Thursday, April 23, 2015

More than your average post: Keaton, Griffith,
the Packard Center, Ben Cohen, and more!

A documentary film crew will be on hand for our screening of Keaton's 'The General' (1926) on Sunday, April 26 at 4:30 p.m. in Wilton, N.H.

How would you like to be in the movies by going to the movies?

That's what might happen on Sunday, April 26 when a documentary film crew will be on hand for our screening of Buster Keaton's 'The General' (1926) at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.

They're from Merge Creative Media in New York City, and they're working on a feature-length documentary on the continuing popularity of Keaton's comedy.

To do that, they're looking to talk with folks after our show—a double-bill that includes Raymond Griffith's 'Hands Up!' (1926) followed by Buster's 'General.'

They're both comedies set during the U.S. Civil War, which ended 150 years ago this very month—hence the program. The fun begins at 4:30 p.m. Admission is free, with a suggested donation of $5 per person to help defray costs.

If anyone out there is making a documentary about Raymond Griffith, feel free to show up and interview our audience members as well!

Lots more info about Sunday's below in a press release (below) that went out earlier this month. But first a few things to cover...

• Visiting the archives: You know that scene at the end of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' when the Ark of the Covenant is placed a massive government warehouse?

I couldn't help thinking about that last Saturday, when I got a tour of the Packard Campus of the National Audio Visual Conservation Center out in Culpeper, Va.

The facility, about an hour's drive south of Washington, D.C., is home to the bulk of the media operations of the Library of Congress. It handles pretty much everything connected to recorded sounds or images: acquiring materials and equipment, conserving and preserving them, and housing them in permanent climate-controlled storage.

As curator Rob Stone took me through the place, I just could not get over the scale of what I was seeing. Stepping through Maxwell Smart-like sets of doors, we entered corridor upon corridor of metal-doored vaults filled with fragile nitrate film, all of it in cans stacked neatly on fire retardant shelving in concrete units chilled to 38 degrees Fahrenheit. Altogether 124 vaults make up the largest nitrate film storage facility in the Western hemisphere.

A corridor in the Packard Center's nitrate film vault area.

And that was nothing compared to the enormous quantity of safety film also kept in cold storage on site. The underground bunkers go on seemingly to infinity, prompting the thoughts of 'Raiders.' I'm told there are 90 miles of shelving in use here. The place overall maintains something like 7 million artifacts, with thousands more arriving every day.

When and if I get a chance to return, I hope to write a long post about the Packard Center. There's so much going on there that anyone with the slightest interest in film and media would find it fascinating on many levels. I know I did.

I mean, what can you say about a place where cans of film—some of it priceless—arrive by the pallet-load? Just one example: Jerry Lewis recently agreed to donate his entire archive (about 4,000 reels of 35mm film amassed over the course of his long career) to the Packard Center. So Rob Stone has been working with Lewis and his family to catalog the newly arrived material and shepherd it into the archives.

But then there are the rooms full of equipment used to work with obsolete media formats, and the weird custom-built machinery used to transfer material from several dozen videocassettes at once to digital file formats—and of course the story of the facility itself.

Tucked into the side of a hill, it's no accident that the Packard Center looks a bit like a fortress. It was originally built by the U.S. Federal Reserve in the 1960s as a secret facility to store U.S. currency in case of a Cold War emergency! It was also set up to function as a command center for government functions in the event of nuclear attack.

The place was decommissioned in 1993, and sold to philanthropist David Packard in 1997. Unbelievably, Packard sunk $150 million of his own money (Congress chipped in $82 million) to transform it into a state-of-the-art preservation mecca to centralize the far-flung audio/visual holdings of the Library of Congress.

And then Packard gave it back to the government! I'm told it's the second-largest gift ever to the feds, exceeded only by the Smithsonian Institution.

An exterior view of the above-ground part of the Packard Center. (It's actually built into the side of a hill.

The place opened in 2007, and even includes a well-appointed theater that runs regular vintage film programs. (It's one of the very few theaters in the nation that can legally project nitrate film.)

The interior of the Packard Center's theater, complete with organ, which malfunctioned recently, prompting the call for piano accompaniment.

That's why I was there: Rob had an opening for someone to accompany a Gloria Swanson program on Saturday, April 18, and I was fortunate enough to be invited to come down.

Rob was a great host, even taking me out to dinner with his wife Jody prior to the show.

The evening's feature was 'Zaza,' a big Paramount costume story which I hadn't seen before but which followed the usual pattern of Gloria's starring vehicles.

The only surprise came from the theater's digital piano. About half-way into the picture, I lost the lower half of the keyboard! For some reason, the notes below middle C just stopped playing.

Luckily, it was a quiet part of the film, so it seemed natural to restrict the music to the upper registers while I pondered what to do.

I didn't mind it right then, but I knew if I didn't find a way to restore the lower notes, I would start to go insane, as would the audience.

What happened was that I had grazed one of the many "setting" buttons that are flush with the keys (bad design there), partially activating a function designed to play chords instead of just single notes. I say "partially" because I only got as far as losing the individual notes, but I somehow hadn't completed whatever sequence of buttons was required to start up the chord function.

So I scanned the buttons, all the while accompanying Gloria, and found one that seemed the likely culprit: it was marked "Chords" and was glowing red.

I weighed the odds. If I pressed it again, there was a good chance that it would cancel the uncompleted chord activation and restore my keyboard, which would be great.

On the other hand, there was a chance that pressing it would activate a bossa nova rhythm, or a speed guitar function, or some other setting that would create a sonic train wreck.

As I had no other options, I went ahead and pressed it—and it worked! The light went off and all my notes were restored. I was never so glad to play octaves in the bass!

And this reminded me of something attributed to Winston Churchill: "There is nothing as exhilarating as getting shot at and missed." He was right!

But many thanks to Rob Stone and Mike Mashon and everyone else at the Packard Center who put on a great program and made me feel welcome the entire time I was there. I'm looking forward to returning with more time to explore the collection.

For a more complete look at the Packard, check out this story from Washingtonian magazine. And here's a Washington Post piece about the place.

• What's old is new: For several years, a high school student and movie buff named Matt Bilodeau helped me with a monthly silent film series at the Manchester (N.H.) City Library.

Well, Matt went on to attend Keene (N.H.) State College, where he's now a sophomore and taking a film production class this semester.

I was delighted to find out that for his class project, Matt and his roommate had created a short silent film. And I was even more delighted to be asked to create music to accompany it.

So last Wednesday, I hauled out to Keene and we recorded several takes for the five-minute comedy, titled 'Tripping Across the Way.'

Working with 16mm film, Matt and his classmates had fashioned something that captured the dream-like quality of the silent film experience. Bravo!

Also, Matt said he hoped to create a film that looked like a silent film of the 1920s, but had more contemporary content. I think he succeeded on both counts!

See what you think: the film is online and available for all to see.

• Who are you? Time for another edition of "Brush With Greatness," in which I encounter bewildered celebrities. This time the victim is Ben Cohen, the "Ben" of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream. Here's a picture of us together:

Ben and Jeffy (not Jerry) at the Airport Diner in Manchester, N.H.

Ben (and his partner Jerry Greenfield, who wasn't with him) is one of my business idols. Another one is Charles Ives, who died in 1954, so I won't be meeting him anytime soon.

So I was happy to connect with Ben, who was in our town of Manchester, N.H. to promote his campaign to get big money out of politics. He was great to talk with, and seemed delighted that I use a book about the early days of Ben & Jerry's as one of the texts of a writing class I sometimes teach.

But what does this have to do with silent film?

Well, our paths crossed by virtue of local restaurant magnate Alex Ray, owner of the Common Man group of restaurants here in New Hampshire. Alex also owns the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H., so that's the flimsy excuse I have for including my encounter with Ben in this already overly long blog post.

I actually gave Ben my silent film accompanist card (as well as my standard day job publishing card), and he was polite enough to seem pretty impressed.

And I'm sorry, but that's all the time we have for "Brush With Greatness."

• Back to the program: Okay, about this weekend's program at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre. Here's the long-awaited text of the press release. Hope to see you there!

* * *

One war, two comedies: Raymond Griffith in 'Hands Up!' (1926), our companion feature to 'The General.'

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Silent film classic 'The General' with live music in Wilton (N.H.) on Sunday, April 26

Buster Keaton's U.S. Civil War comic masterpiece to be screened with companion feature, 'Hands Up!' in honor of 150th anniversary of war's ed

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

See for yourself with a screening of 'The General' (1926), one of Keaton's landmark feature films, at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre on Sunday, April 26 at 4:30 p.m. The show is free and open to the public with suggested $5 donation.

The program, which includes a companion Civil War comedy 'Hands Up!' (1926), will be accompanied by live music performed by silent film composer Jeff Rapsis.

"This month marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, so we thought a fitting way to commemorate this milestone would with a double feature of silent films set during that period," Rapsis said.

'The General' tells the story of a Confederate locomotive engineer (Keaton) whose engine is hijacked by Northern spies with his girlfriend on board. Keaton, stealing another train, races north in pursuit behind enemy lines. Can he rescue his girl? And can he steal his locomotive and make it back to warn of a coming Northern attack?

Critics have called 'The General' Keaton's masterpiece, praising its authentic period detail, ambitious action and battle sequences, and its overall integration of story, drama, and comedy. It's also regarded as one of Hollywood's great train films, with much of the action occurring on or around moving steam locomotives.

Also on the program is another comedy set during the Civil War, 'Hands Up!' (1926), starring Raymond Griffith, a once-popular silent film star with boyhood ties to New Hampshire.

Long before he entered the movies, as a student Griffith attended St. Anselm prep school in Goffstown in the early 20th century.

A talented actor and comedian, Griffith became a major comic star in the 1920s for Paramount Pictures. Unfortunately, most of his films are lost, making it difficult to assess his career and talents today.

In 'Hands Up!' Griffith plays a wily Confederate spy charged with preventing a shipment of Western gold from reaching Union forces. The film is regarded as the best of Griffith's few surviving pictures.

While Griffith's work has languished in obscurity, Keaton's films are more popular than ever.

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

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

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

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

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

"What makes the film so special is the way the timing, audacity and elegant choreography of its sight gags, acrobatics, pratfalls and dramatic incidents is matched by Buster's directorial artistry, his acute observational skills working alongside the physical élan and sweet subtlety of his own performance."
—Time Out (London)
Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film musician who has accompanied shows at venues across New England, said films from the silent era were not made to be viewed at home on online. By running a monthly series, the Wilton Town Hall Theatre lets people experience silent film as it was meant to be seen—in high quality prints, on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"All those elements are important parts of the silent film experience," said Rapsis, who will improvise the musical score on the spot as the films screen. "Recreate those conditions, and the classics of early Hollywood leap back to life in ways that can still move audiences today."

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

Buster Keaton's 'The General' (1926) and Raymond Griffith's 'Hands Up!' (1926) will be shown on Sunday, April 26 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 60 Main St., in Wilton N.H. The program is open to the public. Suggested donation $5. For more info, visit; for more info on the music, visit

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