The Palace Theatre in Syracuse, N.Y., gradually fills with Cinefest attendees.
Today brought the grand finalé: an off-site trip to the Palace Theatre for a day-long program of 35mm film. It was also my first chance for "quality time" with legendary accompanist Phil Carli, who'd been suffering a cold all weekend and spending a lot of time resting, but still tackling films with a "show must go on" attitude.
But first we had to get to the theater. Phil knew where it was, so I followed him in his big blue Olds Ninety-Eight as we hopped on Interstate 81, then through neighborhood streets until reaching the Palace.
Despite the name, the theater is no movie palace from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Rather, it's a very homey one-screen neighborhood film house with about 500 seats and a modest balcony. As a throwback to the days when movie theaters were part of any urban streetscape, I loved the place immediately. The projectionist late told me it's one of only three theaters in all of Syracuse that can still run 35mm film.
We came early (before Cinefest attendees began arriving by school bus) to check out the keyboard (a Yamaha clavinova) and sound arrangements. Inside, we found the house sound tech setting up a microphone to rest on the keyboard. Phil surprised me by aggressively ordering the tech to not mike the piano and not feed it through the house sound. "I don't want it to sound like it's a recorded score," Phil said loudly, and in a tone that indicated he wasn't fooling around.
Fellow accompanist Andrew Simpson had arrived by then, and we both stood by as Phil asked for adjustments, deferring to his "senior" status. Eventually, yes, the microphone was shut off and we just used the Yahama's built-in output. What Phil was after, of course, was what a genuine acoustic piano would sound like, with the music definitely coming from it rather than from speakers around the room.
This was at odds with my general desire to aim for sound that does approximate a movie score effect, meaning I generally like to hook up the synthesizer output to house sound whenever possible. But for the solo piano sound in a modest theater, Phil was right, I think: coming from the house sound system would have been too much, or at least a disorientating distraction.
A pre-show visit of critic/author Leonard Maltin at the keyboard prompted photos of the accompanists, including this one of all three. Phil, a big guy, joked that in any photo, he's always the one looming in from the side. This prompted Maltin to recall something that Milton Berle once told him: in any photo, make sure you're standing on the left. Why?
"Because that way, you'll always be the first name in the caption," Maltin said. Wow! I told him that in 25 years of the newspaper business, I'd never heard that little pearl of wisdom, as practical as it is true. I guess that's one reason to go to an event such as Cinefest. Here's Mr. Maltin with yours truly:
The day-long program opened with a series of comedy shorts, and once again I elected to go first, in part because later in the morning, I'd play the first feature, and also because my style is "thinner" than what both Andrew and Phil do with comedies, and I didn't want my work to seem like a let-down after their work.
Well, luck was with me, as 'No Children' (1929) was a wonderful film that got a big audience reaction. It took awhile for me to find the melody, but once that happened, I kept up with the film and things seemed to hold together. After that, I sat back in astonishment as Andrew and Phil tackled short comedies starring Hank Mann, Stan Laurel, and Ford Sterling, the latter of which made extensive use of an electric chair. I continue to be amazed at what these guys can do on the fly to bring these films to life: Andrew's jazzed-up treatment of "La Marseillaise" for Stan Laurel's attempts to sell a book on Napoleon, and Phil crashing all over the keyboard during the frantic Sterling film.
I later asked Phil about his approach, and he told me something very illuminating. When accompanying a film, he doesn't play the piano. Rather, he's imagining the varied timbres of the entire orchestra, conjuring them up through the keyboard. And hearing him play, that really was true: you could hear a shrill E flat clarinet line climbing out of the dense harmonies, followed sudden string tremolos, then the crash of percussion in abrupt bass discords. It made me think of how Liszt did the same thing in transcribing the Beethoven symphonies — evoking the whole orchestra through the keyboard. It's a level of musicianship that I don't think I could ever hope to reach, but knowing that will help me do more with my own attempts, I think.
Phil is the nicest person you could imagine, but he has very definite opinions about certain things, and does not hesitate to share them. Don't get him started on Charles Ives, for instance, whom Carli immediately branded a "complete charlatan" in conversation with Andrew. (Phil went on to say he despised the music of Copland, Bernstein, and basically all 20th century American composers, and that the best U.S. composer was George Whitefield Chadwick.) But somehow, I found this refreshing, harking back to a time when people could have opinions and completely disagree but still be agreeable, which Phil always was.
If 'No Children' went well, then the Clara Bow feature 'Get Your Man' (1927) was a romp. Started strong with a bluesy-Gershwiny thing I sometimes pull out, and all seemed to go smoothly after that, even with an in-progress restoration print that had something like 200 splices in it. Most interesting for me was a six-minute sequence of titles inserted in place of two missing reels — for some reason, I could do music for these that seemed to really click, and it all came across very effectively, I thought.
In doing music for 'Get Your Man,' two other old themes bubbled up: a "love" theme created for 'The Mask of Zorro' (1920) that was a nice contrast to the bouncy Gershwinish main theme, and also a minuet that was originally a tune I found myself singing to my dogs. Thankfully, none of the splices let go, and I felt the whole score really held together and supported the picture effectively. Afterwards, I received many kind comments from people, including noted film preservationist David Shepard, who was in attendance.
Alas, things went a little less smoothly for Andrew in 'Mr. Fix-It' (1918), a fun early comedy from Douglas Fairbanks. Andrew was doing a great job with the music, but the film broke during a reel change, causing the screen to go dark. Andrew was in the middle of a busy passage at the time, and he just kept playing, even when the house lights came up. With no sense of how long the interlude would be, Andrew kept up the energy, and then started notching it up little by little, until finally the audience began applauding. Andrew then switched to something lighter, but augmented it with some "shooting the keyboard" moves in fine Chico Marx style. It was a superb example of how to fill time!
Weird: At one point during 'Mr. Fix-It,' I felt a tingling on my wrist. "This film is really affecting me," I thought, briefly scratching the spot. But then it happened again, and again. Whatever. However, after the lights came up, I found I had been sitting where someone had spilled a soda, and little red ants were swarming at my feet! Yeesh! Ah, the glamorous life of silent film accompaniment.
And then it was lunchtime, so I wandered around the theater to take some pictures. Here's the projection booth, with the twin Century machines already loaded with the opening afternoon feature, 'Hail the Woman' (1920).
And here's a shot of the theater's vintage lobby:
I then go check on Phil, who had gone back to his car to get some rest. Finding him resting comfortably in the passenger seat with a blindfold on, I moseyed down the street to explore not one but two local bookstores, making this part of Syracuse a good candidate for the land that time forgot.
In one, I found a couple of older paperback Vonneguts that I scooped up for my collection, and had a long chat with Cinfest regular Rick Scheckman, who's on the staff of "Late Show With David Letterman" and a real knowledgeable film guy. In another, I found a pile of interesting railroad publications, including a copy of "36 Miles of Trouble," a book about the West River Railroad, a long-gone shortline that linked the Vermont communities of Brattleboro and Londonderry. I bought it for Phil, a railroad buff, thinking he might enjoy it.
I missed the afternoon's films as I had mid-term exams to read and wanted to get in my New York State run, too. (Ended up doing 8.3 miles.) After the others came back, I joined Phil and his family and Andrew and Rob Stone for dinner at The Mission, a terrific Tex-Mex restaurant housed in an ex-church in downtown Syracuse. Hey, what better way to spend St. Patrick's Day?
And that was it for film accompaniment, or so I thought. That evening, Andrew was to do the only silent: the recent color restoration of 'A Trip To The Moon' (1903), with David Shepard narrating. (I suggested using the synthesizer to add some weirdness to the moon scenes, but Andrew wisely demurred due to lack of rehearsal.) Below, here's a picture of Andrew prior to 'A Trip To The Moon' as he might have been rendered by one of the French Impressionists of the period.
But afterwards, a reel of recently recovered Clara Bow silent material was screening, and I wound up at the keyboard in what turned into a disjointed scramble to keep up with the rapidly shifting images. Well, you do the best you can and hope it helped people enjoy the clips.
And that was it. I fell asleep in my room after that, missing out on any Saturday night fun in the Hospitality Room on the 6th floor. Oh well! The next morning was higlighted by breakfast with Andrew and Rob at Carl's Kountry Kitchen, a place that looked like it hadn't been altered since Lyndon B. Johnson was in the White House.
I liked everything about it, especially this curious message: