Monday, July 10, 2017

How I survived Mother Nature's Car Wash,
plus waking up with Dixieland's 'Late Risers'

Does Harold Lloyd's comedy 'Safety Last' (1923) lend itself to the same Dixieland musical treatment as Woody Allen's 1973 film 'Sleeper'? We'll find out.

Dear Diary: Well, I can't complain that I lead a boring life. Consider just the past three days...

• Last Friday, we enjoyed dinner with Romeo (pronounced "ro MAY oh") Melloni, a composer based here in New Hampshire, and his wife Elizabeth, a well known pianist and accompanist.

Much of our conversation was not about music, but about car repairs and home delivery of dishwashers. Yes, this is what musicians talk about when they get together.

But we did compare projects, and I described what I had coming up that Sunday afternoon: I would lead a Boston-based Dixieland jazz ensemble, "Sammy D and the Late Risers," in a live score to Harold Lloyd's great silent comedy 'Safety Last.'

Did I know the musicians? No. Had we rehearsed? Of course not!

But what could go wrong?

And that same day, I'd then do a live score (solo this time) for the Ernest Lubitsch comedy 'So This Is Paris' (1926) at the Harvard Film Archive.

Romeo and Elizabeth both laughed, and Romeo proclaimed that I lead such an interesting life.

Little did I know how interesting the weekend would get!

• On Saturday, a hot mid-summer day found me on my bike about four miles from home when a towering wall of black clouds appeared in the northwest.

I had checked the weather radar before setting out—a line of storms was moving in from the west, but was still far away.

The Weather Service did have a storm warning in place, but it wasn't set to start until 2 p.m. I'd be back long before then.

It was now 1:30 p.m., and the black wall was coming in fast, already blotting out the mid-day sun. Hadn't Mother Nature checked with the Weather Service?

I was pedaling away on what we call "the old Route 3" in Bedford, still figuring the odds of getting home dry, when the first big drops landed.

BIG drops: first a few, then more, with the sky quickly darkening further.

I was on an incline leading to a bridge over the F.E. Everett Turnpike when the deluge hit.

And I could see it coming. Up ahead, gusting winds were blowing heavy rain down onto the road in sheets, actually kicking up dust ahead of it!

Already wet, I kept pedaling straight into it, still thinking I could somehow make it home before...

And boom! It was like riding into a carwash. I was instantly soaked to the skin, and nearly blown off my bike.

I pedaled ahead, unable to see due to wind-driven rain blowing straight at me, but aware there was a car behind me with a driver who probably couldn't see anything either.

Just then, my cell phone in my backpack started sound a "severe weather" alert alarm. "Yeah, I know," I thought.

Another gust nearly toppled me, and then the wind just howled from the northwest, driving rain horizontally. Thunder roared overhead.

I was on an exposed highway embankment. I dismounted and held onto the bike to brace myself against the wind, which was making signs do that rapid back-and-forth dance that signs do in bad weather.

Instinct kicked in. I had to take cover, so sprinted down the grassy embankment to at least get out of the wind, carrying my bike with me.

I found myself near a wooden utility pole, one side of which was still dry thanks to the horizontal rain blasting from one direction.

So I maneuvered behind the pole and stood up straight behind it as the wind roared all around, shielding myself from the worst of the rain.

Thunder was now cracking and booming all around. (But no lightning.) The powerlines above were being bowed out by the wind, which was causing the pole itself to bend and sway.

I kept thinking, "the worse it is, the faster it's over." But this didn't let up for maybe 15 minutes!

The wind finally died down enough for me to emerge and begin walking my bike over the bridge. Roads were turned into temporary rivers with the run-off.

Both my bike and I were absolutely drenched, and I was sure my cell phone and wallet had been ruined. (I had thought briefly about putting them in a plastic bag before the ride, but felt it wasn't necessary. Ooops!)

I eventually got back on the bike, riding it through water-choked streets without regard for the spray it kicked onto me, and completed the ride home.

Amazingly, the phone was fine! And the wallet, too. I had somehow folded the bag to keep them relatively dry.

Afterwards, I felt great! Part of it was having encountered a frightening and potentially dangerous situation, and coming out of it okay. Another aspect was more mundane: getting totally soaked, I got a shower during my bike ride instead of after it. This felt really refreshing, like I'd just swum in a lake. I should do it more often!

(The next day, news reports had the storm carrying 55 mph winds. I can believe it!)

All this was a prelude to:

Harold Lloyd in 'Safety Last' (1923): appropriate considering the time pressures we were under.

• On Sunday, July 9, I made the hour's drive down to Boston early. I had to set up what would be the only rehearsal to accompany a silent film screening that afternoon at the Somerville Theatre.

I would be working with "Sammy D and the Late Risers," a group of Dixieland players joining me to score Harold Lloyd's great comedy 'Safety Last' (1923).

All this was arranged months ago, but everyone's schedule is busy, and it worked out that the only time we could all get together was the morning of the show.

Thus it was necessary for me to head down early for a Sunday 9 a.m. call for a group with "Late Risers" in its name.

Because the Somerville's main theater is rented by a church every Sunday, we had to rehearse in one of the smaller cinemas upstairs.

Alas, I found them to be what you'd expect movie theaters to be: except for the exit signs, completely dark.

After much fumbling around, I finally called projectionist David Kornfeld, who clued me into where the switch for the cleaning lights is hidden.

Great! Except nothing happened. Darkness reigned. (I later found out they haven't worked for years. And then again, seeing a movie theater with the lights on is probably not a pretty sight.)

Still, I got everything arranged. This included mounting a portable TV/DVD player on a wooden chair, which itself was balanced on two purloined trash receptacles. That made it high enough for everyone to see. Ah, the arts!

Of the five "Late Risers," three arrived on schedule and began setting up around me.

Percussionist Grant Smith, clarinet player Austin Yancey, and tuba player Josiah Reibstein—all had worked together often and I immediately felt at ease.

But we couldn't start going through the film just yet because my disc with 'Safety Last' was being brought by a band members who hadn't arrived.

After 10 a.m., we decided to go through the cues, which I had inventoried beforehand.

In putting together a score for 'Safety Last' that used a Dixieland band, I had two things in mind:

- I hoped to create the same kind of feel that Woody Allen had created with Dixieland music in 'Sleeper' (1973).

I remember the first time I saw 'Sleeper' (when it was broadcast on TV as the "ABC Movie of the Week" or somesuch when I was a kid) and it all instantly clicked.

Long before I ever studied music, I knew this was a perfect match: to me, Dixieland and broad physical comedy were like chocolate and peanut butter.

So just as Woody used Dixieland (with himself sitting in on clarinet with the Preservation Hall band from New Orleans) for sequences of slapstick in 'Sleeper,' I felt the same treatment would work really well with 'Safety Last.'

Part of this also grows from my fondness for the much-reviled "Time-Life" editions of Harold's films that circulated in the 1970s.

These are acknowledged to be badly edited reissues of Harold's comedies, complete the with goofy theme song "Hooray for Harold Lloyd," by none other than Neal Hefti, composer of the iconic theme for the 1960s "Batman" TV series.

But their one saving grace, I think, was the music scoring done by a little-known arranger, Don Hulette, who put together Dixieland tracks that were used for all Harold's features in the 1970s.

These were performed by a pick-up group of fantastic players identified only as the "Crescent City Jazz Band." (As a kid, I somehow thought that "Crescent City" meant Kansas City, but that's another story. And the tracks were actually recorded in London!)

Here's a sample of the music, which strikes me as just about perfect for so much of silent comedy. Some is raucous, some is sentimental. I could listen to it all day!

So that was what I was aiming for with Sammy D and the Late Risers.

- The other thing: it was really important that the Dixieland be used where it could help the comedy sequences strut, but that it otherwise keep out of the way of Harold's story and all the emotions it encompasses.

One of the great glories of the silent film experience is when an audience gets swept up in gales of laughter. And I've found this doesn't happen automatically or all at once. It's actually often triggered by just a few people who start.

They get a few others going, and if this continues, everyone gets freed up to start laughing. And eventually you get landslides and total avalanches of laughter.

However, I've observed that this process can be short-circuited. Sometimes, if the music is too loud or too much too soon, it prevents people from hearing that first, crucial laughter in those around them.

And if people can't hear others laughing, they themselves don't start laughing. And thus the spontaneous combustion doesn't combust, no matter what funny or amazing things happen on screen.

So it's been my practice, especially with comedies, to keep the music as simple and spare as possible to allow the audience to hear itself.

Once the laughter starts—well, then you can amp it up and go anywhere. But do too much too soon, and you squelch the laughter before it has a chance to ignite.

Thus it was really important to impress upon the Dixieland players that less is often more. I wanted to be careful to give 'Safety Last' every opportunity to do what it was intended to do: to fire up an audience and then take it a roller coaster ride like none other in cinema.

As we ran through the cues, the guys seemed to get this instinctively, which was great!

What was not great was that the player with the disc was still a no-show, forcing us to work through the music without the movie, which none of the other musicians had ever seen.

But even as we reached our noon-time break point, I wasn't concerned. First, there simply wasn't time to be worried—not with having to move all our stuff down into the main theater and set up for the show.

Also, I knew the film, and they knew the music, and even without two of the players, we sounded pretty good.

Our banjo player, Tev Stevig, arrived after lunch, which had been expected expected.

But what about the missing player with the disc? Well, sometime after noon I got a call saying he couldn't make it, but efforts were underway to find a sub.

It would be a trombone player, rather than trumpet. Okay. And when was he expected? Probably about 20 minute before the show.

Wow! But I have to say, I really didn't mind. Nothing like a little last-minute tension to keep everyone focused. And guys were really that good.

And besides, this had to happen when you're working with a band called "The Late Risers."

At 1 p.m. in the Somerville's big theater, we had our one chance to play through some cues with the 35mm print running on the screen, to get a sense of what that would be like.

Then at 1:30 p.m., it was time to open the house. To my surprise, a hoard of people stampeded in, and kept coming!

Among them was our trombone player, Quinn Carson. The band was already playing some warm-up tunes, and Quinn wasted no time in joining in, first with trombone, and then jazzy vocal solos.

Here's us before the show. The keyboard player was absent because he was taking the picture.

The crowd kept building and so did the energy, as we pushed though a few more tunes, with me joining in where appropriate.

And then after an introduction from theater manager Ian Judge, I got to welcome the crowd. Clarinet player Austin Yancey introduced the players, as I was sure I'd forget someone's name.

I kept my intro to the film short, and then off we went—first me on keyboard with some open fifths up high, to create a magical atmosphere.

Then house lights down. Curtain open, and then cue band for our opening number: Gershwin's 'Fidgety Feet,' which served as the film's theme song and would return several times, including at the very end.

We nailed the first set of tight cues: I cut off the band at the opening scene, where it looks like Harold is about to be hanged at a prison. Somber music for strings only from the keyboard.

But then the scene abruptly changes to show Harold's actually at a train station about to leave for the big city. Great sight gag that can really be punched up if the music turns at just the right moment, and I counted off so it hit the spot exactly. Yes!

(By the way, I don't recall anyone ever commenting on the symbolism of the "death row" imagery that starts 'Safety Last.' Despite its comic intent, Harold does indeed come close to dying many times much later on, and all because of the journey he made at the start of the film. There's something darker to 'Safety Last' and its premise that one's status is defined by the pursuit of status and material goods. But that's for another post.)

And off we went, alternating between band cues and with me at the keyboard, usually just with strings to serve as a contrast to the Dixieland. I was concerned it might be too jarring to shift back and forth like this, especially as the band players were unmiked, but the keyboard was coming through the house sound system. But it all seemed to work.

As we went, I felt the band was pushing a little too hard, so I had to keep bringing them down to play quietly, and then amping it back up when a scene called for it. They responded beautifully.

And to my delight, I could hear laughter behind me: at first some good solid laughs where you'd expect, such as when Harold and his roommate hide from their landlord underneath their overcoats.

As 'Safety Last' progressed, the laughs built and became more solid and consistent. So I felt we were all primed for the film's amazing climax—where Harold has to climb a building.

I've been to screenings of 'Safety Last' where the suspense of this sequence has led to audiences literally shrieking en masse as Harold slips, grips, and trips his way up the tower, encountering all manner of obstacles along the way.

There's tension, which by itself rivets an audience. But there's a steady procession of gags, which produce laughter energized by the tension. If everything clicks, Harold's building climb is one of the great thrill rides of the cinema, even today.

I'm delighted to say it all came together at the Somerville on Sunday. We had it all: laughs, shouts, gasps, cries of "oh no!" and several rounds of applause as Harold cleared various ledges on his way up. This is an unscientific comparison, but the amount of energy released by the audience during the last 15 minutes of 'Safety Last' easily surpassed a day's output of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant.

At the end, we had one last tricky set of cues to get through: the "love music" when Harold and Mildred embrace, then a reprise of the "drunk" music for one final revisit of a running gag where an inebriated gentleman simply cannot untangle himself from a tennis net, and then back to "Fidgety Feet" as we faded out and went to the end titles. Curtain closed, lights up.

And then came a thunderous ovation that reminded me of the storm I'd encountered yesterday! Our audience—which I found out later was the largest ever for the Somerville's "Silents Please!" series—rose to its feet, cheering and shouting.

I had the guys stand, and we took several rounds of bows, individually and as a group. Applause continued. To paraphrase Sally Field: they really like us!

And "us" means, first and foremost, Harold. His film had done what it's always had the power to do. And I was delighted to think that the music we'd played had somehow helped it work its magic.

And I said to myself: this is about as good as it gets!

It took awhile for applause to die off to the point where I could say a few closing remarks and thank everyone. And then I felt like Lawrence Welk, counting off the band for some exit music: "And a one, and a two..."

Afterwards, we spoke to so many people who brought kind comments and compliments. What a treat! We were still there more than an hour later, when we had to be reminded that another show was due to start soon.

And so the Late Risers and I went our separate ways—for now. I really enjoyed working with them, and I think the approach we took to 'Safety Last' would work well with certain other films, and not necessarily all comedies. We'll see.

I then had an enjoyable dinner with Allen Feinstein, director of bands at Northeastern University, and a veteran of the Boston music scene who seems to know everyone. Allen not only knew our trombone player Quinn, but as a long-time advisor to Harvard's Hasty Pudding shows, he'd worked with Ron Duvernay, a classmate who played sousaphone with me in the Nashua High School band more than 30 years ago. (But who's counting? All right, me.)

This was followed by a whole different gig: solo accompaniment for 'So This Is Paris' (1926), the Ernst Lubitsch comedy that celebrates adultery and the Charleston. It was screening at the Harvard Film Archive as part of a summer-long Lubitsch retrospective, and I had agreed to do music long before I thought of how exhausted I'd be after a day playing Dixieland on the cosmic edge.

I went into the breech anyway—and to my surprise, I suddenly turned into a combination of Jacques Offenbach and Carl Stalling.

Really! I wasn't quite sure what material I'd use for the film, other than the actual "Charleston" tune when that specific dance figured prominently in the picture.

But as the first scenes unfolded, I stumbled over one good idea after another, all of which fit the tone and action of what was on the screen. Wow!

Before long, I'd settled on a few motives or "melodic cells," and these were enough to carry the rest of the film. It flowed quite easily, and seemed to be geared to punch up the humor.

One odd thing is that I was genuinely tired, both physically and mentally. But the music flowed easily, so it felt like fatigue actually worked to "unblock" the place where music comes from. Somehow, my tiredness actually seemed to disable my defenses and self-critical instincts, allowing the music to flow unhindered by the usual sandbars and debris.

It was coming so easily, towards the end I felt outside my own body, like a spectator taking it all in, just as surprised as anyone at the music as it unfolded.

And what's more, I was pleased with it, which seemed to also help things by acting as positive reinforcement. This kept occurring for most of the film.

As 'So This Is Paris' went through its final scenes, I sensed I'd totally nailed the film. And against all expectations, too—I was tired, had come to the theater with no real plan, and my head was full of raucous Dixieland. Plus I had to go to the bathroom!

But everything had come together. I ended the score with a well-proportioned flourish, and then was greeted by a generous ovation. Twice in one day! I could get used to this.

And so, dear Diary, I must confess to you that I never imagined I'd spend my Sundays like this—making live music for not one but two big silent film screenings in Boston, and to appreciative audiences.

I guess I do lead an interesting life, and for that I'm thankful. Ten years ago, if anyone had suggested I'd be doing so much public music, and for so many people, I'd have laughed. I thought that train had long ago left the station.

But it turns out I've been at the same station as Harold Lloyd at the beginning of 'Safety Last'—just missing the gallows, and then boarding an ice wagon by mistake before finally getting on the right train after all. And now I'm finally climbing the building.

I've just been stuck on the ice wagon for 30 years.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Dinosaurs and Dixieland! 'Lost World' tonight, then 'Safety Last' with live band on Sunday, 7/9

An original poster for 'The Lost World' (1925).

It's 'The Lost World' tonight, and then a new world of Dixieland this coming Sunday!

New to me, anyway, as it's the first time I've collaborated with a Dixieland band in scoring a silent film—or in anything, really!

Be that as it may, it's back to making music after a 4th of July weekend break.

First up is 'The Lost World' (1925), which is running tonight (Thursday, July 6) at the Capitol Theatre in Arlington, Mass.

It's the original 'dinosaur' movie—the one that showed the way for filmmakers all the way through Steven Spielberg's 'Jurassic Park' and beyond.

Showtime is 8 p.m. We've been getting good crowds at the Capitol silent film series, and it's turning out to be a great place to experience silent film the way it was intended: in a theatre, with live music, and with an audience.

And then on Sunday, July 9, the music will take a turn for New Orleans, with a screening of Harold Lloyd's great comedy 'Safety Last' (1923) in 35mm at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville.

Harold checking the time.

The show starts at 2 p.m. And with me in the pit will be Sammy D and the Late Risers, a local Dixieland ensemble.

I first heard Sammy and the band a few months ago at the Aeronaut Brewery, also in Somerville, when they were jamming prior to one of my Sunday night silent film programs.

I've always had a sweet tooth for the classic Dixieland sound—and for a bunch of guys from New England, they seemed to come pretty close!

If you'd like to get a sense of their sound, here's a clip of them in action. It's wild, uninhibited stuff and really effective in live performance.

(For our show, we're using trumpet, clarinet, banjo, bass tuba and drums. (Plus me on keyboard, as appropriate.)

And as I listened, it occurred to me that 'Safety Last' was coming up at the Somerville Theatre, and I was looking for a different approach, as we'd run the title a few years ago.

I also remembered seeing 'Safety Last' more than 10 years ago at a Boston area venue that will remain nameless.

The print had arrived unexpectedly without a recorded soundtrack, and so the theater's solution was to play a CD of Scott Joplin piano rags.

There's nothing wrong with Scott Joplin. And 'Safety Last' is one of the great thrill rides of cinema—even today the climax can be a nail-biting and nerve-wracking emotional roller coaster.

But two great things don't always go together. And in this case, I was struck how the steady, measured ragtime beat of Joplin's rags totally flattened the film!

Rather than amp up the excitement, the music removed all the peaks and valleys, leaving it a cinematic flat tire.

Wow! That was one of the reasons I began doing music for film—because, I reasoned, even I could do a better job, and something like that should never be allowed to happen to one of the cinema's great treasures.

So how to integrate a Dixieland group into the score? Carefully!

To that end, Sammy (full name Sammy Dechenne) and I have worked out a cue sheet that identifies when and where his group will play, and what kind of music will work. And in some places, I'll take over with just keyboard.

I think we've come up with an effective balance, and also a plan that will help Lloyd's great film come to life on Sunday afternoon.

Please join us and see what you think! See you on Sunday at the Somerville!

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Tonight (Thursday, 6/8) in Ogunquit, Maine:
W.C. Fields is 'Running Wild' with live music

W.C. Fields sporting the 'stache he wore in the 1920s.

A silent W.C. Fields? Unimaginable, you say?

Well, see for yourself at a screening of 'Running Wild' (1927), one of the comedian's best silent feature films.

The screening is tonight (Thursday, June 8) at 7 p.m. at the Leavitt Theatre in downtown Ogunquit, Maine.

Tickets are $10 per person; more info is in the press release pasted in below.

But what I'd like to emphasize is that yes, W.C. Fields really was very successful in motion pictures, even without his trademark nasal twang.

Those who grew up watching the 1930s and 1940s Fields talkies on TV will always think of him first as the older gentleman with the cynical attitude and a fondness for adult beverages.

But Fields was in show business long before the movies. As a youth in the early years of the century, his juggling act took him all over the world.

The act was silent, to a large extent. So Fields honed his skills in pantomime, which turned out to be perfect training for success in the silent cinema.

He was in films as early as 1915, but didn't take the plunge in any serious way until winning a key role in D.W. Griffith's circus melodrama 'Sally of the Sawdust' (1925).

W.C. Fields as a juggler, no less, with Carol Dempster in 'Sally of the Sawdust' (1925).

Afterwards, he was signed by Paramount to play lead roles in a series of comedies featuring the then-middle-aged Fields as a kind of frustrated everyman.

It was in films such as 'So's Your Old Man' (1926) and 'The Old Army Game' (1926) that Fields ensured such indignities as disrespectful families, howling children, unappreciative bosses, clueless customers, and just plain hard luck.

To me, it's like his silent-era adventures directly led to the more cynical outlook in his talking pictures later on.

In any case, 'Running Wild' is a flick worth catching. It contains great comedy, plus it's also a window into attitudes about child-rearing and discipline that today would probably get a parent arrested.

Oh, the good old days!

* * *

The poster for this season's silent film program at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine.

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

Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit hosts silent film series with live music

Classic comedies, action-packed dramas highlight schedule; featured stars include W.C. Fields, Buster Keaton, and John Barrymore

OGUNQUIT, Maine—Classics of the silent film era will return to the big screen at Ogunquit's Leavitt Theatre, which is hosting a season of vintage cinema with live music in the historic facility.

The series gives area film fans a chance to see great movies from the pioneering days of cinema as they were intended to be shown—on the big screen, with an audience, and accompanied by live music.

Most screenings are on Thursday evenings. Next up is a 'Running Wild' (1927), a rare silent comedy starring W.C. Fields. Showtime is Thursday, June 8 at 7 p.m.

In 'Running Wild,' Fields plays a hen-pecked husband saddled with a disrespectful family and stuck in a dead-end job.

Things change suddenly when Fields inadvertently comes under the spell of a vaudeville hypnotist, who transforms him into a hard-charging aggressive alpha-male, with unexpected consequences.

Although he later achieved lasting fame in talking pictures, Fields was a major performer during the silent film era, starring in a series of popular features for Paramount Pictures.

The Leavitt's silent film series runs through October, concluding with a Halloween screening of the early horror classic 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' (1920), to be shown on Saturday, Oct. 28.

Admission for each screening is $10 per person.

The series includes comedies, adventure films, a silent film version of 'The Wizard of Oz' (1925), the recently rediscovered original big-screen adaptation of 'Sherlock Holmes' (1916), and the first-ever vampire movie, 'Nosferatu' (1922).

"These are the films that first made people fall in love with the movies, and we're thrilled to present them again on the big screen," said Peter Clayton, the Leavitt's long-time owner.

The Leavitt, a summer-only moviehouse, opened in 1923 at the height of the silent film era, and has been showing movies to summertime visitors for nine decades.

The silent film series honors the theater's long service as a moviehouse that has entertained generations of Seacoast residents and visitors, in good times and in bad.

"These movies were intended to be shown in this kind of environment, and with live music and with an audience," Clayton said. "Put it all together, and you've got great entertainment that still has a lot of power to move people."

Live music for each program will be provided by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based performer and composer who specializes in scoring silent films.

In accompanying silent films live, Rapsis uses a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of the full orchestra. He improvises the music in real time, as the movie is shown.

In scoring a movie, Rapsis creates music to help modern movie-goers accept silent film as a vital art form rather than something antiquated or obsolete.

"Silent film is a timeless art form that still has a unique emotional power, as the recent success of 'The Artist' has shown," Rapsis said.

Other films in this year's series include:

• Thursday, June 29 at 7 p.m.: 'Daredevil Aviation Double Feature.' Join fellow flyboys and flygals for a double feature of vintage silent film featuring 1920s biplane action.

• Thursday, July 13 at 7 p.m.: 'The Wizard of Oz' (1925) starring Larry Semon. Early silent film version of Frank L. Baum's immortal tales features silent comedian Larry Semon in a slapstick romp that also casts Oliver Hardy as the Tin Man. Oz as you've never seen it before!

• Thursday, Aug. 17 at 7 p.m.: 'Sherlock Holmes' (1916) starring William Gillette. Recently discovered in France after being lost for nearly a century, see this original 1916 adaptation of Sherlock Holmes stories as performed by William Gillette, the actor who created the role on stage.

• Thursday, Aug. 24 at 7 p.m.: 'Go West' (1925) starring Buster Keaton. Buster's ranch comedy about the stone-faced comedian and his enduring romance with—a cow! Rustle up some belly laughs as Buster must prove himself worthy once again.

• Thursday, Oct. 5 at 7 p.m.: 'Nosferatu' (1922). Experience the original silent film adaptation of Bram Stoker's famous 'Dracula' story. Still scary after all these years—and some critics believe this version is not only the best ever done, but has actually become creepier with the passage of time.

• Saturday, Oct. 28 at 7 p.m.: 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' (1920) starring John Barrymore; Just in time for Halloween! John Barrymore plays both title roles in the original silent film adaptation of the classic novella by Robert Louis Stevenson. A performance that helped establish Barrymore as one of the silent era's top stars.

All programs are at 7 p.m. and admission is $10 per person.

'Running Wild' (1927), a comedy starring W.C. Fields, will be shown on Thursday, June 8 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

Monday, June 5, 2017

Amazing poster from Aeronaut Brewing Co., plus reunited with a mislaid brass bell

Look what I came across:

I can't say how delighted I was to find this poster at last night's 'Wizard of Oz' screening at the Aeronaut Brewing Co. in Somerville, Mass.

Thanks so much to whoever did this!

In other good news, last night I was reunited with my bell!

Not just any bell, but a brass school bell that once belonged to my grandmother.

For a few years now, I've brought it along with me for use in silent film accompaniment at appropriate times.

A few months ago, however, I noticed it was not in my crate of traveling gear—and, actually, was nowhere to be found!

I had just returned from a road-trip to gigs in Ohio, so I called around, thinking I'd somehow left it behind. No dice.

This was a real loss because not only was it a family heirloom, it was a darned good piece of accompaniment hardware.

Not all bells are created equal, and this one had a particularly brassy, clangy sound that I came to regard as indispensable for certain moments.

Example: the flashback near the beginning of Fritz Lang's space opera 'Woman in the Moon' (1929), when a professor frantically rings a bell to quiet a rowdy debate that's spiralling out of control. The bell (and the whistle that's also blown) really get the score off to a rousing start.

Another example: a key moment in the climax of Josef von Sternberg's 'The Last Command' (1928) when a handbell is rung as a signal during a battle. It occurs at just the right time when we need a break from big revolutionary war battle music.

After giving it up for lost, I trolled eBay for a replacement bell, finding one pretty easily.

It arrived shortly after, but I couldn't bring myself to open the package. It sat in our dining room for weeks, as I was still mourning the loss of my grandmother's bell.

Weird how I finally opened it this weekend in advance of the Aeronaut show, as we often use a bell to quell the noisy crowd when starting a silent film show.

I tried it. Clang! Nice, but lighter and more polite—nothing like my grandmother's old bell.

And then, just before last night's show, the Aeronaut staffer went to get their own bell, and found two of them—one being the bell I'd mislaid month ago, apparently right there!

Now, if we could only find a cure for cancer, solve climate change, and find world peace.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

We're off to see the Wizard, but...
not the one with Judy Garland in it

Original promotional material for the silent film version of 'The Wizard of Oz.'

Some say it's enough to drive one to drink. So I'm glad we're showing it in a brewery.

It's the silent version of 'The Wizard of Oz' (1925), which I'm accompanying tonight (Sunday, June 4) at the Aeronaut Brewery, 14 Tyler St., Somerville, Mass.

Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Admission is $10 per person.

There's a press release below with more info on the film, which is nothing like the familiar 1939 MGM musical version starring Judy Garland.

Instead, the silent 'Wizard' was produced as a vehicle for comedian Larry Semon, who used the Oz characters to create a smorgasbord of slapstick.

The result was a picture that for years has been known as one of the silent era's great misfires. Its studio, Chadwick Pictures, ran into financial troubles the year it was released, and was unable to distribute prints to many locations. It fared poorly at the box office, and among the few who attended, it disappointed Oz fans due to scant resemblance to the stories by author L. Frank Baum.

Today, an interesting thing about the film is the reaction of people when they learn there is a silent 'Wizard of Oz.'

It's that same look of baffled puzzlement you get when you mention the silent films of W.C. Fields: How is that even possible?

But then you have to remember that so many stories got their first big-screen treatment during the silent era.

Among the more well known: 'Ben Hur' (1925) and 'Phantom of the Opera' (1925), both remade several times since.

Other examples abound. A lesser known one is the silent 'Peter Pan' (1924), created with input from author J.M. Barrie himself, and which still holds up well.

Heck, there were even performers in the silent era with the same names of later stars.

How about the silent Harrison Ford? (That's him on the right.) Or the silent James Mason, anyone?

But as so often happens, not every original screen adaptation hit the mark.

In the case of Semon's 'Wizard of Oz,' the film has come down to us with a reputation as a disappointment. And how could anything really compare to the magical musical version that Hollywood produced not much later?

But I included the silent 'Oz' in a recent program in Wilton, N.H., and was surprised to find it greeted by continuous hearty laughter and even applause. People really enjoyed it!

Maybe it's taken nine decades for the silent 'Oz' to find an audience. I don't know.

But I've decided to start trying it out in other venues, including the Aeronaut this evening.

We'll see if it provokes anything like the same reaction. And if it doesn't, there's always beer.

* * *

Larry Semon directed, and plays the Scarecrow, in 'The Wizard of Oz' (1925).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Rare silent film version of 'Wizard of Oz' at Aeronaut Brewing Co. on Sunday, June 4

Feature-length Oz epic released in 1925 includes comedian Oliver Hardy as the Tin Man; to be screened with live music

SOMERVILLE, Mass. — You won't find Judy Garland in this version of Oz, or much of anything else that's familiar. That's because it's the forgotten 1925 silent film version of the famous tale.

Long overshadowed by the immensely popular 1939 remake, the rarely seen silent version of 'The Wizard of Oz' (1925) will be screened one time only on Sunday, June 4 at 7:30 p.m. at the Aeronaut Brewing Co., 14 Tyler St., Somerville, Mass.

The program, which will include an earlier short Oz film also based on stories and characters of author L. Frank Baum, will be accompanied by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film musician.

Admission is $10 per person. Tickets are available online at; search on "Aeronaut Brewery."

The silent version, released by long-forgotten Chadwick Pictures, was intended as a vehicle for slapstick comedian Larry Semon, who directed the picture and played the role of the scarecrow.

Dorothy is played by Dorothy Dwan, Semon's wife. Also in the cast is Oliver Hardy as the Tin Man. Prior to his teaming with comedian Stan Laurel later in the 1920s, Hardy often played Semon's comic foil.

Larry Semon, Dorothy Dwan, and Oliver Hardy in 'The Wizard of Oz' (1925).

The silent 'Wizard of Oz' bears little resemblance to the highly polished MGM musical released just 14 years later. However, due to the enduring worldwide popularity of Baum's 'Oz' characters and stories, the silent 'Wizard of Oz' remains an object of great curiosity among fans.

The film departs radically from the novel upon which it is based, introducing new characters and exploits. Along with a completely different plot, the film is all set in a world that is only barely recognizable as the Land of Oz from the books. The film focuses mainly upon Semon's character, who is analogous to Ray Bolger's Scarecrow character in the 1939 version.

The major departure from the book and film is that the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion are not actually characters, but are in fact disguises donned by three farm hands who find themselves swept into Oz by a tornado. Dorothy is here played by Dorothy Dwan — Semon's wife — as a young woman. In a drastic departure from the original book, the Tin Man (played by Oliver Hardy) is Semon's rival for Dorothy's affections.

Legend has it that Semon's version of 'Wizard' was so poorly received, Chadwick Studios was forced to file for bankruptcy while the picture was in theaters. In truth, the picture was a modest success, and Chadwick continued to release films through 1928, when the studio shut down prior to the industry's switch to synchronized sound.

Accompanist Jeff Rapsis specializes in creating music that bridges the gap between an older film and the expectations of today's audiences. Using a digital synthesizer that recreates the texture of a full orchestra, he improvises scores in real time as a movie unfolds, so that the music for no two screenings is the same.

"It's kind of a high wire act, but it helps create an emotional energy that's part of the silent film experience," Rapsis said. "It's easier to be in tune with the emotional line of the movie and the audience's reaction when I'm able to follow what's on screen, rather than be buried in sheet music," he said.

Because silent films were designed to be shown to large audiences in theaters with live music, the best way to experience them is to recreate the conditions in which they were first shown, Rapsis said.

"Films such as 'The Wizard of Oz' were created to be shown on the big screen to large audiences as a communal experience," Rapsis said. "With an audience and live music, silent films come to life in the way their makers intended. Not only are they entertaining, but they give today's audiences a chance to understand what caused people to first fall in love with the movies."

Dorothy Dwan and Larry Semon, real-life husband and wife, in 'The Wizard of Oz' (1925).

The silent version of 'The Wizard of Oz' (1925) and other Oz-related silent films will be shown on Sunday, June 4 at 7:30 p.m. at the Aeronaut Brewing Co., 14 Tyler St., Somerville, Mass. Admission is $10 per person. Tickets are available online at; search on "Aeronaut Brewery." For more info about Aeronaut Brewing, visit For more information about the music, visit

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Accompanying Gloria Swanson in 'Zaza' (1923)—
Kino Lorber's Blu-ray reissue gets good marks

Gloria in a rare introspective moment from 'Zaza.'

Wednesday, June 6 marks the official release of Kino-Lorber's Blu-ray reissue of 'Zaza' (1923). It's a Gloria Swanson vehicle that's been unavailable for home viewing until now.

I recorded a piano score for 'Zaza' earlier this year, and it's gratifying to see comments now coming in as the release gets reviewed.

From Mike Gebert of the Nitrateville vintage film discussion group:
"Jeff Rapsis contributed the piano score, based on the original cue sheets, and it's pretty much ideal, moving adroitly between comedy and tasteful Continental melodrama."
And this is from a review on the Web site:
"The film is accompanied by an entertaining piano music score by Jeff Rapsis."
From Brian Orndorf of
The 2.0 DTS-HD MA sound mix contains a score composed and performed by Jeff Rapsis, and he brings a hearty piano mood to the feature, doing a considerable job supporting onscreen activities. It's a simple track, but clear and commanding, with ideal balance and presence, without any dips in quality.
This is from Matthew Hartman of High-Def Digest:
"With a DTS-HD MA 2.0 piano score from composer Jeff Rapsis that follows the original 1923 cue sheet, this is a pretty fantastic score for the film. The piano work gives the film a nice old-time feel with the right blend of jaunty entertainment and hitting the lower dramatic tones. It never feels overly dramatic or too wild and fits the tone of the film perfectly."
And here's one from
This release features an enthusiastic piano score by Jeff Rapsis, which was adapted from an original 1923 cue sheet. The score makes liberal use of the 18th century French ballad Plaisir d’amour, which the film states is the favorite song of H.B. Warner’s character. Modern viewers will likely be more familiar with Elvis Presley’s Can’t Help Falling in Love, which uses the same melody. Just be assured that everything is quite correct and the movie has not developed Elvis fever.
Let me know if you see any others!

On that last one: I'd forgotten about how similar 'Plaisir d'amour' is to the tune of 'Can't Help Falling In Love,' so I'm glad that got mentioned. I'm not a stickler for period authenticity, but I wouldn't use a signature Elvis tune for a Gloria Swanson film set in post-World War I France!

I'm collecting these here not to toot my own horn (well, maybe a little) but to thank the writers for commenting on the music. Getting feedback of any kind is useful, and it's always great to see the music considered as part of a silent film's total package.

I also want to thank Rob Stone at the Library of Congress and Bret Wood at Kino Lorber for giving me this opportunity.

The Library of Congress has a 35mm print of 'Zaza,' and Rob invited me to accompany a screening of it at the Packard Campus Theatre in 2016.

This led to Rob introducing me to Bret at Kino, who asked me to put together a piano score based on the original cue sheet, which was obtained from the George Eastman archive.

And I would be remiss without mentioning all the efforts of Bill Millios, a filmmaker here in my New Hampshire home base who has been supportive of so many film/music projects.

In this case, Bill graciously gave up a few Saturday mornings to act as engineer in recording the score, which was performed on a Yamaha grand piano in the recital hall of the Manchester Community Music School way back in January. (Brrr!)

And on that note, I need to thank Judy Teehan and Valerie Gentilhomme at the music school for their assistance as well. Thank you, ladies!

Until now, I've focused on live performance as a way to improve my accompaniment technique and develop a working musical vocabulary, if vocabulary is the right word for vocabulary. (What a paradox!)

But I was excited at the chance to lay down a track for such a high profile flick (Gloria Swanson!), and I feel ready to do more.

So we'll see. Part of my capacity to do more depends on my ability to create and edit professional quality sound files, which is sorely lacking.

Changing that was one of my New Year's resolutions, and I'm afraid not much has been done in that direction. But there's always 2018!

Before we get there, however, some good screenings await, including a Buster Keaton program on Thursday, June 1 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth N.H.

The film is 'Seven Chances' (1925), and the start time is 6:30 p.m. Hope to see you there!

Buster and a bevy of would-be brides in 'Seven Chances' (1925). None of them appear to be Gloria Swanson.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Announcing three silent film accompaniment projects for the summer of 2017

'Safety Last' (1923), which a local Dixieland jazz ensemble will help me accompany on Sunday, July 9 at the Somerville Theatre.

Pleased to post about a trio of special silent film events in the coming months.

• Starting on Sunday, June 18, I'm contributing live music to an extensive summer-long retrospective of the work of director Ernst Lubitsch at the Harvard Film Archive.

• On Sunday, July 9, at a 35mm screening of the great Harold Lloyd comedy 'Safety Last' (1923), I'll be collaborating on the accompaniment with a local Dixieland group, "Sammy and the Late Risers."

• And this weekend marks the first of two visits to Toronto, Ontario for silent film music. First up is Cecil B. DeMille's early shocker 'The Cheat' (1915) at the Revue Cinema.

Then, on Saturday, Aug. 19, it's music for 'Snow White' (1916) at the Toronto International Film Festival Cinematheque.

I'll details of these adventures as they come up. But the nice thing is that each of these projects shows an awareness of the importance of live music in the silent film experience.

In the case of the Harvard Film Archive, the Lubitsch "That Certain Feeling" series includes something like 20 silent titles. Programmer David Pendleton has arranged for live music for all of them, using pianists Martin Marks and Robert Humphreville in addition to me.

And if that weren't enough, the Archive is also running a Jean Renoir retrospective this summer that includes about a half-dozen silent titles, with accompaniment duties handled by Bertrand Laurence.

It's quite a heavy load, but David and his colleagues are committed to including live music as an integral part of the silent cinema experience. And it's great that they make use of a variety of musicians with different accompanying styles. Hoping to get down to Cambridge for a few screenings I'm not accompanying so I can take in how others do it.

It's one thing for a university-affiliated archive to program silents with live music. But it's a whole other kettle of fish for a first-run commercial moviehouse to run silent film with live music.

But that's been the case for some years now at the Somerville Theatre, where manage Ian Judge, projectionista David Kornfeld, and the rest of the team program centry-old classics alongside the current season's blockbusters.

I can't imagine it's a huge money-maker for the theater, which isn't part of any chain. But it's a truly distinctive element of its programming, and over the years the "Silent, Please!" series has been running, we've built up something of an audience.

Still, I was gratified to find the Somerville completely in support taking things to a new level, musically, by working with an actual Dixieland Band to do music for 'Safety Last' in July.

Ian Judge didn't even hesitate. The response: Absolutely, with the extra expense not looming as any big concern.

And I'm also indebted to Alicia Fletcher, a great fan of silent cinema who organizes a lot of programming in the Toronto area.

Thanks to her, I've had the chance to accompany films in this terrific city. And I'm looking forward to this summer's visits!

And in the "Small World" department, I first met Alicia when she was visiting Boston and attended a screening of the Able Gance film 'J'Accuse' that I was the Harvard Film Archive!

More updates as it happens. But if you're interest in the Lubitsch films, the complete schedule is online at the Harvard Film Archive's Web site.

And here's a round-up of the screenings I'm accompanying during the series, which runs from June through September.

• Sunday, June 18, 2017, 7 p.m.: "Shoe-Palace Pinkus" (1916) and "Meyer from Berlin" (1919), directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Harvard Film Archive, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge, Mass. (617) 496-3211. Admission $9 per person, $7 for non-Harvard students, Harvard faculty and staff, and senior citizens; free for Harvard students. Part of a summer-long retrospective of the work of director Ernst Lubitsch. "Meyer From Berlin": one of a series of popular “Jewish comedies” starring Lubitsch himself as a go-getting schlemiel.

• Monday, June 19, 2017, 7 p.m.: "Madame Dubarry" (1919) directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Harvard Film Archive, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge, Mass. (617) 496-3211. Admission $9 per person, $7 for non-Harvard students, Harvard faculty and staff, and senior citizens; free for Harvard students. Part of a summer-long retrospective of the work of director Ernst Lubitsch. The romance of Emil Jannings’ Louis XV with coquettish commoner Pola Negri leads to the French Revolution in the equally revolutionary epic that launched Lubitsch’s international fame and led to his exodus in Hollywood.

• Monday, June 26, 2017, 7 p.m.: "Kohlhiesel's Daughter" (1920) directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Harvard Film Archive, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge, Mass. (617) 496-3211. Admission $9 per person, $7 for non-Harvard students, Harvard faculty and staff, and senior citizens; free for Harvard students. Part of a summer-long retrospective of the work of director Ernst Lubitsch. Dual-roled Henny Porten and Emil Jannings replay The Taming of the Shrew in the Bavarian Alps.

• Sunday, July 9, 2017, 7 p.m.: "So This Is Paris" (1926) directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Harvard Film Archive, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge, Mass. (617) 496-3211. Admission $9 per person, $7 for non-Harvard students, Harvard faculty and staff, and senior citizens; free for Harvard students. Part of a summer-long retrospective of the work of director Ernst Lubitsch. Hilariously over-the-top Modern Dancers Lilyan Tashman and André Beranger are already looking for extracurricular action when in barges jealous, cane-wielding married doctor Monte Blue and the four-way complications begin, resolved in “an astounding Charleston sequence – a kind of cubist nightmare of what 20s people thought they were really like (John Gillett).”

• Friday, Aug. 4, 2017, 7 p.m.: "Anna Boleyn" (1920) directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Harvard Film Archive, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge, Mass. (617) 496-3211. Admission $9 per person, $7 for non-Harvard students, Harvard faculty and staff, and senior citizens; free for Harvard students. Part of a summer-long retrospective of the work of director Ernst Lubitsch. Emil Jannings’ tour-de-force as Henry VIII highlights the most impressive of Lubitsch’s spectacles, with Henny Porten as the eponymous Anna.

• Monday, Aug. 14, 2017, 7 p.m.: "Die Bergkatze/The Wildcat" or "The Mountain Cat" (1921), directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Harvard Film Archive, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge, Mass. (617) 496-3211. Admission $9 per person, $7 for non-Harvard students, Harvard faculty and staff, and senior citizens; free for Harvard students. Part of a summer-long retrospective of the work of director Ernst Lubitsch. Amidst delightfully bizarre décor—framed by altering screen shapes—a stalwart bandit chaser falls for bandit’s daughter Pola Negri. Lubitsch’s German comedy masterpiece is "both an anti-militarist satire and a wonderful fairy tale" (John Gillett).

And during all this, I'm juggling several composition projects that I've promised people for performance in the near future. So I'm buckling in for a fast summer!