midway. People are genuinely in awe!

A future organist checks out the Wurlitzer.

It's times like these that really bring home to me how privileged I am to be able to work with such a great instrument—a direct physical link to the entertainment era that produced art that has a lot to teach us, now more than ever. I think.

A few brave folks climbed up on the bench to try out the organ, playing impromptu duets and perhaps sparking an interest that might bloom into music lessons or more. And I couldn't be happier.

Another young organist, with me trying not to be too much like Lon Chaney.

Many thanks to Rick Mullin and everyone with the Sioux City International Film Festival for their hospitality, and all the work that made this year's festival a great success.

Hope to see everyone next year!

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

In this corner, 'Her Sister From Paris,' then later a true heavyweight: 'The Last Laugh'

Ronald Colman proves no match for Constance Talmadge in 'Her Sister From Paris.'

If silent films were classified like boxers, the next two evenings will see action in the lightweight and heavyweight divisions.

• On Wednesday, Sept. 12, I'll accompany a screening of 'Her Sister From Paris' (1925), a frothy society comedy starring Ronald Colman and Constance Talmadge.

Although both stars are in peak form, I'd say the fluffy nature of the story puts the film squarely in the lightweight division.

However, it's often described as a "battle of the sexes" comedy, so expect lots of quick action and fancy footwork—typical of the lighter weight classes.

The screening starts at 7 p.m. at the historic Leavitt Theatre, 259 Main St., Ogunquit, Maine. Admission $10 per person.

For more info, visit the Leavitt Theatre online.

Emil Jannings ponders his fate in 'The Last Laugh' (1924).

• Then, on Thursday, Sept. 13, it's down to Arlington, Mass. for a true heavyweight experience: Emil Jannings in F.W. Murnau's 'The Last Laugh' (1924).

In a silent film "main event," Murnau takes a simple situation and uses the then-new medium of cinema to depict a man's emotional journey with immense power.

I'll accompany Jannings as he does battle with a formidable opponent: his own sense of self-worth.

Showtime is 8 p.m. at the Capitol Theatre, 204 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington, Mass.

An original 'Wings' poster featuring Clara Bow.

• And then this weekend brings me to the Orpheum Theatre in Sioux City, Iowa, where I'll accompany a screening of the great WWI classic 'Wings' (1927) on the Mighty Wurlitzer.

It's part of the annual Sioux City International Film Festival, and I'm thrilled to be going out again to do live music in this incredible venue.

Showtime for this one is Sunday, Sept. 16 at noon. For more info, visit the Sioux City International Film Festival online.

More screenings at the end of the month, including Josef von Sternberg's amazing 'The Last Command' (1928) at the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Mass. and the original silent film version of 'Chicago' (1927).

Stay tuned, or check the schedule: there's a link at the top right of every page!

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Back to the beginning: the original 'Sherlock Holmes' on Friday, 9/7 in Brandon, Vt.

Nothing like the original: William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes.

Next up: creating live music for the original 'Sherlock Holmes' movie, made in 1916 with legendary stage actor William Gillette in the title role.

The first-ever 'Sherlock' will run on Friday, Sept. 7 at 7 p.m. at Brandon Town Hall in Brandon, Vt. Admission is free, with any donations used to aid ongoing restoration work.

(Please note that the Friday night screening is different from our usual Saturday night date for silent film programs in Brandon.)

Since its rediscovery a few years ago (after being missing for nearly a century), the original 'Sherlock' has enjoyed many screenings across the country and around the globe.

Not only is it the first time Holmes was depicted on the big screen, but it's the only film appearance by Gillette, who created the role of Sherlock on stage for more than 30 years.

The performance of Gillette, who worked directly with creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to bring Holmes to life, is about as close to the original source that Holmes buffs can ever hope to get.

I've had the good fortune of accompanying 'Sherlock' several times, and I'm of two minds. I'm thrilled that the film was discovered in the Cinematheque Francais after all these years, and the restoration was done with taste and sensitivity. Nice!

I just wish it was a better film.

And by that, I wish it was better in terms of what a contemporary audience expects when it goes into a movie theater.

Some silents do indeed rise to that challenge. Later this month, I'm accompanying Josef von Sternberg's 'The Last Command' (1928) at the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Mass., and I'm sure most people who attend will be bowled over by it. It's that good.

But 'Sherlock' came too early—an Essanay drama from the mid-teens, I think parts of it are rough enough to reinforce certain stereotypes about silent cinema: that it's technically primitive, that it can be hard to follow, that it suffers from static camera placement, and so on.

Whether or not that's the case, I try to create music that helps convey the narrative line, shows the changing emotional temperature of each scene, and generally helps an audience stay with the picture.

Although the musical score on Friday night will be improvised, I do have a theme I developed for Holmes that I'll probably employ throughout, transforming it as the story unfolds and things happen to the Holmes and other characters.

Despite my misgivings about the film itself, every 'Sherlock' screening I've been involved with is carried by the sheer energy of audience interest and excitement, both from silent film fans, Holmes aficionados, and the general public. If it's enough to generate interest in later screenings, then what more could you wish for!

So if you're within driving distance of Brandon, Vt., please join us on Friday night and see something no one was able to watch for nearly a whole century.

Below is a press release with more info. See you at the movies!

* * *

The lighting of the pipe. Gillette began using a calabash pipe for Holmes on stage so that audiences could see his face.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

It's elementary! Rediscovered 'Sherlock Holmes' movie at Brandon Town Hall on Friday, Sept. 7

Original film adaptation, missing for nearly a century, on the big screen with live musical accompaniment

BRANDON, Vt.—The first-ever movie adaptation of 'Sherlock Holmes,' a silent film released in 1916 and recently rediscovered, will screen next month at Brandon Town Hall

The original 'Sherlock Holmes' will be shown with live music on Friday, Sept. 7 at 7 p.m. at Brandon Town Hall, Route 7, Brandon, Vt.

The program is free and open to the public. Free will donations are encouraged, with all proceeds to aid ongoing Town Hall restoration efforts.

Please note that the screening of 'Sherlock Holmes' will take place on a Friday night instead of the usual Saturday night date for silent film programs at Brandon Town Hall.

Like many films from the silent era, the 'Sherlock Holmes' movie was long considered lost until a nearly complete copy was discovered in 2014 at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris.

The film has since been restored, allowing movie-goers to again see the only screen appearance of stage actor William Gillette.

Gillette originated the role of Sherlock Holmes in a popular stage adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's tales of the legendary British detective.

Gillette performed as the brilliant Holmes more than 1,300 times over three decades, touring the nation and popularizing Conan Doyle's sleuth.

A popular stage actor, Gillette made no other known movie appearances. But his interpretation of the Holmes character laid the groundwork for all actors who would later play the role, including Basil Rathbone and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Set in Victorian-era London, the original 'Sherlock Holmes' is an episodic crime drama that incorporates the plots of several Conan Doyle tales.

Running about 90 minutes, it features all major characters of the Holmes stories, including companion Dr. Watson and nemesis/rival Prof. Moriarty.

It was filmed in 1915 in the Chicago studios of the Essanay Film Co., with exterior shots of the Windy City doubling for Victorian London.

The restoration was premiered at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. The screening at Brandon Town Hall will be the first time the restoration has been shown in Vermont.

The film will be shown with live musical accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based performer regarded as one of the nation's leading silent film musicians.

Rapsis improvises live scores for silent films using a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of the full orchestra.

"It's kind of a high wire act," Rapsis said. "But for me, the energy of live performance is an essential part of the silent film experience."

The program is sponsored by Sponsored by Kathy and Bill Mathis, in memory of Maxine Thurston; also an anonymous donor.

Upcoming titles in Brandon Town Hall's summer silent film series include:

• Saturday, Oct. 20: Chiller Theatre, 'Der Golem' (1920). In 16th-century Prague, a rabbi creates a giant creature from clay, called the Golem. Using sorcery, he brings the creature to life in order to protect the Jews of Prague from persecution, but then complications ensue. Early German fantasy movie anticipates Frankenstein story. Sponsored by Jan Coolidge, Lucy and Dick Rouse, Marc & Arlyn Briere, Dorothy Leyseth and Edward Loedding.

The original ‘Sherlock Holmes' (1916), starring William Gillette in the title role, will be shown with live music on Friday, Sept. 7 at 7 p.m. at Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Route 7, in Brandon, Vt. Admission is free; donations are encouraged, with proceeds to support ongoing renovation of the town hall. For more information, visit For more info on the music, visit

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Traveling through the centuries: film music at screenings in Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo

Just back from a mini-tour that took me silent film screenings to Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo.

And in terms of time travel, I created music for movies set in the 1500s, the 1600s, the 1800s, and the 1900s.

(Sorry, 1700s—maybe next time!)

But really, I'm grateful for the chance to do film accompaniment in so many places, and for so many periods, too. Here's a round-up:

Opening title for 'When Knighthood Was In Flower' (1922).

Wednesday, Aug. 29: Cinema Detroit. First time at this nifty independent theater. Local residents Paula and Tim Guthat opened Cinema Detroit five years ago, and have built it into a valuable cultural resource for the city. Housed in the back of a former furniture store, the cinema's two screening rooms offer a wide range of titles seven days a week.

It was a real honor to work with Tim and Paula on Cinema Detroit's first-ever program of silent film with live music. The movie: Marion Davies in 'When Knighthood Was In Flower' (1922), shown via DCP courtesy of Undercrank Productions and Ben Model, who was responsible for the film's recent restoration and re-release. Thanks, Ben!

For a first attempt, no one was sure how it would go, but interest turned out to be surprisingly strong. By showtime, Cinema Detroit's main screening room was about half-filled, which far exceeded expectations for a mid-week experiment. And audience response was strong throughout the film, showing that Marion can still hold the screen.

Paula speaks before the show.

And audience response was strong throughout 'Knighthood,' which is a real treat for an accompanist: many good scenes with characters interacting in ways that light underscoring can help sharpen, and also several well-staged swordfights and chases. And the final climax and chase builds during a storm, so there's a lot for an accompanist to work with.

Although 'Knighthood' is set during the reign of Henry VIII, I didn't play much "Middle Ages"-sounding music. I kept it light and breezy, which I felt help make it more Marion's film—one in which she was being her usual bubbly self, but which happened to be set during the 1500s.

So the keyboard was set for just standard orchestra (rather than something period-sounding like harpsichord), changing to a different texture only for one scene in which a guitar gets played on camera to accompany dancing. Overall, the improvised music was what I would call "classical neutral"—light opera stuff, but flexible enough to respond to the changing needs of the film's narrative.

It all seemed to work really well, with nearly everyone staying afterwards for a prolonged Q & A about the film, the music, and what might be next for silent film at Cinema Detroit. And afterwards I was taken to a great late night place, the Green Dot, that serves in sliders unlike any I've had at, say, White Castle.

Thanks very much to Paula and Tim for taking a chance on silent film and a silent film accompanist. I hope it's possible for Cinema Detroit to run more silent film/live music programs, and for us to work together again soon!

Lillian Gish and 'The Scarlet Letter' on the cover of this summer's Cleveland Cinematheque schedule.

Thursday, Aug. 30: Cleveland Cinematheque. For its ongoing "Second Look" series, the Cinematheque included MGM's 'The Scarlet Letter' (1926) starring Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson, and directed by Victor Seastrom—the same team that would strike cinematic gold in 'The Wind' two years later.

But 'Scarlet Letter' is no slouch. It's filled with strong performances as well as arresting visuals and creative camerawork, so I was thrilled to do music for the Cinematheque's screening of a 35mm print supplied by UCLA Film and Television Archive.

The film is an adaptation, of course, of Nathanial Hawthorne's novel about adultery in Puritanical Boston of the 1600s. Hawthorne's novel is deadly serious, so what's surprising about MGM's 'Scarlet' is how much comedy is in it. As I mentioned to the Cinematheque audience prior to the screening, any film with Karl Dane in the cast is bound to have a quotient of goofball humor from MGM's go-to guy for comedy relief.

I think it's an example of a studio hedging its bets on a big-budget high-profile picture by ensuring it had a little something for everyone, whether or not that fit with the original author's vision. So we get the 'Scarlet Letter' story, yes, but also some yuks at the expense of those Puritans and their wacky ideas about courtship.

For this film, I did go with a harpsichord setting, which I think fit the production's design and feel, and helped convey the period without drawing attention to itself. It just seemed to fit. And I lucked out by having several effective melodic "hooks" (meaning groups of just a few notes) that I felt helped convey the changing emotional temperature of the story as I worked with them.

The 35mm print from UCLA.

I felt the big musical challenge was how the film opens with all the townspeople being called to Sunday service. So the first five or six minutes is interspersed with shots of church bells ringing, implying that they're being heard throughout the sequence.

To evoke that, I used two brass handbells I travel with. Holding them both in my right hand, I rang them continuously from the opening titles all the way through to when the service starts and we see the bellringers stop pulling down on their ropes. It produced a nice "clangy" bell sound—nothing like a big cathedral bell, but close enough to evoke a colonial church service, I felt.

While ringing the bells, I tried to be aware of how the film was cutting between different locations in the town. Sometimes loud, sometimes soft, depending on the action and how far different people seemed to be from the church. As Hester Prynne, Lillian Gish is first seen chasing a songbird out into the woods, so the bells get faint at that point.

So that left my left hand for the keyboard, which was enough to do hymn-like cadences and other music to establish mood and get the film going. I wasn't sure how it came off, but afterwards people told me they didn't realize I was actually ringing actual bells as the movie got started. So it worked. Nice!

John Ewing and pianist George Foley give me a taste of the bells, bells, bells, bells, bells.

Audience response was strong here, too. Despite the comedy, 'The Scarlet Letter' gives Gish and Hanson ample opportunity to amp up the drama. For these moments, although I kept the harpsichord setting, I broke out of period-sounding music and went with more a more intense language that film scoring has developed since the silent era: some dissonance, some repeated notes, some dramatic silences.

Another great Q & A followed, with lots of interesting queries. Long-time Cinematheque director John Ewing was kind enough to comment on how he thought the music effectively tracked and underscored the film, which is high praise indeed! Thanks so much, John, for continuing to include silent film with live music in the Cinematheque's programming, and all you and your team have done to bring great cinema to Cleveland for more than three decades!

John Ewing checks the roster of digital titles in the booth of the Cinematheque as projectionist Mike Glazer looks on.

And afterwards, a late supper at L'Albatross, a nearby French restaurant that's to die for. We joke that the Albatross is the reason I actually visit Cleveland, and the screenings at the Cinematheque merely support my habit.

16mm prints of vintage films ready for their close-up.

Friday, Aug. 31 through Monday, Sept. 3: Western N.Y. Film Expo, Buffalo. My third year as accompanist for this festival found me doing music for silent features that ranged from well-known to unknown.

Among the well-known: Gloria Swanson and Lionel Barrymore in 'Sadie Thompson' (1928); Harold Lloyd in 'The Kid Brother' (1927); Buster Keaton in 'Battling Butler' (1926), and another Keaton, 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924), run as a last-minute substitute when Eddie Cantor's 'Special Delivery' (1927) didn't show. We should have paid for special delivery, har!

As for the unknown: not one but two Rod Larocque features that I'd never heard of before: 1925's 'Braveheart,' which I gathered was not the film with Mel Gibson in it, and 'The Coming of Amos,' also from 1925.

Both were screened via original 16mm Kodascope prints that showed some wear but maintained excellent visual quality, and so were a real treat to see. This, plus the sound of the 16mm projectors clacking away in the back, is one reason that festivals such as this are worth attending. It's a great atmosphere for vintage cinema.

A projectionist's view in the Western N.Y. Film Expo's screening room.

As you might expect, the Larocque films were pure hokum. 'Bravehart' starts out with Our Hero as a member of a Native American tribe battling western settlers over fishing rights.

The tribe's strategy: send him East to attend law school and then fight the White Oppressor on his own turf, in court.

But then for the next 30 minutes, 'Braveheart' becomes a college football film! Really—suddenly it's Harold Lloyd's 'The Freshman,' but without Lloyd. Rah, rah! Go team!

That required the music to shift gears, and it made for an unusual mix: native American modal chord progressions mixed with college fight songs.

'The Coming of Amos' was less mind-bending, but no less loopy. Our Hero starts out in rough-and-tumble Australian sheep country, but then he's brought to the sophisticated French Riviera due to an inheritance, where romance blooms with a mysterious Russian princess.

Noah Beery then shows up as a truly nasty villain whose plot to kidnap the princess includes forcing her to wear an oversized clown head so they can escape unnoticed during the annual carnival.

And the climax takes place on an enormous castle set that I found surprisingly impressive until someone afterwards pointed out the same exact set was used in 'Stand and Deliver,' another Rod Larocque picture we screened last year.

Doing music for so many films in rapid succession has its challenges. But with me, one good thing it does is break down all inhibitions and self-doubt and anything else that holds back the creative energy or blocks the place the music seems to come from.

So after awhile, it gets to the point where the music flows quite fluently and naturally.

At the Western New York Expo, this happened most notably for me when it was time to rattle off music for some short silent comedies I'd never seen before. For each, I hit on a melodic hook right away and stayed with it throughout, transforming it as needed to follow the story, set up the situation, punctuate the comedy, and amp up the excitement when needed.

I have no idea where these tunes came from, and can't recall them even now. But they were there when I needed them, and serve the films well. And for a short comedy, often that's all you need. As accompanist Jon Mirsalis has said, it's not what you play, but it's how you play it.

Of all the films, it's no surprise that Lloyd's 'The Kid Brother' got the strongest reaction, with people cheering and applauding at the climax. Lloyd's films were designed to work with an audience, and they still work: even with diehard film fans who've probably seen it any number of times already. That's pretty impressive!

Speaking of which: once again I was impressed by everyone who works to put this event together: the projectionists, the dealers, the film fans, and especially organizer Alex Bartosh. Thanks to everyone for a weekend well spent in the dark!

Up next: the restored 'Sherlock Holmes' (1916) on Friday, Sept. 7 in Brandon, Vt., and then I go out to Sioux City, Iowa to play the Orpheum Theatre's mighty Wurlitzer to accompany 'Wings' (1927) as part of the Sioux City International Film Festival.

More on those later this week!

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Thursday, 8/23: 'The General' in Concord, N.H.; Harold Lloyd on Sunday 8/26 in Wilton, N.H., then screenings in Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo

Buster Keaton co-stars with his locomotive in 'The General' (1926), to be shown with live music on Thursday, Aug. 23 in Concord, N.H.

Very excited about a busy slate of screenings between now and Labor Day! The action includes a road trip that takes me to venues in Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo.

But first, we end the local summer season with a pair of spectacular silent comedy screenings close to home.

Here's a run-down on what's coming up.

A somewhat busy, jokey original poster for 'The General.'

Thursday, Aug. 23: Buster Keaton's 'The General' (1926), 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H.

Lots of requests for this title, and promises to be a good turn-out due to some last-minute press we expect in the Concord Monitor, the local daily. (Thanks for the interview! You can read the story online here.

Also, some of my relatives from Georgia will be in the area, and plan to attend. So it'll add to the South vs. North atmosphere.

For more details, a press release for the screening is pasted in below.

But first, here's a heads-up about where I'll be doing music for other silent film programs between now and Labor Day.

Harold in 'Never Weaken' (1921), one of the comedies on Sunday's program.

Sunday, Aug. 26: Harold Lloyd Laugh Therapy, 4:30 p.m.; at the Town Hall Theatre, 60 Main St., Wilton, N.H.; (603) 654-3456; Free admission, donation of $5 per person suggested.

Take it from my personal experience: no one is better at inciting an audience to laugh than Harold Lloyd. There's a reason he was THE most popular performer (by ticket sales) in the 1920s, and it was how he made people laugh: out loud, big, and together.

And he still does, which is good, because these days we need laughter more than ever.

So as a public service, we present a selection of Harold Lloyd's best laugh-getting comedies from when he was establishing his popular "glasses" character.

Throw away that Tylenol, and cure yourself the natural way. As Reader's Digest has been telling us for years; Laughter is the Best Medicine.

A rather flowery lobby card for 'When Knighthood Was In Flower' (1922).

Wednesday, Aug. 29: Marion Davies in 'When Knighthood Was In Flower' (1922), 7:30 p.m. at Cinema Detroit, 4126 3rd Ave., Detroit, Mich.; (313) 482-9028; Admission $12 per person.

Marion Davies stars in this big-budget historical costume drama produced and financed by William Randolph Hearst and recently resurrected for screening by silent film accompanist/historian Ben Model. Thanks, Ben! We'll plug the DVD at the show!)

This is the first time I've appeared at Cinema Detroit, billed as the city's independent movie theater and located downtown in a former furniture store! Many thanks to Paula Guthat and her staff for bringing me in and programming silent film with live music.

A is NOT for Apple: original artwork promoting 'The Scarlet Letter' (1926).

Thursday, Aug. 30: 'The Scarlet Letter' (1926) at 7 p.m.; starring Lillian Gish, at the Cleveland Cinematheque at the Cleveland Institute of Art, 11610 Euclid Ave., Cleveland, Ohio; (216) 421-7450. Online: Admission $15.

Splashy MGM adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic tale of old New England, with Lillian Gish in the leading role as Hester Prynne. After having a child out of wedlock, a young Puritan woman is pressured to reveal the name of her lover. Ah, the good old days!

Silent film with live music (plus a Charley Chase short, 'Mighty Like a Moose') at Cleveland's premier venue for great movies. Many thanks to John Ewing and his staff at the Cinematheque for inviting me back, and continuing to program silent film with live music.

A caricature of Eddie Cantor with alarming eye sockets on this promotional lobby card for 'Special Delivery' (1927), a spritely comedy I'll accompany at the Western N.Y. Film Expo.

Friday, Aug. 31 through Sunday, Sept. 2: 'The Western NY Film Expo,' Adams Mark Hotel in downtown Buffalo, N.Y. Four-day successor to Cinefest, annual vintage film festival in Syracuse, N.Y. that ended in 2015.

Screenings include: Friday, Aug. 31: 'Sunshine Dad' (1916) starring DeWolf Hopper and Fay Tincher. Saturday, Sept. 1: 'Sadie Thompson' starring Gloria Swanson, Lionel Barrymore; 'Special Delivery' (1927) starring Eddie Cantor; 'Braveheart' (1925) starring Rod LaRocque; 'Battling Butler' (1926) starring Buster Keaton; 'The Nickel Hopper' (1926) starring Mabel Normand. Sunday, Sept. 2: 'The Coming of Amos' (1925) starring Rod LaRocque; 'The Kid Brother' (1927) starring Harold Lloyd. Plus plenty of short comedies and curiosities!

For more information, admission charges, and a complete schedule, visit

Okay, now to circle back to the beginning (kinda like Buster's 'The General'), here's the press release for tomorrow night's screening at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H. Hope to see you there!

* * *

Keaton's insistence on period authenticity for 'The General' extended to growing his hair long, common in the Civil War era.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Buster Keaton's 'The General' with live music at Red River on Thursday, Aug. 23

Civil War railroading adventure film lauded as comic moviemaker's masterpiece

CONCORD, N.H.—He never smiled on camera, earning him the nickname of "the Great Stone Face." But Buster Keaton's comedies rocked Hollywood's silent era with laughter throughout the 1920s.

Acclaimed for their originality and timeless visual humor, Keaton's films remain popular crowd-pleasers today.

See for yourself with a screening of 'The General' (1926), one of Keaton's landmark feature films, on Thursday, Aug. 23 at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H.

Showtime is 7 p.m. Tickets are $12 per person, general admission.

The screening, the latest in Red River's silent film series, will feature live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based composer who specializes in creating music for silent films.

'The General,' set during the U.S. Civil War, tells the story of a southern locomotive engineer (Keaton) whose engine (named 'The General') is hijacked by Northern spies with his girlfriend onboard.

Keaton, commandeering another train, races north in pursuit behind enemy lines. Can he rescue his girl? And can he recapture his locomotive and make it back to warn of a coming Northern attack?

Critics call 'The General' Keaton's masterpiece, praising its authentic period detail, ambitious action and battle sequences, and its overall integration of story, drama, and comedy.

It's also regarded as one of Hollywood's great railroad films, with much of the action occurring on or around moving steam locomotives.

Accompanist Jeff Rapsis will improvise an original musical score for 'The General' live as the film is shown.

"When the score gets made up on the spot, it creates a special energy that's an important part of the silent film experience," said Rapsis, who uses a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of a full orchestra for the accompaniment.

With Red River's screening of 'The General,' audiences will get a chance to experience silent film as it was meant to be seen—in a high quality print, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"All those elements are important parts of the silent film experience," Rapsis said. "Recreate those conditions, and the classics of early Hollywood leap back to life in ways that can still move audiences today."

Rapsis performs on a digital keyboard that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra and creates a traditional "movie score" sound.

Buster on location in Cottage Grove, Ore., during the summer of 1926.

Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, stands today as one of the silent screen's three great clowns. Some critics regard Keaton as the best of all; Roger Ebert wrote in 2002 that "in an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, (Keaton) worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies."

As a performer, Keaton was uniquely suited to the demands of silent comedy. Born in 1895, he made his stage debut as a toddler, joining his family's knockabout vaudeville act and learning to take falls and do acrobatic stunts at an early age.

A remarkable pantomime artist, Keaton naturally used his whole body to communicate emotions from sadness to surprise. And in an era with no post-production special effects, Keaton's acrobatic talents enabled him to perform all his own stunts.

Critics review 'The General':

"The most insistently moving picture ever made, its climax is the most stunning visual event ever arranged for a film comedy."
—Walter Kerr

"An almost perfect entertainment!"
—Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader

"What makes the film so special is the way the timing, audacity and elegant choreography of its sight gags, acrobatics, pratfalls and dramatic incidents is matched by Buster's directorial artistry, his acute observational skills working alongside the physical élan and sweet subtlety of his own performance."
—Time Out (London)

Upcoming titles in Red River's silent film series include:

• Wednesday, Nov. 7: 'Wings' (1927) starring Clara Bow, Buddy Rogers, Richard Arlen. Commemorate the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day with a screening of this epic picture about American pilots in World War I. Winner of 'Best Picture' at the first-ever Academy Awards, 'Wings' remains a stunning and timeless drama.

‘The General’ (1926) starring Buster Keaton will be shown with live music on Thursday, Aug. 23 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H. Tickets $12 adults, general admission. For more info, visit or call (603) 224-4600.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

The problem with ice cream for dinner, plus 'Her Sister' tonight and again Saturday night

Constance Talmadge and Ronald Colman in 'Her Sister from Paris' (1925), which I'm accompanying tonight (Thursday, Aug. 16) at the Capitol Theatre in Arlington and on Saturday, Aug. 18 in Ludlow, Vt.

Maybe it was the heat. Maybe it's changing tastes. Maybe I did a lousy job with the music.

For whatever reason, a program last night of two-reelers from Chaplin's Mutual period failed produce what I would call an abundance of laughter.

People enjoyed it, I thought, and the applause seemed hearty enough after each film.

But while the comedies were running, little evidence of chortles or guffaws or belly laughs reached my ears.

That's unusual, as the Mutuals are when Chaplin really first hit his stride in a big way, I think. And they're proven laugh-getters.

Last night at the Leavitt Theatre, we ran four: 'Behind the Screen,' 'The Rink,' 'Easy Street' and 'The Cure.'

All are what I would consider crackerjack comedies. They're full of classic Chaplin gags and sequences that produce uproarious laughter.

Chaplin and company in 'The Rink.'

So what happened last night? Well, on top of the factors already mentioned, let me add these:

1. We had about 60 people in attendance. And weirdly, everyone sat way in the back of the theater. And the Leavitt now offers a bar and food service up in the "balcony" (actually an area even further back) and a lot of people were up there.

So it might have been the case that me, sitting way down under the stage, wasn't able to hear the laughter. Could be. But I heard enough to know I wasn't hearing enough, if that makes any sense.

2. The "Ice Cream for Dinner" factor. By that I mean it's one thing to watch one 20-minute comedy short. But it's a whole other ballgame when you string four of them together in a row, like cars in a freight train.

Like most short comedies of the period, Chaplin's two-reelers were intended to be just one part of a varied program that would include newsreels, dramas, travelogues, live vaudeville acts, and who-knows-what else.

As such, they functioned quite well, giving audiences a dose of high energy yucks to liven things up. It's a little like how dessert functions as part of a whole meal: a little sweet reward for all the other good stuff we've consumed.

But when you string four comedies together, it's too much. It's like having four ice cream sundaes in a row. After awhile, the appeal can't help but wear thin.

Look! I actually found a picture of four ice creams sundaes!

Yes, I've seen cases where comedies are strung together at film conventions, and they do quite well. But film conventions are often for the hard core, and that's a very different audience than the general public that's not familiar with the silent film idiom.

So last night's Great Laughter Draught of 2018 might be the cause of too much comedy all at once. Something to remember when people ask for a "night of Charlie Chaplin" or similar programs.

Well, onward we go. Tonight finds me accompanying the first of two screenings this week of 'Her Sister From Paris' (1925), a comedy starring Ronald Colman and Constance Talmadge.

On Thursday, Aug. 16, it's at the Capitol Theatre in Arlington, Mass. Showtime is 8 p.m. For information about the show, I've pasted in the press release for this screening below.

Then I'll be repeating it on Saturday, Aug. 18 up in Ludlow, Vt., at the Ludlow Auditorium, as this year's "silent film with live music" event, which is always a pleasure to be a part of.

Coming up: lots of news about screenings in Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, and Sioux City, Iowa. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, hope to see you at a screening near or far!

Constance Talmadge in 'Her Sister from Paris' (1925).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

'Her Sister From Paris' on Thursday, Aug. 16 at Arlington's Capitol Theatre

Uproarious 'battle of the sexes' silent comedy starring Constance Talmadge, Ronald Colman to be presented with live music

ARLINGTON, Mass.—The scene: Europe. The cast: Rich people. Get swept off your feet by not one but two privileged ladies, both played by amazing actress Constance Talmadge, in this effervescent battle-of-the-sexes comedy.

Silent film with live music returns to the Capitol Theatre, 204 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington, Mass. with the comedy 'Her Sister from Paris' on Thursday, Aug. 16 at 8 p.m.

The special program will be presented with live music by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Admission is $12 adults, $10 kids and seniors.

In 'Her Sister from Paris,' Ronald Colman and Constance Talmadge play a wealthy American society couple living in Vienna.

Due to an argument, she leaves to stay with her mother. At the railway station she meets her identical twin, a celebrated dancer in Paris (also played by Talmadge), who agrees to trick the husband to help rekindle her sister's marriage.

The fun starts when both the husband and his friend, an official at the British Embassy, fall in love with the sister, leading to a dizzying round of complications.

Among the most popular stars of the silent era, Constance Talmadge specialized in light "society" comedies. However, she had acting and pantomime skills that made her a versatile actress able to tackle any role.

In 'Her Sister From Paris,' Talmadge delivers a virtuoso performance playing both sisters. Although their appearance is identical, each woman is quite different from the other, which Talmadge conveys through body language and on-screen attitude.

Ronald Colman, whose career would go on to span radio and television, was already a popular leading man in films at the time 'Her Sister From Paris' was made. Colman more than holds his own as the two sisters conspire against him.

Ronald Colman and Constance Talmadge in 'Her Sister from Paris.'

The screening of 'Her Sister from Paris' provides local audiences the opportunity to experience silent film as it was intended to be shown: on the big screen, in restored prints, with live music, and with an audience.

"If you can put pieces of the experience back together again, it's surprising how these films snap back to life," said Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist who creates music for silent film screenings at venues around the country.

"By showing the films as they were intended, you can really get a sense of why people first fell in love with the movies."

In creating music for silent films, Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra and creates a traditional "movie score" sound.

Upcoming titles in the Capitol's silent film series include:

• Thursday, Sept. 13, 8 p.m.: 'The Last Laugh' (1924). In this ground-breaking character study from director F. W. Murnau, Emil Jannings delivers a tour-de-force performance as a doorman in a swanky Berlin hotel.

• Thursday, Oct 18, 8 p.m.: 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923). Just in time for Halloween: Lon Chaney stars as Quasimodo in this sprawling silent film adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic story.

'Her Sister From Paris' (1925) starring Constance Talmadge and Ronald Colman, will be screened with live music on Thursday, Aug. 16 at 8 p.m. at the Capitol Theatre, 204 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington, Mass.

Admission is $12 adults, $10 kids and seniors. For more info, call (781) 648-6022 or visit

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Coming up: 6 screenings, 5 days, 4 states... Back to reality with a silent film mini-marathon

A colorful vintage poster for a sound re-releaes of 'The Cure,' one of the Chaplin shorts we're running at the Leavitt Theatre on Wednedsay, Aug. 15.

Just recently back after nearly a month tramping around Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, with a little bit of China on the way out and back thanks to day-long layovers in Beijing.

It was a terrific trip, but it's great to be back and great to pick up again on an even longer journey: creating live music for silent film screenings.

I didn't waste time, jumping back on the accompanist bench one day after returning, jet lag notwithstanding. The occasion: one of my favorite gigs on the annual calendar, a vintage dance group that occasionally stages "movie nights" during their summertime get-togethers.

The films are chosen as much for their fashions as anything else; this year we ran 'Show People' (1928) with Marion Davies and William Haines, which I thought was a good match for the group.

Reaction was huge! The picture drew big laughs right from the start, and response never flagged. And for the first time in my experience, an audience actually cheered at the film's seltzer-spraying pie-throwing "come to your senses" climax. What a rush!

After the movie (and the popcorn) was over, there was dancing!

So my thanks to all the vintage dance folks for continuing to include silent film with live music in their activities. Looking forward to next time!

Things continued this past weekend with two programs of Laurel & Hardy short comedies: one from DVD in Brandon, Vt. on Saturday, Aug. 11, and another on Sunday, Aug. 12 at the Somerville (Mass.) Theatre using 35mm prints from the Library of Congress.

No surprise that Stan & Ollie killed in both shows, with each title producing big laughs at the boys' antics. It'll be interesting to see if the upcoming bio-pic about the team will generate any renewed interest—not that the films themselves need any help. They still work great!

Laurel & Hardy on the big marquee of the "SOMERVILL ATRE."

The highlight of both screenings was 'Big Business' (1929), and not just because it's a hilarious comedy. I think there's also something satisfying about seeing this film, with its tale of Christmas tree sales gone awry, in the middle of a hot and humid New England summer.

The Laurel & Hardy comedies, by the way, are great for instilling discipline in an accompanist. More than most comedies, I think the L & H shorts really demand a very simple "nursery rhyme" type approach, at least at the start, in order for them to work with an audience.

In any comedy, I feel if you start off with big energetic circus-type "this is FUNNY" music," you risk hampering the film for a simple reason: audience members can't hear each other laughing.

And if people can't hear each other reacting, then you don't get that spontaneous combustion in which laughter grows and spreads to everyone in the room. Eventually, everyone is laughing, even if it's just because of all the laughter. It becomes impossible to resist!

Once an audience gets going, it's one of the great glories of the silent film experience. And when you reach that point, the accompanist can go big, as long as it's in support of the comedy. But not before, I think.

The Laurel & Hardy silents are prime examples of films that benefit from this approach. They often start small, but then inexorably build to chaos and mayhem in a process that producer Hal Roach dubbed "reciprocal destruction."

Big Business: the "before" shot...

So in 'Big Business,' after a suitable "Dance of the Cuckoos" intro (the L & H theme song), I shifted to a simple two-note version of "O Christmas Tree" as the pair make their way hawking Christmas trees through sunny California. Sometimes fast, sometime slow, sometimes in a minor key, sometimes just silence—but never anything big.

It's only when they encounter arch-nemesis James Finlayson, and audience reaction begins to grow, that I felt it was appropriate to ramp up the music a notch—but even then, just a little.

And as the on-screen war escalates, the music can rise to match it, but always with a sense of something in reserve until it's the right moment to let loose.

In 'Big Business,' I like to keep things tightly controlled until the moment when Finlayson causes the car to explode. Once that happens, there's no turning back, and the music can morph into full-scale battle mode, with repeated notes up top and 'O Christmas Tree' snarling through modulations in the bass.

...and the "after" shot...

And then there's a moment when Ollie starts swinging a shovel at expensive vases hurled out a window by Stan. Usually I avoid quoting recognizable tunes, but in this case everything's so over the top that shifting in to 'Take Me Out To The Ballgame' really works to sharpen the comic absurdity.

So just a few thoughts from this weekend's time on the bench.

Surprisingly, one short that got a very strong response was 'Do Detectives Think?' (1927), a title early in the series made when Laurel & Hardy still weren't officially a team.

In Brandon, I chose a church organ setting on my keyboard, and played up the "spooky" aspect of the film, which is full of graveyards and shadows and masks.

The laughter was nearly continuous, and I think I found myself a new Halloween short comedy! (I've been hoping for something other than Keaton's 'The Haunted House.')

All this was preparation for a mini-marathon this week: one that finds me accompanying six screenings over five days in four states!

I'll be spending more time on silent film than I will sleeping. I guess that's what they call "living the dream." :)

First up: the summer silent film series returns to the historic Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine with a program of Charlie Chaplin comedies on Wednesday, Aug. 15 at 8 p.m.

After that comes screenings in Arlington, Mass; then Townsend, Mass,; then Charlestown, N.H.; then Ludlow, Vt.; and then Somerville, Mass.

Details for the Chaplin program in Ogunquit are below in a press release I've pasted in. Hope to see you at a screening soon!

* * *

Chaplin and his stock company of players getting tangled up in 'The Rink.'

For more info, contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Charlie Chaplin short comedies with live music on Wednesday, Aug. 15 at Leavitt Theatre

Program of classic silent films show why the 'Little Tramp' first rocketed to worldwide popularity

OGUNQUIT, Maine—More than a century after he first stepped in front of a movie camera, Charlie Chaplin remains one of the world's most recognizable cinematic icons. But what made him famous in the first place?

See for yourself when a selection of Chaplin's best short comedies are screened on Wednesday, Aug. 15 at 7 p.m. at the Leavitt Fine Arts Theatre, 259 Main St. Route 1, Ogunquit, Maine; (207) 646-3123.

Admission is $10 per person, general seating. The program will be accompanied by live music performed by New Hampshire composer Jeff Rapsis.

The program of Chaplin's short comedy films is the latest in this season's silent film series at the Leavitt.. The series aims to show the best silent films in the manner that caused people to first fall in love with the movies—on the big screen, in a theater, with live music, and with an audience.

A native of London, Chaplin was touring the U.S. in 1913 as a music hall performer when he agreed to join Mack Sennett's famous Keystone Studio, which specialized in producing fast-paced slapstick comedies. Chaplin first appeared on movie screens in early 1914, and quickly established himself as a distinctive performer.

Based on his growing popularity, in 1916 Chaplin signed a contract with the Mutual Film Corp. to produce 12 short 20-minute screen comedies for the then-astronomical salary of $10,000 per week. In the next 18 months, the dozen films Chaplin produced for Mutual are regarded as his first true masterpieces, and at the time helped cement his position as the king of movie comedy.

As a whole, the films show Chaplin's growing confidence both as a screen performer and film director. At the same time, each one forms a unique comic adventure involving highly different settings, no two alike: a department store, a skating rink, and even a movie studio.

"The Mutual comedies are where Chaplin really comes into his own," said Jeff Rapsis, who will provide live music for the screenings. "These are the films that people think of when they think of Chaplin and slapstick comedy, and they're still as laugh-out-loud funny today as they were when first released so long ago."

The Leavitt program includes four Mutual comedies, which show Chaplin at work during 1916 and 1917, a period that he recalled in his autobiography as "the happiest time of my life." Critics point to the Mutual comedies as a new high point for Chaplin, and audiences responded to the films with worldwide acclaim.

The films show Chaplin creating comedy in settings that vary widely. In 'Behind the Screen,' Chaplin plays a stagehand at a dysfunctional movie studio; 'The Rink' gives Chaplin a chance to display his talent on roller skates; 'Easy Street' finds Charlie taking a job as a policeman in the roughest part of town. In 'The Cure,' Chaplin wreaks havoc at a pretentious health spa.

All the Mutual comedies feature Chaplin's stock company of players, highlighted by female lead Edna Purviance and gargantuan actor Eric Campbell, who portrayed menacing bosses and bullies and was usually Charlie's rival for Edna's affection. Each film is about 20 minutes long, the standard length for a comedy at the time; they'll be shown in groups of three, with an intermission at the mid-point.

The Mutual comedies were so popular that they continued to be rereleased and replayed throughout the silent film era, even after Chaplin began making full-length feature films during the 1920s. They continued to be shown on television and today are popular staples with film collectors and movie buffs.

"The thrill in watching nearly all of the Mutuals comes in the Promethean moment when Chaplin’s inventiveness intersects with his genius and produces cinematic comedy sequences unlike any before," wrote Jeffrey Vance, author of "Chaplin, Genius of the Cinema." (2003) "The Mutuals are Chaplin’s laboratory, offering an unprecedented glimpse into the inner workings of the mind of a great cinema pioneer."

The popularity of the Mutuals was so pervasive, some critics believe they helped shape the course of cinema.

"The Mutual films were so successful that many other comedians tried to copied them, thus expanding the motion picture medium," Vance wrote. "The popularity of the Chaplin films and the universal appeal of the Tramp character did much to legitimize the new medium in twentieth-century culture."

Other programs in this year's Leavitt silent film series include:

• Wednesday, Sept. 12, 7 p.m. 'Her Sister From Paris' (1925) starring Ronald Colman, Constance Talmadge. The scene: Europe. The cast: Rich people. Get swept off your feet by not one but two privileged ladies, both played by amazing actress Constance Talmadge, in this effervescent battle-of-the-sexes comedy.

• Saturday, Oct. 27, 7 p.m.: 'Faust' (1926) directed by F.W. Murnau. Just in time for Halloween, our annual "Chiller Theatre" presentation! Oscar-winning actor Emil Jannings stars in F.W. Murnau's terrifying version of the classic tale. A visual tour de force, full of creepy characters and frightening images.

A program of Charlie Chaplin's best short comedies will be shown on Wednesday, Aug. 15 at 7 p.m. at the Leavitt Fine Arts Theatre, 259 Main St. Route 1, Ogunquit, Maine; (207) 646-3123; admission is $10 per person, general seating. For more information, visit For more info on the music, visit