Wednesday, October 29, 2014

'Phantom of the Opera' at Flying Monkey
on Thursday, Oct. 30: See it if you dare!

Vintage promotional material for 'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925).

In what amounts to a grand finale of the busy Halloween silent film calendar, I'm doing music for a screening of 'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925) at the Flying Monkey Movie House and Performance Center on Thursday, Oct. 30 at 6:30 p.m.

It's been a great season, and I'm looking forward to getting a good crowd for this one. We've had posters up, and press releases have gone out.

Plus, it's 'The Phantom,' who just always draws an audience.

However, I'm afraid I have two pieces of bad news from recent months to deliver regarding the silent 'Phantom.'

Here goes...

Dancer Carla Laemmle seen on stage near the beginning of 'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925).

• The first involves Carla Laemmle, who appears in 'Phantom' as a dancer. Niece of Universal studio boss "Uncle" Carl Laemmle, she went on to play a key role in the opening of the studio's iconic Bela Lugosi version of 'Dracula' (1931).

For years now, audiences at 'Phantom' screenings have enjoyed learning that Carla Laemmle was still with us, well past age 100 and still going strong. What a kick to have this living link to the silent era among us.

Well, I'm sad to report that Carla passed away on June 12 at age 104, still sharp right up until the end.

If you'd like to learn more about her story, check out this wonderfully eloquent tribute on the cinema blog maintained by a gal who goes by 'Nitrate Diva.'

• The second piece of sad 'Phantom' news involves the Opera House set. Left intact after 'Phantom' filming wrapped, the set (later known as "Soundstage 28") stood for decades on the Universal backlot, still regularly used well into the 21st century.

Among its more prominent recent appearances: the old, abandoned Muppet Show theater in 'The Muppets,' the 2011 franchise reboot.

Well, I regret to inform you that the set was demolished this past September, apparently to make room for the nearby Universal Studios tour operation. Here's an account of the demolition.

Among its other distinctions, legend has it that Soundstage 28 was haunted by Chaney's ghost. Here's an in-depth report on that side of things.

And so goes one of the few remaining tangible links to the silent era.

How ironic! An historic (and still useful) studio stage torn down to make room for a theme park celebrating an industry that...well, don't get me started.

But the film is still with us, and you have a chance to see it on the big screen and with live music and an audience on Thursday, Oct. 30.

More info in the press release below...

* * *

Lon Chaney as the Phantom menaces Mary Philbin.

TUESDAY, OCT. 14, 2014 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Silent film 'Phantom of the Opera' at Flying Monkey on Thursday, Oct. 30


Just in time for Halloween: Pioneer classic horror flick to be shown on the big screen with live music

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—Get into the Halloween spirit with a classic silent horror film!

'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925), the first screen adaptation of the classic thriller, will be shown with live music on Thursday, Oct. 30 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.

The event will feature live music by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

Admission is $10 per person.

'The Phantom of the Opera,' starring legendary actor Lon Chaney in the title role, remains a landmark work of cinema horror. To modern viewers, the passage of time has made this unusual film seem even more strange and otherworldly.

It's an atmosphere that silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis will try to enhance in improvising live music on the spot for the screenings.

"The original 'Phantom' is a film that seems to get creepier as more time goes by," said Rapsis, who is based in New Hampshire and ranks as one of the nation's leading silent film accompanists. "It's a great way to celebrate Halloween and the power of silent film to transport audiences to strange and unusual places."

'The Phantom of the Opera,' adapted from a 19th century novel by French author Gaston Leroux, featured Chaney as the deformed Phantom who haunts the opera house. The Phantom, seen only in the shadows, causes murder and mayhem in an attempt to force the opera's management to make the woman he loves into a star.

The film is most famous for Lon Chaney's intentionally horrific, self-applied make-up, which was kept a studio secret until the film's premiere.

Chaney transformed his face by painting his eye sockets black, giving a skull-like impression to them. He also pulled the tip of his nose up and pinned it in place with wire, enlarged his nostrils with black paint, and put a set of jagged false teeth into his mouth to complete the ghastly deformed look of the Phantom.

Chaney's disfigured face is kept covered in the film until the now-famous unmasking scene, which prompted gasps of terror from the film's original audiences.

"No one had ever seen anything like this before," Rapsis said. "Chaney, with his portrayal of 'The Phantom,' really pushed the boundaries of what movies could do."

Chaney, known as the "Man of a Thousand Faces" due to his versatility with make-up, also played Quasimodo in the silent 'Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923) and circus performer 'Alonzo the Armless' in Tod Browning's 'The Unknown' (1927).

The large cast of 'Phantom of the Opera' includes Mary Philbin as Christine Daaé, as the Phantom's love interest; character actor Snitz Edwards; and many other stars of the silent period.

'The Phantom of the Opera' proved so popular in its original release and again in a 1929 reissue that it led Universal Studios to launch a series of horror films, many of which are also regarded as true classics of the genre, including Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), and The Mummy (1932).

The silent film version of 'Phantom' also paved the way for numerous other adaptations of the story, up to and including the wildly successful Andrew Lloyd Webber musical from 1986 that continues to run on Broadway and in productions around the world.

In reviving the original screen version of 'Phantom of the Opera,' the Flying Monkey aims to show silent movies as they were meant to be seen—in high quality prints, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"All those elements are important parts of the silent film experience," said Jeff Rapsis, who will improvise a musical score during the screening. "If you can put it all together again, these films still contain a tremendous amount of excitement. You can see why people first fell in love with the movies."

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

Upcoming feature films in the Flying Monkey's silent film series include:

• Thursday, Nov. 13, 6:30 p.m.: 'Running Wild' (1927) starring W.C. Fields. Long before he entertained movie audiences with his nasal twang, W.C. Fields was a popular leading man in silent film comedies! This one finds Fields as a hen-pecked husband finally driven to make surprising changes in his life.

‘The Phantom of the Opera’ (1925) will be shown on Thursday, Oct. 30 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.; (603) 536-2551. Admission $10. For more information, visit www.flyingmonkeynh.com. For more info on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

'Cat and the Canary' (1927) on Weds., 10/29
at Rogers Center, North Andover, Mass.

Two of the memorable faces in 'The Cat and the Canary' (1927): Martha Mattox as "Manny Pleasant" and Laura LaPlante as Annabelle West.

No, it's not the talkie version with Bob Hope cracking wise.

But the silent edition of 'Cat and the Canary' (1927), an early haunted house thriller, is filled with other delights.

One of the great strengths of the silent version, I think, is the cast.

"We had faces," remarks Norma Desmond in 'Sunset Boulevard' (1950). And 'Cat and the Canary' is chock full of memorable ones!

No big-name performers that anyone would recognize today, mind you. But the film still works on an audience by virtue of the terrific ensemble cast that German director Paul Leni assembled for his first Hollywood film.

See for yourself when we run 'The Cat and the Canary' on Wednesday, Oct. 29 at 7 p.m. at the Rogers Center for the Arts at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass. Admission is free!

More details in the press release below.

* * *

Actor Tully Marshall as attorney Crosby has a close encounter in 'The Cat and the Canary' (1927)

SATURDAY, OCT. 4, 2014 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

'Cat and Canary' (1927) to play Rogers Center with live music on Wednesday, Oct. 29


Just in time for Halloween: Creepy haunted house silent film thriller to be shown after sundown

NORTH ANDOVER, Mass.—'The Cat and the Canary' (1927), a haunted house thriller from Hollywood’s silent film era, will be screened with live music on Wednesday, Oct. 29 at 7 p.m. at at the Rogers Center for the Arts on the campus of Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass.

Live music for the movie will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free and the screening is open to the public.

'The Cat and the Canary' stands as the original movie thriller—the first picture to feature the reading of a will in a haunted mansion complete with clutching hands, a masked killer, disappearing bodies, and secret passageways.

Silent film starlet Laura LaPlante leads the cast as a young heiress who must spend the night in the creepy old mansion, which is filled with relatives who all have motives to frighten her out of her wits. Meanwhile, a dangerous escaped lunatic is loose on the grounds. Can she and the others make it through the night?

Created for Universal Pictures by German filmmaker Paul Leni and based on a hit stage play, 'The Cat and the Canary' proved popular enough to inspire several remakes, including one starring Bob Hope. It was also the forbearer of all the great Universal horror classics of the 1930s and '40s.

The Rogers Center screening will use a fully restored print that shows the film as audiences would have originally experienced it. 'The Cat and the Canary' will be accompanied by live music by New Hampshire composer Jeff Rapsis, who specializes in silent film scoring.

Rapsis will improvise the score on the spot during the screening.

"Silent film is all about the audience experience, and this one is a perfect Halloween crowd-pleaser," Rapsis said. "It has something for everyone—spooky scenes, some good comedy, and it's all fine for the whole family."

Critics praise the original 'Cat and the Canary' for its wild visual design and cutting edge cinematography.

Film reviewer Michael Phillips singled out the film for using "a fluidly moving camera and elaborate, expressionist sets and lighting to achieve some of the most memorable shots in silent film, from the amazing tracking shots down the curtain-lined main hallway to the dramatic zooms and pans that accompany the film's shocks."

Leonard Maltin called the original 'Cat and the Canary' a "delightful silent classic, the forerunner of all "old dark house" mysteries."

Following 'The Cat and the Canary,' the 2014-15 silent film series at the Rogers continues with a sci-fi epic and a war adventure.

• Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015, 7 p.m.: 'Woman in the Moon' (1929) directed by Fritz Lang. A grand sci-fi adventure epic about the first rocket ship to the moon. The rarely-screened final silent feature from German filmmaker Fritz Lang (director of 'Metropolis'), 'Woman in the Moon' laid the groundwork for all of the great outer space movie tales to come, complete with melodramatic plot and eye-popping visuals. Welcome the year 2015 by pondering a vision of the future as imagined by one of yesterday's great moviemakers.

• Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015, 7 p.m.: 'The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' (1921) starring Rudolph Valentino. An extended family split up in France and Germany find themselves on opposing sides of the battlefield during World War I. The film that turned then-little-known actor Rudolph Valentino into a superstar and associated him with the image of the Latin Lover. The film also inspired a tango craze and such fashion fads as gaucho pants. A great way to celebrate Valentine's Day!

All films will be screened at the Rogers Center for the Arts, Merrimack College, 315 North Turnpike St., North Andover, Mass.

"If you haven't seen a silent film the way it was intended to be shown, then you're missing a unique experience," Rapsis said. "At their best, silent films still connect with cinema-goers. They retain a tremendous power to cast a spell, engage an audience, tap into elemental emotions, and provoke strong reactions."

'Cat and the Canary' will be shown on Wednesday, Oct. 29 at 7 p.m. at the Rogers Center for the Arts, located on Walsh Way on the campus of Merrimack College, 315 Turnpike St., North Andover, Mass. Admission is free. For more information, call the Rogers box office at (978) 837-5355. For more info on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.

Creepfest: actor Lon Chaney unmasked
on 10/26 at Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre

Lon Chaney as Phroso the Magician in 'West of Zanzibar' (1928). Chaney's the one on the left.

With Halloween next week, the screenings are piling up like the unraked leaves in my front yard.

Last night, we had a great turnout for 'Phantom of the Opera' (1925) at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine.

But now I'm scurrying to post advance info about today's Lon Chaney "Creepfest" double feature at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

The films are lesser-known Chaney pics but worth a look—especially at Halloween time, I think.

First up is 'The Unholy Three' (1925), followed by 'West of Zanzibar' (1928).

Both were directed by Tod Browning and have that weird circus-y vibe going. And both are quite dark and sinister: each delivers hefty servings of the Chaney/Browning themes of obsession, murder, and death.

But neither requires Chaney to don extensive face-altering make-up. So it's interesting to see the guy himself in action. (The poster at left makes Chaney look almost normal!)

True, 'The Unholy Three' has Chaney posing as a kindly old grandmother for a good part of the film. And 'West of Zanzibar' requires him to play a man paralyzed from the waist down.

But otherwise, both movies show Chaney unmasked.

So, in a season where masks are basic equipment, think of this bit of counter-programming as a tribute to the artistry of this legendary actor.

Known far and wide as "the man of 1,000 faces" for his willingness to play hideously disfigured characters, here's a bit of counter-programming that shows Chaney didn't need crazy get-ups to create characters just as memorable as Quasimodo in 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923) or Erik in 'The Phantom.'

The show starts today (Sunday, Oct. 26) at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre. More details are in the press release below!

* * *

Chaney and his accomplices in 'The Unholy Three' (1925).

TUESDAY, OCT. 14, 2014 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Creepfest of twisted silent horror films at Wilton Town Hall on Sunday, Oct. 26


Double feature of bizarre Lon Chaney movies to be shown on the big screen with live music

WILTON, N.H.—Get into the Halloween spirit with classic silent horror films starring legendary actor Lon Chaney!

Two movies starring Chaney, 'West of Zanzibar' (1928) and 'The Unholy Three' (1925), make up a creepy double feature on Sunday, Oct. 26 at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

The late matinee program starts at 4:30 p.m. and will feature live music by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

Admission is free; a donation of $5 per person is suggested to help defray expenses.

'West of Zanzibar' (1927) features Chaney as a magician paralyzed in a brawl with a rival for his wife's love and who then vows revenge. The film co-stars Lionel Barrymore.

In 'The Unholy Three' (1925), Chaney plays a sideshow ventriloquist who joins forces with a midget and a circus strongman to unleash a crime spree on an unsuspecting town, with unexpected consequences.

Both films were produced by MGM and directed by Tod Browning, who specialized in exploring the dark and creepy side of circus and theater life. Browning's career later culminated with his bizarre early talkie film 'Freaks' (1932), starring a cast of deformed carnival performers.

Lon Chaney is today regarded as one of the most versatile and powerful actors of early cinema, renowned for his characterizations of tortured, often grotesque and afflicted characters, and his groundbreaking artistry with makeup.

Chaney remains famous for his starring roles in such silent horror films as 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923) and 'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925). His ability to transform himself using makeup techniques he developed earned him the nickname "The Man of a Thousand Faces."

But Chaney starred in dozens of other films throughout the silent era, many of them aimed at the growing appetite among movie audiences for the strange, macabre, or downright weird.

In 'West of Zanzibar,' Chaney's magician character "Phroso" suffers an accident that paralyzes him from the waist down. Most of the film's action takes place in the primitive jungles of Africa, where Phroso, now known as "Dead Legs Flint," uses magic tricks to control a native tribe.

'The Unholy Three' requires Chaney to play a ventriloquist—an unusual role for a film without dialogue. But the plot then requires Chaney to transform himself into a kindly old grandmother for portions of the movie.

Both films continue to mesmerize audiences as odd early thrillers about crime, twisted love, obsession, and bodily mutilation. To modern viewers, the passage of time has made these unusual films seem even more strange and otherworldly.

It's an atmosphere that silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis will try to enhance in improvising live music on the spot for the screenings.

"Many of the Lon Chaney features seem to get creepier as more time goes by," said Rapsis, who is based in New Hampshire and ranks as one of the nation's leading silent film accompanists. "Today, they're a great way to celebrate Halloween and the power of silent film to transport audiences to strange and unusual places."

Both films are suitable for all family members, but the overall program may be too intense for very young children to enjoy.

Modern critics say 'West of Zanzibar' still packs a powerful cinematic punch.

"This is an absolutely brilliant—and economical—visual evocation of the relationship between sex and death, the erotic and the morbid...” wrote John Beifuss of the Memphis Commercial Appeal in 2012.

And 'The Unholy Three' continues to be recognized as among Chaney's best work.

"One of Lon Chaney's best movies and biggest hits, about a trio of sideshow 'freaks' who become criminals to get revenge on 'normal' society," wrote TV Guide.

All movies in the Town Hall Theatre's silent film series were popular when first seen by audiences in the 1920s, but are rarely screened today in a way that allows them to be seen at their best.

To revive them, organizers aim to show the films as they were intended—in top quality restored prints, on a large screen, with live music, and before a live audience.

"If you can put it all together again, these films still contain tremendous excitement," Rapsis said. "You can see why people first fell in love with the movies."

Upcoming films in the Town Hall Theatre's silent film series include:

• Sunday, Nov. 30, 2014, 4:30 p.m.: Buster Keaton in 'Seven Chances.' Finish off Thanksgiving weekend with a helping of laughter courtesy Buster Keaton. A pair of classic short comedies, then 'Seven Chances' (1925), a wild feature in which Buster has until sundown to get married or lose a fortune!

• Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014, 4:30 p.m.: Chaplin's Short Best Comedies. This Christmas, receive some laughs! Mark the 100th anniversary of Chaplin's iconic 'Little Tramp' character with a selection of his best short comedies. A great way for the whole family to cap off the holiday weekend.

• Sunday, Jan. 25, 2015, 4:30 p.m.: Silent Sci-Fi: 'Woman in the Moon.' An early sci-fi adventure epic about the first rocket ship to the moon, as imagined in 1929. Made on a grand scale; the rarely-screened final silent feature from German filmmaker Fritz Lang, director 'Metropolis.'

The Town Hall Theatre's 2014-15 season of silent film continues with a double feature of lurid and creepy Lon Chaney thrillers on Sunday, Oct. 26 at 4:30 p.m at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Live music will be provided by Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free, with a donation of $5 per person suggested to help defray expenses.

For more information, visit www.wiltontownhalltheatre.com or call 654-3456. For more info on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Saturday, Oct. 25 in Oqunquit, Maine:
'Phantom of the Opera' (1925)

A poster for this weekend's screening of 'Phantom' at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine.

This weekend, I'm doing music for 'Phantom of the Opera' (1925) in a place where movies have been shown continuously since before the 'Phantom' itself first hit the big screen.

It's the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine, where the original Lon Chaney silent version of 'Phantom' will be shown on Saturday, Oct. 25 at 8 p.m.

The screening, part of a community celebration dubbed 'Ogunquitfest,' is also being billed as 'Chiller Theatre,' given the building's lack of a central heating system.

More info on the film and the screening is in the press release below.

But I'd like to add that in the spirit of Halloween, the Leavitt Theatre itself can be counted among the "undead," given its recent brush with closure.

Yes, after 90 continuous years of operation, last October it looked like the Leavitt would be among the casualties of Hollywood's conversion to digital format for first-run films.

As a summer-only theater in a seasonal coastal resort, the economics for the Leavitt were marginal at best.

The interior of the Leavitt, virtually unchanged since movies began being shown there in 1923.

So there simply wasn't $60K in the till to install a digital projection system needed to continue showing the latest releases.

As the 2013 season ended, long-time owner Peter Clayton (who's run the place since 1976) was reluctantly ready to throw in the towel.

But his sons, Ian and Max, suggested a crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter to raise the money. The month-long campaign came through with more than enough to go digital, plus add a few extras like air conditioning.

And so it came to pass. The Leavitt, still under Clayton family management, was back in business for 2014, with a full summer of first-run movies and a variety of other programming. (Yes, including a silent film series!)

In an age where more than ever we need spaces for people to gather for communal experiences that include great cinema, I think the continuing "undead" status of the Leavitt is something to be celebrated.

So I hope you'll join us for "Chiller Theater," after which the theater will go into winter hibernation. And I hope you'll make it a point to return often during the 2015 season!

* * *

Lon Chaney as 'The Phantom' menaces Mary Philbin.

SATURDAY, OCT. 4, 2014 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Silent film 'Chiller Theatre' at Ogunquit's Leavitt Theatre on Saturday, Oct. 25


Just in time for Halloween: 'Phantom of the Opera' (1925), pioneer classic horror flick, to be shown on the big screen with live music

OGUNQUIT, Maine—Get into the Halloween spirit with a classic silent horror film!

'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925), the first screen adaptation of the classic thriller, will be shown with live music on Saturday, Oct. 25 at 8 p.m. at the historic Leavitt Theatre, 259 Main St., Route 1, Ogunquit, Maine.

The event will feature live music by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

Admission is $10 per person. The horror film event is being dubbed "Chiller Theatre" due to the summer-only building's lack of a heating system. Organizers ask attendees to check the weather and bring along sweaters and blankets if a cold evening is anticipated.

'The Phantom of the Opera,' starring legendary actor Lon Chaney in the title role, remains a landmark work of the cinematic horror genre. To modern viewers, the passage of time has made this unusual film seem even more strange and otherworldly.

It's an atmosphere that silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis will try to enhance in improvising live music on the spot for the screenings.

"The original 'Phantom' is a film that seems to get creepier as more time goes by," said Rapsis, who is based in New Hampshire and ranks as one of the nation's leading silent film accompanists. "It's a great way to celebrate Halloween and the power of silent film to transport audiences to strange and unusual places."

'The Phantom of the Opera,' adapted from a 19th century novel by French author Gaston Leroux, featured Chaney as the deformed Phantom who haunts the opera house. The Phantom, seen only in the shadows, causes murder and mayhem in an attempt to force the opera's management to make the woman he loves into a star.

The film is most famous for Lon Chaney's intentionally horrific, self-applied make-up, which was kept a studio secret until the film's premiere.

Chaney transformed his face by painting his eye sockets black, giving a skull-like impression to them. He also pulled the tip of his nose up and pinned it in place with wire, enlarged his nostrils with black paint, and put a set of jagged false teeth into his mouth to complete the ghastly deformed look of the Phantom.

Chaney's disfigured face is kept covered in the film until the now-famous unmasking scene, which prompted gasps of terror from the film's original audiences.

"No one had ever seen anything like this before," Rapsis said. "Chaney, with his portrayal of 'The Phantom,' really pushed the boundaries of what movies could do."

A closer look at Chaney's 'Phantom' get-up.

Chaney, known as the "Man of a Thousand Faces" due to his versatility with make-up, also played Quasimodo in the silent 'Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923) and circus performer 'Alonzo the Armless' in Tod Browning's 'The Unknown' (1927).

The large cast of 'Phantom of the Opera' includes Mary Philbin as Christine Daaé, as the Phantom's love interest; character actor Snitz Edwards; and many other stars of the silent period.

'The Phantom of the Opera' proved so popular in its original release and again in a 1930 reissue that it led Universal Studios to launch a series of horror films, many of which are also regarded as true classics of the genre, including Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), and The Mummy (1932).

The silent film version of 'Phantom' also paved the way for numerous other adaptations of the story, up to and including the wildly successful Andrew Lloyd Webber musical from 1986 that continues to run on Broadway and in productions around the world.

The Leavitt's screening of 'The Phantom of the Opera' is part of the 11th annual Ogunquitfest, an area-wide celebration of autumn and the Halloween season.

The screening is the final installment of the Leavitt's 2014 Silent Film Series. Although 'Phantom of the Opera' is suitable for all family members, the overall program may be too much for very young children to enjoy.

All movies in the Leavitt Theatre's silent film series were popular when first seen by audiences in the 1920s, but are rarely screened today in a way that allows them to be seen at their best. They were not made to be shown on television; to revive them, organizers aim to show the films as they were intended—in top quality restored prints, on a large screen, with live music, and before a live audience.

"If you can put it all together again, these films still contain a tremendous amount of excitement," Rapsis said. "By staging these screenings of features from Hollywood's early days, you can see why people first fell in love with the movies."

‘The Phantom of the Opera’ (1925) will be shown on Saturday, Oct. 25 at 8 p.m. at the historic Leavitt Theatre, 259 Main St., Route 1, Ogunquit, Maine. Admission $10 per person; for more info, call (207) 646-3123 or visit www.leavittheatre.com. For more info on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Coming out: Intimate details of
my first bi-keyboardal experience

The set-up at Harvard University's Carpenter Center for a class screening on Tuesday, Oct. 21.

Once you go bi-keyboard, you can't go back.

That's what I discovered this week at Harvard University's Carpenter Center, where I did live music for a class screening of two silent films.

On the program: the Epstein/Buñuel version of 'The Fall of the House of Usher' (1928) and also 'The Smiling Madame Beudet' (1923).

For 'Usher,' I used strings exclusively, augmented by an actual clangy school bell for some key images. I thought it held together well.

In the unexpected challenge department, the Harvard Film Archive's 35mm 'Usher' print turned out to be a French edition with no English subtitles.

So instructor Adam Hart did his best to translate on the fly, which required me to tone down the music each time so he could be heard.

But it was the seductive 'Smiling Madame' who led me to my first bi-keyboard experience.

Unplanned, of course, as all the best adventures seem to be. But it happened, and here's how:

The 'Madame Beudet' film frequently references a performance Gounod's 'Faust.' So for the score, I figured on using the opera's famous waltz in a full orchestral texture throughout the movie, evolving it as the story proceeded.

But early on, the wife character is seen playing dreamy music on a living room piano. (Later, we see the actual sheet music: it's Debussy's "Jardins sous la Pluie," or "Gardens in the Rain.")


Yes, I could evoke the impressionistic feel of this piece (whole tone scales, etc.) on the synthesizer, no problem. (In other words, fake it.)

But right next to me was the Carpenter Center's big Yamaha grand piano. And I couldn't resist the idea of using an acoustic piano for scenes of when the family upright gets played.

It took some finagling to get the big grand positioned so that I could reach it (and its pedals) quickly, and also so the keyboard would be lighted from the screen. (I didn't want to have a light on all during the film just so I could use the piano for a few moments.)

Another view of my set-up, this time showing the screen.

Turned out the synth and the piano were exactly in tune. So, without having to modify the synth's pitch, I could play both instruments together if I wanted to. Which I did.

It took a little getting used to, but I found playing two keyboards, one on either side of me, wasn't impossible.

It was actually kind of fun to mix sustained synth chords to back a melody played with staccato piano notes, or vice versa.

I felt like bandleader Paul Shaffer on the David Letterman show, hemmed in by black and white keys all around me!

Now all I have to do is shave my head.

I found that by straddling the piano bench, I could even use the sustain pedals for each keyboard at the same time. Flexibility exercises would have helped on this.

So when Madame Beudet is seen playing the piano (as at left), the score including the sound of a real piano, even if it was faux Debussy. (Faux sounds so much better than fake. Maybe because it's French.)

And when Monsieur Beudet mocks his wife's preference for Debussy by banging on the family piano—well, I was ready for that, too. I specialize in banging.

So it worked out quite well. And now, when asked to accompany films at Harvard, I'm going to be on the prowl for opportunities to layer in acoustic piano with a synth background, or vice versa.

And what if I also bring along my bass tuba? It may or may not be for a French film, but I can't help but think this combo would be a "menage a trois."

P.S. Wherever there's a piano, there's usually a piano bench. Most piano benches come with a storage space that can be accessed by lifting the hinged seat, somewhat like opening a treasure chest.

And like a treasure chest, you never know what you'll find in the world's piano benches.

I've found everything from tennis balls to sheet music that once belonged to an elderly acquaintance who had died more than a decade ago.

So from now on, I'm taking it upon myself to document to contents of the piano benches I encounter, starting with the one at Harvard University's Carpenter Center.

Think of it as a low-rent version of Geraldo opening Al Capone's safe.

The bench itself clearly contained items of some heft. Upon opening it, I found...


...two large Boston phone directories from 2008-9!

Join us next time for another episode of "Piano Bench Mysteries."

Finally, a high culture alternative to reality television!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

This Friday, Oct. 24: 'Nosferatu' (1922)
at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H.

Join us for 'Nosferatu' (1922) on Friday, Oct. 24 at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H. If you dare...

Forget Christmas!

For a silent film accompanist, Halloween is the most wonderful time of the year.

If nothing else, silent film is other-worldly enough to be a general draw during this macabre part of the calendar. And so the screenings come, one by one...

Usually, just for sanity's sake, I try to pick one of the great favorites each year and focus on it. One year, 'Nosferatu' (1922) another 'Phantom of the Opera' (1925), and so on.

But this cycle that system kinda broke down for various reasons. And so now I'm doing music for a lot of different films one after another. It's scary on a whole new level.

First up is the original silent 'Nosferatu' (1922), being shown on Friday, Oct. 24 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H.

Alas, we're in the smaller "screening" room, so it might just happen that we sell out.

If that happens, I'll arrange for a repeat as soon as feasible. But if you really really hope to see it this Friday night, I suggest getting tickets beforehand online at www.redrivertheatres.org.

After 'Nosferatu,' it's 'Phantom of the Opera' (1925) on Saturday, Oct. 25 at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine, and then a Lon Chaney double feature on Sunday, Oct. 26 at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.

And more after that, but one weekend at a time.

With 'Nosferatu,' I like to remind attendees that vampires were not a cliché with early cinema audiences.

Original audiences had never seen anything like the vampire played by Max Schreck, and it must have been a genuinely unsettling experience.

To make the point of how our frame of reference has changed, I bring along an unusual prop: a box of 'Count Chocula' breakfast cereal.

How terrifying can a vampire be when the figure has been turned into a cartoon breakfast cereal pitchman? (Actually, very much so, if you read the ingredients.)

Today, the vampire legend has been largely detoothed, so to speak, by overexposure, familiarity and commercialism. Heck, kids today learn numbers on Sesame Street from "The Count," a cuddly muppet.

Fortunately, director F.W. Murnau's visual style, and the other-worldly quality of silent film itself, is more than enough to bring audiences back into the spirit of the original 'Nosferatu.'

To see for yourself, I invite you to join us. For more specifics about 'Nosferatu' on Friday, Oct. 24 at Red River Theatres, check out the press release below.

And remember: in silent film, no one can hear you scream!

And P.S.: For yet more provocative thoughts on old vampire films, check out recent posts at www.nitratediva.wordpress.com. Some great stuff about Tod Browning's early talkie 'Dracula' (1931) as well as the lesser-known Spanish language version of the 1931 Universal classic, which Red River will screen on Friday, Oct. 31.

* * *

The shadow of Nosferatu as the creature closes in on a victim.

SATURDAY, OCT. 4, 2014 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

'Nosferatu' coming to Red River Theatres on Friday, Oct. 24


Pioneer classic horror movie to be shown on the big screen with live music

CONCORD, N.H.—Get into the Halloween spirit with a classic silent horror film!

'Nosferatu' (1922), the first screen adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel 'Dracula,' will be screened with live music on Friday, Oct. 24 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H.

The film will include live music performed by New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Admission is $10 per person.

'Nosferatu' (1922), directed by German filmmaker F.W. Murnau, remains a landmark work of the cinematic horror genre. It was among the first movies to use visual design to contribute to an overall sense of terror. To modern viewers, the passage of time has made this unusual film seem even more strange and otherworldly.

It's an atmosphere that silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis will try to enhance in improvising live music on the spot for the screenings.

"The original 'Nosferatu' is a film that seems to get creepier as more time goes by," said Rapsis, a resident of Bedford, N.H. who ranks as one of the nation's leading silent film accompanists. "It's a great way to celebrate Halloween and the power of silent film to transport audiences to strange and unusual places."

In 'Nosferatu,' German actor Max Schreck portrays the title character, a mysterious count from Transylvania who travels to the German city of Bremen to take up residence. A rise in deaths from the plague is attributed to the count's arrival. Only when a young woman reads "The Book of Vampires" does it become clear how to rid the town of this frightening menace.

Director F.W. Murnau told the story with strange camera angles, weird lighting, and special effects that include sequences deliberately speeded up.

Although 'Nosferatu' is suitable for all family members, the overall program may be too much for very young children to enjoy.

Modern critics say the original 'Nosferatu' still packs a powerful cinematic punch.

“Early film version of Dracula is brilliantly eerie, full of imaginative touches that none of the later films quite recaptured,” Leonard Maltin wrote recently. Critic Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader called 'Nosferatu' "...a masterpiece of the German silent cinema and easily the most effective version of Dracula on record.”

Max Schreck as Nosferatu and friend emerge from the hold of a ship in 'Nosferatu' (1922).

Despite the status of 'Nosferatu' as a landmark of early cinema, it was almost lost forever.

The film, shot in 1921 and released in 1922, was an unauthorized adaptation of Stoker's novel, with names and other details changed because the studio could not obtain rights to the novel.

For instance, "vampire" became "Nosferatu" and "Count Dracula" became "Count Orlok." After the film was released, Stoker's widow filed a copyright infringement lawsuit and won; all known prints and negatives were destroyed under the terms of settlement.

However, intact copies of the the film would surface later, allowing 'Nosferatu' to be restored and screened today as audiences originally saw it. The image of actor Max Schreck as the vampire has become so well known that it showed up in a recent episode of 'Sponge Bob Squarepants.'

Red River Theatres, an independent cinema, is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to screening a diverse program of first-run independent films, cult favorites, classics, local and regional film projects, and foreign films.

The member-supported theater’s mission is to present film and the discussion of film as a way to entertain, broaden horizons and deepen appreciation of life for New Hampshire audiences of all ages.

Upcoming events in Red River's silent film programming include:

• Friday, Nov. 28 at 7 p.m.: 'Charlie Chaplin Comedy Night.' Spend part of Thanksgiving weekend with the Little Tramp on the 100th anniversary of his first screen appearances. The whole family will enjoy restored prints of some of Chaplin's most popular comedies shown the way they were intended: on the big screen, with live music, and an audience.

‘Nosferatu’ will be shown on Friday, Oct. 24 at 7 p.m. in the Jaclyn Simchik Screening Room at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H. Admission is $10 per person; for more info, call (603) 224-4600 or visit www.redrivertheatres.org. For more information about the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.

In which I get into Harvard University;
plus reviews, radio interviews, and more

Phyllis Hart stars in 'Chicago' (1927), a silent film that got a recent thumbs-up from a college newspaper.

Some great Halloween screenings coming up, but first a few updates from the present:

An unexpected review: I've just found a wonderful review of our screening of the silent film version of 'Chicago' (1927) earlier this month at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center up in Plymouth, N.H.

It's by Sarah Liebowitz of 'The Clock' (the student paper of Plymouth State University) and I think she did a great job capturing the spirit of the film and its ability to reach audiences today, even those unfamiliar with silent cinema.

Me, I'm the choir. I certainly believe in the timeless power of silent film. But it's really heartening and encouraging to seed others discover this on their own.

Thank you for making my day, Sarah. If you come to 'Phantom of the Opera' at the Monkey later this month, please stop by to say hi!

The back end of the Carpenter Center at Harvard, including the doors through which I lug my digital synthesizer and sound gear.

Playing at Harvard: I continue the head-spinning experience of going down to Harvard University to do live music for a variety of silent film screenings. I've done three in the past few weeks, and three more are coming up, including one later this afternoon.

Why head-spinning? Because as music-crazed teenager in Nashua, N.H., I was immersing myself in material such as Igor Stravinsky's Charles Elliot Norton Lectures at Harvard, and so always thought of the place as a citadel of American musical culture.

I never got to attend, of course, and later shelved my musical ambitions for the word game. So I never expected, all this time later, to be coming down to campus and playing my own stuff where the like of idols such as Leonard Bernstein and Elliot Carter and Aaron Copland and John Adams (the composer, and the founding father) once hung out.

It's a great honor, a real satisfaction, and a genuine thrill. 'Nuf said. (But I want to thank David Pendleton of the Harvard Film Archive, Heidi Bliss of Harvard's Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, and everyone else who has played a part in this adventure so far.)

The screenings take place at the Le Corbius-designed Carpenter Center in an environment that's pretty luxurious compared to the town halls where I often ply my trade. In a real plus for silent film, the booth is equipped with 35mm projectors that can run variable speed! Also, in an unheard-of luxury, able projectionist Clayton Mattos will often check with me (before and during a screening) about a film's running speed.

A classier front-end view of the Carpenter Center, the only structure in North America designed by Le Corbius, the 20th century oracle of architectural modernism (and big fan of concrete.)

Last Wednesday night, I accompanied 'The Big Parade' (1925) for a class taught by Harvard Prof. Tom Conley. The print was the Harvard Film Archive's very own gorgeous 35mm print, and the screening was open to the public, so we had a nice turnout.

Because it was 'The Big Parade,' I pulled out all the stops, bringing down the digital synthesizer and staging what I thought was a suitable soundtrack to scenes of World War I trench fighting. (In other words, KABOOM!)

And, despite my need for a bathroom break just when the soldiers were being called up to the front, it was one of those magical screenings where a film seems to completely absorb an audience.

Even better, it was not the usual silent film crowd, but a mix of people who may not have been expecting the experience that King Vidor and company had planned for them nearly a century ago.

I often say silent film is about the big emotions, as demonstrated here by John Gilbert and Renee Adoree in 'The Big Parade.'

I have to admit I was pleased how most of the score came out. I think I hit all the big moments, and was especially happy at how the well-known "departure" sequence came together, with Renee Adoree hanging onto the truck taking John Gilbert to the front. And I found myself quite overcome (SPOILER ALERT!) during the final sequence, when the pair are finally reunited.

So after "The End," despite three hours at the keyboard, I couldn't help but stand up and thank everyone for helping to collaborate in bringing 'The Big Parade' to life, and encourage them to understand that to really experience the full power of silent film, this was the way to do it: in a theater, on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

It was only then that I remembered that this was Prof. Conley's class, not my personal forum. But the professor was nodding his head in agreement, and later thanked me for the performance, so I trust I didn't tred on any Ivy League toes.

And it was a real rush to talk with attendees afterwards, some of whom have actual music backgrounds! One woman, Peggy Wang, a Boston-area violinist, seemed completely enthralled with the whole experience. It's interactions such as this that make all the efforts at creating effective accompaniment worthwhile.

We'll see what I can do later today with screenings of the Epstein/Bunuel version of 'The Fall of the House of Usher' (1928) and 'The Smiling Madame Buedet' (1928). The titles are being run today at 4 p.m. at the Carpenter Center as part of a class in silent cinema led by Adam Hart.

Later, on Sunday, Nov. 2, I'm doing music for a double bill of obscure silent Fritz Lang titles being screened by the Harvard Film Archive, which runs an ambitious schedule of repertory programs in the same theater.

The program is at 7 p.m. and includes 'The Wandering Image' (1921) and 'Fighting Hearts' (1922), both of which are new to me. The Lang films lend themselves to my musical strengths, I think (the big gesture), so I'm looking forward to helping bring them to life.

A scene from Fritz Lang's early film 'The Wandering Image' (1921), considered lost for decades until a print was discovered in Brazil.

And then on Tuesday, Nov. 4, a new challenge beckons at the Carpenter Center: my first-ever Japanese silent, "I Was Born, But..." (1932), directed by Yasujiro Ozu. I'm very much looking forward to scoring this one, as it's an unusual film with a whole different sensibility than most silent cinema. I'm not sure what I'll do just yet, but I hope to create music that brings this quality out.

The only downside to this whole adventure has been fighting the traffic in and out of Boston. The Harvard folks have been great in terms of arranging parking passes and the like. But they can't do much about road construction on Memorial Drive, which I think has been going on since the silent film era.

The upside to this, however, is that I'm developing a much better understanding of the small one-way streets of Cambridge, Mass. Need directions?

Virginia Prescott of New Hampshire Public Radio's 'Word of Mouth.'

On the radio: Tomorrow (Wednesday, Oct. 22), I've been invited to drop by the studios of New Hampshire Public Radio for a pre-Halloween segment with Virginia Prescott, host of the station's popular "Word of Mouth" program.

It's a real treat to do this. Not only will it provide a nice publicity boost for several upcoming Halloween screenings, but Virginia is one of those people who seem to bring out the best in anyone she speaks with.

I once thought my high point in terms of public radio celebrity interaction was bumping into Tom and Ray Magliozzi (the "Car Talk" brothers) some years ago in an elevator at the studios of WBUR in Boston.

But that encounter has since been surpassed by my interactions with Virginia. For one thing, she has much better hair than either of the Car Talk guys.

I'm not sure when the 'Word of Mouth' segment will air, but I'll post the info here as soon as I know. The station's Web address is: http://www.nhpr.org.

Virginia Prescott making a gesture that I expect to see a lot of tomorrow, given my inability to stop talking.