Thursday, November 8, 2018

Armistice Day +100: Sunday, Nov. 11 at 2 p.m.:
scoring 'The Big Parade' at Somerville Theatre

Tom O'Brien, John Gilbert, and Karl Dane sharing a foxhole in the World War I drama 'The Big Parade' (1925).

In introducing films lately, I've found myself choking up a bit when I get to the upcoming 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, when the guns in Europe went silent.

Well, the long march to the big day is nearing an end. On Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018, it will be a full century since World War I ended.

On that day, I'm honored to do live music for one of the great films about that conflict, 'The Big Parade' (1925) at the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.

We're using a 35mm print for the screening, which starts at 2 p.m. More info is available in the press release I've pasted in below, and I hope you'll attend.

The emotional thing happened again last night prior to a screening of 'Wings' (1927) for a packed house at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H. Introducing the film, I kinda choked up for a moment.

Just before the show: a full house settles in for 'Wings.'

I thought about it, and I recognized a pattern: it always happens when I say that no one is among us who was there: who wore the uniform, who shipped off to Europe, who fought alongside others, who awoke 100 years ago this Sunday to the blessed sound of silence.

And that gets to me, I think, because it so vividly illustrates the impermanence of what we as human beings experience.

On Nov. 11, 1918, the entire human race, more or less, shared the experience knowing that a huge and unthinkably awful war had finally ended. It was a conflict that would cast a shadow over the next century and beyond, influencing events around us even day.

But now, just a few generations later, the human experience of World War I produces a silence that's different from that heard on the European battlefields that morning. It's the eternal silence that subsumes everything as the present becomes the past—the past which every passing day and month and year bury deeper and deeper, as it inevitably must.

It's a process that humans grapple with in many different ways. It's the root of everything from hoarding to ancestor worship. We don't want to lose the past. But the passage of time divorces us from it just the same.

I think that's a big reason why I'm drawn to films of the silent era. When we run them, for just a little while, the past is not lost. We breathe life into it and can get a sense of what it was like when the past was the present.

In a way, by showing these films, we're able to hear from people who can no longer speak for themselves. And I find that's what stirs my emotions.

To me, it's a certain kind of special magic that I think is worth experiencing—especially if it involves a good story, a good cast, and a director with an eye for the visual.

'Wings' has all that, and generated a huge reaction from our sold-out house last night at Red River Theatres.

I want to thank my colleagues at the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire for supporting the event, and Red River for continuing to find room for silent film with live music in their schedule.

So as the actual 100th anniversary of Armistice Day approaches, I hope you'll join me at the Somerville Theatre for a 35mm print of one of the great World War I flicks: 'The Big Parade.'

Details below!

* * *

An original poster for 'The Big Parade.'

Contact Jeff Rapsis at (603) 236-9237 • e-mail

Epic WWI drama 'The Big Parade' to be screened in 35mm on Sunday, Nov. 11 at Somerville Theatre

To be shown with live music on 100th anniversary of 1918 Armistice; blockbuster silent film changed the way Hollywood depicted battle on the screen

SOMERVILLE, Mass. — It was the 'Saving Private Ryan' of its time — a movie that showed audiences war as experienced by a front line soldier whose life is changed forever by its horrors.

It was 'The Big Parade' (1925), a sprawling World War I epic and a box office sensation that made MGM into a powerhouse studio. It's the latest installment of 'Silents, Please!,' a silent film series with live music at the Somerville Theatre.

'The Big Parade' will be screened in 35mm one time only at the Somerville Theatre on Sunday, Nov. 11 at 2 p.m. General admission is $15; seniors/students $12.

The Veterans Day screening coincides with the 100th anniversary of the Armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, which ended the fighting of World War I.

The show will feature live accompaniment by silent film musician Jeff Rapsis.

'The Big Parade,' released just a few years after World War I ended, was hailed by critics as the first Hollywood film to depict the harsh reality of combat and its impact on troops. Its hellish battle scenes were staged on a massive scale and still retain their ability to shock audiences.

The picture, based on the best-selling novel "What Price Glory?", follows the story of a young man (John Gilbert) who rebels against his privileged background by enlisting in the army just before the U.S. enters World War I.

He is shipped out to France, where he falls in love with a local French woman before being transferred to the front. There, he and his squadmates face the German war machine, where they must endure the ultimate tests of duty and honor in a battle they come to see as meaningless.

Renée Adorée and John Gilbert in 'The Big Parade.'

In addition to vivid war scenes, the film contains a famous dramatic sequence in which the French woman (Renée Adorée) realizes her love for the soldier, and tries to find him to say goodbye as the massive convoy of troops pulls out for the front. Another celebrated sequence depicts the light-hearted first meeting of the soldier and the girl, in which he teaches her how to chew gum.

'The Big Parade' went on to become the top-grossing movie of the entire silent film era, earning $6.4 million domestically and making director King Vidor into the Steven Spielberg of his day. It stood as MGM's biggest single box office hit until the release of 'Gone With the Wind' in 1939.

"We felt screening 'The Big Parade' on Sunday, Nov. 11 was a suitable way to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armistice," said Somerville manager Ian Judge. "World War I is now part of history, but this picture is from a time when it was foremost in people's minds. What was then called 'The Great War' was the 9/11 of its day, and this film captures that intensity and allows us to experience it today."

Rapsis will improvise a musical score to the film in real time. In creating accompaniment for the 'The Big Parade' and other vintage classics, Rapsis tries to bridge the gap between silent film and modern audiences.

"Live music adds an element of energy to a silent film screening that's really crucial to the experience," Rapsis said. " 'The Big Parade' is filled with great scenes that lend themselves well to music. It's a real privilege to create a score to help this great picture come back to life," Rapsis said.

All entries in the Somerville's silent film series are shown using 35mm prints, the native film format that few theaters are now equipped to run following Hollywood's transition to digital formats.

MGM's silent blockbuster ‘The Big Parade’ will be shown in 35mm and with live music on Sunday, Nov. 11 at 2 p.m. at Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.

Admission to the screening is $15 or $12 seniors/students; general admission seating. For more info, call (617) 625-5700 or visit For more info on the music, visit

Sunday, November 4, 2018

'Wings' and other silent films set in WWI:
often the drama is about returning home

The silent film 'Wings' is all about airplanes.

So it's fitting that I'm posting this preview of the film (which I'm accompanying this week in Concord, N.H.) from an eastbound JetBlue Airbus 321 somewhere high above Nebraska.

Actually, the altitude is now exactly 34,793 feet, according the readout on the seatback video screen in front of me.

I'm heading home after accompanying a William S. Hart drama, 'The Cradle of Courage' (1920), last night at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont, Calif.

Before I get to 'Wings,' a few thoughts about the Hart drama, which was unusual. Unlike so many of his features, it's not a Western. Instead, it's about doughboys returning home to city life (in this case, San Francisco) after World War I.

And with the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day coming up next weekend, I was glad for the chance to see this rarely screened Hart opus, in which our hero gives up his pre-war occupation as a crook to become a policeman instead. And the 16mm print at the Niles Museum was a stunner: sharp, with great tonal values throughout.

'The Cradle of Courage' offers a strong dose of life as it was lived in the nation's cities a century ago. The settings are real and grim, including many exterior shots filmed on location in the city by the Bay. Dialogue in the intertitles is filled with antique argot and colorful tough-guy slang.

A not-so-young soldier William S. Hart (he was over 50 at the time) wanders the streets of old San Francisco after returning home in 'Cradle of Courage.'

But it's especially powerful as a reminder that those who served in what we now call World War I often faced fresh battles upon returning home. And that's worth remembering as we approach the centennial of the day the guns went silent.

You can see that same dynamic in other World War I movies of the silent era. It's in 'Wings' (1927), which I'm accompanying this Wednesday, and also 'The Big Parade' (1925), which I'm doing music for on Sunday, Nov. 11 at the Somerville Theatre. Both have powerful and bittersweet "returning home" scenes.

My own homecoming later today will involve mostly getting licked by two dogs. So as centennial of Armistice Day approaches, it's worth remembering how so many did not have it so easy.

And one way to remember those who served, and to honor their sacrifices, is to take in a movie such as 'Wings.' I think a mainstream film aimed at a general audience captures some of the excitement and also the dread of the war in a manner quite different from any history book or documentary.

Well, this week, you can see for yourself. More info about our screening of 'Wings' at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H. is in the press release below. Hope to see you there!

* * *

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Epic silent film 'Wings' (1927) on Wednesday, Nov. 7 at Red River Theatres

Story of U.S. aviators in World War I won first-ever 'Best Picture'; screening to feature live musical accompaniment

CONCORD, N.H.—It won 'Best Picture' at the very first Academy Awards, with spectacular airborne sequences and a dramatic story that still mesmerizes audiences today.

'Wings' (1927), a drama about U.S. aviators in the skies over Europe during World War I, will be shown on Wednesday, Nov. 7 at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H.

The screening is in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, which ended the "Great War" and which led to our modern observance of Veterans Day.

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

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

The show will allow audiences to experience 'Wings' the way its makers originally intended: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

'Wings,' a blockbuster hit in its original release, recounts the adventures of U.S. pilots flying combat missions behind enemy lines at the height of World War I in Europe. 'Wings' stunned audiences with its aerial dogfight footage, vivid and realistic battle scenes, and dramatic love-triangle plot.

'Wings' stars Clara Bow, Charles 'Buddy' Rogers, and Richard Arlen. The rarely-seen film also marked one of the first screen appearances of Gary Cooper, who plays a supporting role. Directed by William Wellman, 'Wings' was lauded by critics for its gripping story, superb photography, and technical innovations.

'Wings' is notable as one of the first Hollywood films to take audiences directly into battlefield trenches and vividly depict combat action. Aviation buffs will also enjoy 'Wings' as the film is filled with scenes of vintage aircraft from the early days of flight.

Seen today, the film also allows contemporary audiences a window into the era of World War I, which was underway in Europe a century ago.

" 'Wings' is not only a terrific movie, but seeing it on the big screen is also a great chance to appreciate what earlier generations of servicemen and women endured," accompanist Jeff Rapsis said. "It's a war that has faded somewhat from our collective consciousness, but it defined life in the United States for a big chunk of the 20th century. This film captures how World War I affected the nation, and also shows in detail what it was like to serve one's country a century ago."

Rapsis, a composer who specializes in film music, will create a score for 'Wings' on the spot, improvising the music as the movie unfolds to enhance the on-screen action as well as respond to audience reactions. Rapsis performs the music on a digital synthesizer, which is capable of producing a wide range of theatre organ and orchestral textures.

"Live music was an integral part of the silent film experience," Rapsis said. "At the time, most films weren't released with sheet music or scores. Studios relied on local musicians to come up with an effective score that was different in every theater. At its best, this approach created an energy and a connection that added a great deal to a film's impact. That's what I try to recreate," Rapsis said.

'Wings' is about 2½ hours long. The film is a family-friendly drama but not suitable for very young children due to its length and intense wartime battle scenes.

‘Wings’ (1927) starring Clara Bow, Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen will be shown with live music on Wednesday, Nov. 7 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H.

Tickets $12 adults, general admission. For more info, visit or call (603) 224-4600.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Marking a century since the Armistice with shows in San Francisco, Boston, and more

'Barbed Wire' (1927), a World War I drama starring Pola Negri, to be screened at the Manchester (N.H.) Historic Association on Wednesday, Nov. 28.

And now for today's almanac: It's Thursday, Nov. 1. Halloween is over, and a new month beckons.

And this November is a little different because it contains a major milestone: the 100th anniversary of the Armistice.

Yes—it was on Nov. 11, 1918 that the horrific fighting in Europe and elsewhere came to a halt. And here we are, headed to Nov. 11, 2018, just a few days away.

Over the years, Armistice Day morphed into Veterans Day—still observed each Nov. 11, but not specifically in honor of those who served in World War I.

Now, a century after the guns went silent, there's no one among us who was actually there. It's become history.

But not quite.

Because World War I was the 9/11 of its day, it's no surprise that films throughout the 1920s used the conflict as a setting for stories of all types.

In fact, some of the biggest hits of the silent era were movies set during what was then called "the Great War."

John Gilbert (center) with his buddies in a foxhole in 'The Big Parade' (1925).

So although there's no direct human connection anymore, we can get a sense of the experience through the films that have come down to us.

And I'm pleased to report that I'll be doing live music this month for the screening of several World War I pictures—some classics, some not so well-known.

But each of them is a record of how World War I shaped a generation, and also cast a shadow over the remainder of the 20th century and beyond.

I hope you'll join me for some of these screenings. And I hope they allow us to reflect on events that may have come before all of us, but which helped shape us and the world we live in.

Here's a quick run-down of World War I films I'm doing this month. Updates and more info will come as each screening draws near.

Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, 7:30 p.m. "The Cradle of Courage" (1920) starring William S. Hart; the Edison Theatre at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, 37417 Niles Boulevard, Niles, Calif. Former crook 'Square' Kelly (William S. Hart) serves in the First World War. When he returns from the war, one of his comrades-in-arms convinces him to join the police force. But Kelly finds himself confronting the very criminals who made up his old gang. Also: newsreel battle footage from World War I. Wonderful vintage Edison theater from 1913 now fully restored; shows silent films with live music every week. Suggested admission $5 per person for members, $7 for "not yet members."

Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018, 7 p.m.: "Wings" (1927) starring Clara Bow, Buddy Rogers, Richard Arlen; in the Stonyfield Theatre at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H.; (603) 224-4600; In honor of Veterans Day as well as the 100th anniversary of the Armistice of Nov. 11, 1918 that ended World War I. Sweeping drama about fighter pilots in World War I; one of the great achievements of the silent cinema, winner of "Best Picture" at the first-ever Academy Awards. Compelling story, great performances, battle scenes filmed on an immense scale, and in-air aviation sequences that remain thrilling even today. With a young Gary Cooper playing a key role. Silent film with live music at this popular venue for independent and arthouse cinema in New Hampshire's state capital. Admission $12 per person.

• Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018, 2 p.m.: "The Big Parade" (1925), directed by King Vidor, starring John Gilbert and Renee Adoree; Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. Special Veterans Day screening on the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended the fighting of World War I. Sweeping saga about U.S. doughboys signing up and shipping off to France in 1917, where they face experiences that will change their lives forever—if they return. Print from the Library of Congress. The real deal! Silent film shown in 35mm on the big screen with live music.Join us for 'Silents, Please!' at the Somerville Theatre, a 100-year-old moviehouse committed to keeping alive the experience of 35mm film on the big screen. Featuring outstandingly exacting work of legendary projectionist David Kornfeld. For more info, call the theater box office at (617) 625-5700.

Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018, 4:30 p.m.: "Charlie Chaplin Short Comedies" starring Charlie Chaplin; Wilton Town Hall Theatre, Main Street, Wilton, N.H.; (603) 654-3456; Chaplin's fame as a filmmaker rests largely on his great feature-length films. But what about the short comedies that first rocketed him to fame? See for yourself what first made the Little Tramp a world-renowned icon as we run a family-friendly selection of his best short comedies. highlighted by Chaplin's World War I comedy 'Shoulder Arms' (1918). Monthly series of silent films with live music at a theater where movies have been shown since 1912! Admission free, donations of $5 per person encouraged.

Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018, 7 p.m.: "Barbed Wire" (1927) starring Pola Negri, Clive Brook. During World War I, the French government commandeers a family farm for use as a camp for German POWs, setting the local population at each other. Intense drama about forbidden love and the human condition with a special holiday twist. Silent film with live music at the Manchester (N.H.) Historic Association's Millyard Museum, 200 Bedford St., Manchester, N.H. Programmed in conjunction with current exhibit "Manchester and the Great War." Cost is $10 for MHA Members, $12 for general guests and includes refreshments. Call to reserve your spot (603) 622-7531 or visit to buy tickets online.

Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018, 7 p.m.: "The Big Parade" (1925), directed by King Vidor; Rogers Center for the Arts, Merrimack College, 315 North Turnpike St., North Andover, Mass. (978) 837-5355. Commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armistice with MGM's 'The Big Parade' (1925), the epic World War I adventure starring John Gilbert and Renee Adoré. Silent film with live music on the campus of Merrimack College. Free admission. For more information, visit the Rogers Center online.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

To scream or not to scream? Find out:
Attend 'Phantom' on 10/31 in Keene, N.H.

Lon Chaney as the Phantom: A face worth reacting to.

It's a movie-going experience worth screaming about.

Really! It's the original silent version of 'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925), which we're running on Halloween night (Wednesday, Oct. 31) at the Colonial Theatre in Keene, N.H.

Details in the press release below. But what about that screaming?

For the first third of the picture, the title character (played by Lon Chaney) sports a smooth mask that conceals his face.

Why? Well, we find out when the mask suddenly gets removed, revealing his true visage.

The mask-removal scene is an early masterpiece of timing and suspense, I think. The way it's edited, and of course Chaney's hideous make-up job, led Universal to warn theaters that doctors should be stationed at all screening to attend to those prone to fainting.

What an experience that must have been to early movie-goers! And it's hard for us to appreciate these days, nearly a century later, because—well, we've just seen it all.

But there IS a way to recapture some of that early shock that 'Phantom' gave audiences. And it's to employ the audience itself.

When I accompany 'Phantom' screenings around Halloween, I tell the crowd that they have a role to play.

When the Phantom is unmasked, their job is to scream. Loud!

And they do—sometimes for quite awhile. And the screaming, with the music rising up underneath and Lon Chaney glowering at the camera, creates a kind of emotional tidal wave that I think captures a something of the magic that early cinema offered its audiences.

I wouldn't do this at any other time of the year. (But then does 'Phantom' ever get shown other than at Halloween?) But around Halloween, it seems to help the film connect with people, many of whom are unfamiliar with silent film.

Plus it's pretty cool to actually hear a lot of people scream all at once. How often do you get a chance to experience that?

So think asking people to purposefully scream at the unmasking isn't turning the 'Phantom' into a gimmicky novelty or diminishing the film's impact.

I look at it like the sequence in 'Peter Pan' (1924) in which the audience is encouraged to applaud to restore Tinkerbell to life. It can really add to the experience, and encourage people to explore what else vintage cinema has to offer.

Trick or treat! And if you're anywhere near Keene, N.H., lend your voice to our chorus of screams by attending 'The Phantom of the Opera' on Wednesday, Oct. 31 at 7 p.m. Details below.

* * *

An original poster for 'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

'Phantom of the Opera' with live music at Colonial Theatre on Wednesday, Oct. 31

Celebrate Halloween with pioneer classic silent horror flick starring Lon Chaney in the title role

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

'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925), the silent big screen adaptation of the classic thriller, will be shown with live music on Wednesday, Oct. 31 at 7 p.m. at the Colonial Theatre, 95 Main St., Keene, N.H.

Live music will be performed by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Admission is $6.50 per person.

'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 screening.

"The original 'Phantom' is a film that seems to get creepier as more time passes," said Rapsis, who is based in New Hampshire and frequently accompanies films throughout the state. "It's a great way to celebrate Halloween, and also 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, creating a cadaverous skull-like visage. 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 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 Phantom of the Opera’ (1925) will be shown on Wednesday, Oct. 31 at 7 p.m. at the Colonial Theatre, 95 Main St., Keene, N.H. General admission $6.50 per person. For tickets and information, visit or call (603) 352-2033.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Great Popcorn Spill of 2018, plus Chaney's 'Hunchback' Sunday, 10/28 in Wilton, N.H.

A legendary local disaster is the Great Molasses Flood of 1919. Seriously! Click on the link and you'll see. (But come back!)

Well, to that catastrophe we can now as the Great Popcorn Spill of 2018. Again, seriously! (But no link as of yet.)

This happened on Friday, Oct. 26 at the Regent Theatre in Arlington, Mass., a close-in suburb of Boston.

I know because not only did I witness this disaster, I actually caused it.

What happened was I was at the keyboard below the stage, playing spooky warm-up music for one of the Regent's trademark original shows. That night, it was a tribute to iconic illusionist Harry Houdini, who died on Halloween in 1926, hence the timing.

The show included 'Terror Island' (1920), one of Houdini's starring silent pictures, with me on hand to do music, preceded by two local magicians who would recreate some of Houdini's astonishing feats live on stage.

It being a Regent spectacular, I wasn't surprised that the event was reserved seating. But as I sat there spinning spooky music prior to the show, I was surprised when a couple came in and had seats right behind me.

I mean right behind me. Like there was no room for their legs with the keyboard and me taking up all the space.

But we shifted things around a bit and they were fine with it, they said. So I continued until showtime, when Leland Stein of the Regent came down to cue me to stop so he could welcome everyone and get things started.

So I stopped, playing a cheesy fanfare to give Leland at least the status of a game show host.

People applauded (because I stopped, I assumed) but then Leland encouraged further applause for the accompanist, which ensued.

Okay, I thought, preparing to artfully swing around on the piano bench and acknowledge the warm welcome. Here we go...

...and BAM! My right hand sailed straight into a gargantuan tub of popcorn being held (not very tightly) by the poor guy behind me.

Before either of us could react, an absolute ERUPTION of popcorn exploded in all directions.

It covered the guy and his companion. It covered the seat and the floor. Drifts of it buried my sustain pedal under the keyboard. Not a single kernel was left in the bucket.

And the guy just sat there, expressionless, while I began making profuse apologies, and also tried not to laugh in his face.

He really did say nothing, even as I swung off the bench and slunk below Leland, squishing popcorn underfoot, to make my way up the aisle the concession counter in the lobby.

I came back with a replacement popcorn for the guy, who still displayed no emotion or reaction, and then began kicking drifts of spilled popcorn out from under my keyboard.

At intermission I approach the couple to offer a full apology. Finally the guy responded, but not in the way I expected.

Quietly and amiably, he said: "I thought it was funny."

Whew! I thought he was quietly summoning a curse on me, but instead he found the Great Popcorn Spill of 2018 entertaining. Duly noted. For future reference: if a film doesn't seem to be connecting with an audience, try throwing food at them. (Before they start throwing it at me.)

So I'm now in the Halloween Home Stretch, having played 'Faust' (1926) last night at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine, and prepping for Lon Chaney's 'Hunchback' (1923) at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

After that, all that remains (remains!) is 'Phantom' at the Colonial Theatre in Keene on Halloween itself. Then I can put away the cape and fake teeth for another year.

I'm actually quite excited about 'Phantom' because it's the first of two big shows at the Colonial, which opened as a silent film theater in 1924. And the Colonial's original opening night will be recreated in January with a screening of Chaney's 'Hunchback,' the first film to play there.

More on all that in weeks to come. For now, here's the press release about this afternoon's screening of 'Hunchback' in Wilton. It's a rainy afternoon here...good weather for movie-going!

* * *

Quasimodo (Lon Chaney) is offered a drink.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Chaney as Quasimodo in 'Hunchback of Notre Dame' on Sunday, Oct. 28 at Town Hall Theatre

Just in time for Halloween: Classic silent version starring Lon Chaney as Quasimodo to be presented with live music

WILTON, N.H.—It was a spectacular combination: Lon Chaney, the actor known as the "Man of 1,000 Faces," and Universal's big screen adaptation of Victor Hugo's sprawling tale of the tortured Quasimodo.

The result was the classic silent film version of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923), which will be shown just in time for Halloween at Wilton's Town Hall Theatre

Silent film with live music returns to the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, with the thriller 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' on Sunday, Oct. 28 at 4:30 p.m.

The special Halloween program will be presented with live music by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free, with a donation of $5 per person requested to help cover expenses.

The film is based on Victor Hugo's 1831 novel, and is notable for the grand sets that recall 15th century Paris as well as for Chaney's performance and make-up as the tortured hunchback Quasimodo.

The film elevated Chaney, already a well-known character actor, to full star status in Hollywood, and also helped set a standard for many later horror films, including Chaney's 'The Phantom of the Opera' in 1925.

While Quasimodo is but one of many interconnecting characters in the original Hugo novel, he dominates the narrative of this expensive Universal production.

In the story, Jehan (Brandon Hurst), the evil brother of the archdeacon, lusts after a Gypsy named Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller) and commands the hunchback Quasimodo (Chaney) to capture her.

Military captain Phoebus (Norman Kerry) also loves Esmeralda and rescues her, but the Gypsy is not unsympathetic to Quasimodo's condition, and an unlikely bond forms between them.

After vengeful Jehan frames Esmeralda for the attempted murder of Phoebus, Quasimodo's feelings are put to the test in a spectacular climax set in and around the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

As the hunchbacked bellringer Quasimodo, Chaney adorned himself with a special device that made his cheeks jut out grotesquely; a contact lens that blanked out one of his eyes; and, most painfully, a huge rubber hump covered with coarse animal fur and weighing anywhere from 30 to 50 pounds.

Chaney deeply identified with Quasimodo, the deformed bell-ringer at Notre Dame Cathedral who was deafened by his work. Chaney was raised by deaf parents and did a lot of his communication with mom and dad through pantomime.

“The idea of doing the picture was an old one of mine and I had studied Quasimodo until I knew him like a brother, knew every ghoulish impulse of his heart and all the inarticulate miseries of his soul,” Chaney told an interviewer with Movie Weekly magazine in 1923.

“Quasimodo and I lived together—we became one. At least so it has since seemed to me. When I played him, I forgot my own identity completely and for the time being lived and suffered with the Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

The film was a major box office hit for Universal Studios, and Chaney's performance continues to win accolades even today.

"An awe-inspiring achievement, featuring magnificent sets (built on the Universal backlot), the proverbial cast of thousands (the crowd scenes are mesmerizing) and an opportunity to catch Lon Chaney at his most commanding," wrote critic Matt Brunson of Creative Loafing in 2014.

Screening this classic version of 'Hunchback' provides local audiences the opportunity to experience silent film as it was intended to be shown: on the big screen, in restored prints, with live music, and with an audience.

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

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

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

'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923) starring Lon Chaney, will be screened with live music on Sunday, Oct. 28 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

Admission is free; a donation of $5 per person is requested to help defray expenses. For more info, call (603) 654-3456 or visit

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Taking a different approach to Halloween:
this year, no plan or pattern whatsoever!

Let's see. Tomorrow it's Frankenstein. Friday it's Houdini. On Saturday, it's Satan. And Sunday, a Hunchback.

With an appointment calendar like that, Halloween can't be far off. And sure enough, the big day itself arrives Wednesday next week, when I have a date with the Phantom of the Opera.

It's the busiest time of the year for silent film accompaniment. The calendar is packed with screenings for boys and ghouls in search of an other-worldly experience.

Hence I'm keeping appointments with everyone from the Vampire Nosferatu to Mephistopheles, a.k.a. Satan.

This variety is a change for me. For previous Halloweens, I've generally picked one film to concentrate on accompanying, and then taken it around to all the various venues looking for a silent film spook fix.

Also, I tried to focus on films that aren't shown as often as the two biggies: Murnau's 'Nosferatu' (1922) and Lon Chaney's 'Phantom of the Opera' (1925).

So one year it was Alfred Hitchcock's early silent thriller 'The Lodger' (1927). Another year it was 'The Cat and the Canary' (1927), Paul Leni's Gothic haunted house picture. And another year it was Barrymore's 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' (1920).

By concentrating on one film for Halloween and taking it on tour, so to speak, I could really get to know the picture, and so burnish the improv-based accompaniment to a high gloss.

Well, not this year. This time around, it's a different title for nearly every screening. The only repeats: two Phantoms and two Hunchbacks. Otherwise, it's one-offs throughout the season.

Which I don't mind. It's a different kind of challenge to create music for a variety of films, one after another. And I've always felt that for me, the key to doing it well was doing it a lot.

That's what happened last week, which included a four-day stretch of shows in three different states. On Thursday in Massachusetts, it was 'Hunchback of Notre Dame,' followed by 'Wings' (a non-Halloween title!) on Friday up in Maine. Then on Saturday, it was the German thriller 'Der Golem' (1921) over in Vermont then on Sunday 'The Phantom of the Opera' down in Massachusetts again.

And I have to say, but by the time I sat down at the keyboard on Sunday night at the Aeronaut Brewing Co. in Somerville, Mass., I felt I was playing with a fluency and ease that simply wasn't present when I started the four-day run.

So doing it a lot, and mixing up the titles to challenge myself, really seems to work for me.

Does it work for you? Find out by attending one of the upcoming Halloween screenings on my calendar:

• Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018, 7 p.m.: "Frankenstein program" at the Regent Theatre, 7 Medford St., Arlington, Mass.; (781) 646-4849. A triple feature of Frankenstein films, including the early (and short) silent Thomas Edison version. Tickets $8 per person. For more info:

• Friday, Oct. 26, 2018, 8 p.m. "Harry Houdini Celebration"; Regent Theatre, 7 Medford St., Arlington, Mass.; (781) 646-4849. Celebrate the birthday of Harry Houdini, legendary illusionist and escape artist, with an evening that combines live performance with a silent film starring Houdini himself as a James Bond-like action/adventure hero. Silent film with live music in a treasured neighborhood theater and performance space. Tickets $15 in advance, $20 at door. For more info:

• Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018, 7 p.m.: "Faust" (1926) directed by F.W. Murnau, starring Emil Jannings; Leavitt Theatre, 259 Main St. Route 1, Ogunquit, Maine; (207) 646-3123; Join us for another season of vintage cinema at the historic Leavitt Theatre. Emil Jannings stars in F.W. Murnau's terrifying version of the classic tale. A visual tour de force, full of creepy characters and frightening images. See great silent films with live music in a summer-only theater opened in 1923 and barely changed since. Admission $10 per person.

• Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018, 4:30 p.m.: "Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923) starring Lon Chaney; Wilton Town Hall Theatre, Main Street, Wilton, N.H.; (603) 654-3456; Just in time for Halloween! Lon Chaney stars in the original screen adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic novel about a deformed bellringer in medieval Paris. A moving and timeless drama filled with classic scenes and capped with a thrilling climax! Monthly series of silent films with live music at a theater where movies have been shown since 1912! Admission free, donations of $5 per person encouraged.

• Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018, 7 p.m.: "The Phantom of the Opera" (1925) starring Lon Chaney; Colonial Theatre, 95 Main Street, Keene, N.H.; (603) 352-2033; Celebrate Halloween with one of the all-time classics. Long before Andrew Lloyd Webber created the hit stage musical, this silent film adaptation starring Lon Chaney helped place 'Phantom' firmly in the pantheon of both horror and romance. Silent film with live music in a theater that originally opened as a silent movie house in 1924. Tickets: $6.50 per person, general admission.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The bells, bells, bells, bells, bells...
Accompanying 'Nosferatu' in Natick, Mass.

I will blink, and it will be Nov. 1.

That's what the last half of October feels like to a silent film accompanist.

Simply put, it's the busiest time of the year. And as you work your way through a calendar booked solid with screenings of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' and 'Phantom of the Opera,' the days (and nights) begin to blur.

By the time Halloween itself rolls around, you begin to feel the way Max Schreck looks in 'Nosferatu.'

Speaking of which, that's the next one up: on Sunday, Oct. 14, I'll accompany the original vampire movie at The Center for the Arts in the Natick, Mass.

The fun (meaning "fun" as in "funeral") begins at 4 p.m. Better to run film before sundown in case any real vampires are lurking about.

The one tricky thing about doing music for 'Nosferatu' is a clock that strikes 12 to signal midnight's arrival. It happens twice, so I guess it's actually two tricky things.

It's a small clock, and has an external striking mechanism (a skeleton hitting a gong) that's clearly visible when the clock appears on camera.

However, in both cases, the clock begins striking 12 before it's seen by the audience. Rather, the characters on screen hear it first, before we in the audience get to see it.

So in both cases, you have to know when to start the chiming. And you have to pace it to match the slow, deliberate pace of striking depicted in the movie.

And in order to fit in exactly 12, you have to continue for a couple of strokes after the camera cuts away.

For this sound, I use what I call a "dingy bell," which is one of those small rounded bells mounted to hotel desks or store counters. Hit the button on the top, and it delivers a nice crisp 'Ding!'

If it all works out, and you actually do fit in exactly 12 dings, steadily and as the sense of terror grows around it, the effect is truly ominous.

So can I manage to start in time so that all 12 strokes fit in naturally? Only one way to find out!

For more info and details about 'Nosferatu,' please check out the press release below.

And don't blink, because then it'll be Nov. 1, and you'll have missed it.

* * *

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Creepy classic thriller 'Nosferatu' coming to Natick's Center for the Arts on Sunday, Oct. 14

Celebrate Halloween with pioneer silent horror movie on the big screen with live music—see it if you dare

NATICK, Masss.—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 Sunday, Oct. 14 at 4 p.m. at the TCAN Center for the Arts, 14 Summer St., Natick, Mass.

The program will feature live music for the movie by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Admission is $10 per person for members; $12 for non-members. Tickets are available online at or at the door.

'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 convey unease and 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 enhance in improvising live music on the spot for the Red River screening.

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

In 'Nosferatu,' actor Max Schreck portrays the title character, a mysterious count from Transylvania who travels to the German city of Bremen to take up residence.

In the town, 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 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 intense 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.”

Despite the status of 'Nosferatu' as a landmark of early cinema, another scary aspect of the film is that 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.

Thus "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 appeared in a recent 'Sponge Bob Squarepants' espisode.

‘Nosferatu’ will be shown on Sunday, Oct. 14 at 4 p.m. at the TCAN Center for the Arts, 14 Summer St., Natick, Mass. Admission is $10 per person for members; $12 for non-members. Tickets are available online at or at the door.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

You always remember your first time: The comedy calm before the Halloween avalanche

A Swedish poster for Keaton's 'Seven Chances.'

So I'm doing music for Buster Keaton's great comedy 'Seven Chances' (1925) on Wednesday night.

And it's fitting that the comedy includes an avalanche, as it will be followed by an avalanche of Halloween-themed screenings starting this weekend.

But before we can get to 'Nosferatu' and 'Phantom' and 'Hunchback' and 'Faust' (all of which I'm doing before the month is out), we first must see if Buster can find a bride no later than 7 p.m.—today!

It's a first-time screening for the nice folks up in Grantham, N.H., and for this situation I've found 'Seven Chances' is a dependable and crowd-pleasing intro into the world of silent film.

One of the first rules of show biz is to always leave 'em wanting more. And I've yet to encounter an audience that, after experiencing 'Seven Chances,' wants less of Buster.

The screening is free and open to the public. So if you happen to find yourself in Grafton County, N.H. tomorrow night and are looking for something to do, please join us!

Details in the press release below...

* * *

Buster checks the waning moments of his bachelorhood in 'Seven Chances' (1925).

Contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Buster Keaton comedy 'Seven Chances' (1925) on Wednesday, Oct. 10 at Center at Eastman

Silent film presentation features classic race-to-the-finish romantic farce with live music

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

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

See for yourself with a screening of 'Seven Chances' (1925), one of Keaton's landmark feature films, on Wednesday, Oct. 10 in the Draper Room at the Center at Eastman, 1 Clubhouse Lane, Grantham, N.H.

The program starts at 7:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public. Live music for the movie will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

Adapted from a stage play, the story finds Buster learning that he'll inherit $7 million if he's married by 7 p.m. on his 27th birthday—that very day!

Buster's hurried attempts to tie the knot on his own go awry, but then a newspaper story changes the game, creating an avalanche of would-be brides who relentlessly pursue Buster as he searches for his one true love before the deadline.

Here come the brides...

'Seven Chances' was the first screen adaptation of the now-familiar story, since used in movies ranging from the Three Stooges in 'Brideless Groom' (1947) to Gary Sinyor's 'The Bachelor' (1999), a romantic comedy starring Chris O'Donnell and Renee Zellwinger.

The program will open with a short Keaton comedy as a warm-up to the main feature.

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, including some spectacular examples in 'Seven Chances.'

In reviving Keaton's 'Seven Chances,' organizers of the Music Department's concert series aim to show silent film as it was meant to be seen—in restored prints, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"All those elements are important parts of the silent film experience," said Rapsis, who will accompany the film. "Recreate those conditions, and classics of early Hollywood such as 'Seven Chances' leap back to life in ways that audiences still find entertaining."

Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra, creating a traditional "movie score" sound. He improvises the complete score in real time during the screening.

"Creating a movie score on the fly is kind of a high-wire act, but it can often make for more excitement than if everything is planned out in advance," Rapsis said.

Buster Keaton's 'Seven Chances' (1925) will be screened on Wednesday, Oct. 10 in the Draper Room at the Center at Eastman, 1 Clubhouse Lane, Grantham, N.H.

The program starts at 7:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public.

And now, notes on a curiosity.

This still below from 'Seven Chances'...

...reminded me of this still from 'Wings' (1927)...

Was there a thing in the 1920s for despondent poses, or what?

Thursday, September 27, 2018

From Russia to Chicago: a geographically diverse double-header of silents this weekend

Let's hear it for cartographical diversity!

On Saturday, I'll accompany 'The Last Command' (1928), a Russian Revolution drama, at fitting venue: the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Mass. (More about that in a bit.) Showtime is at 2 p.m.; the press release with more info is pasted in below.

And then on Sunday, it's the original silent film version of 'Chicago' (1927), which is this month's silent film show at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

For this one, I plan on using the theater's acoustic piano for some important scenes in which a player piano cranks along in the background. For the rest of the score, it'll be the usual full orchestra texture from the digital synthesizer. But in the "live effects" department, I'll also use jingly bells at a few points where they play a significant on-screen role.

Showtime for 'Chicago' is 4:30 p.m. and admission is free, with donations kindly accepted.

As different as these films are, I'm looking forward to both. 'The Last Command,' with a towering performance from Emil Jannings, is one of the best films of any period. it's always a thrill to accompany it, but it's especially cool to be doing so at the Museum of Russian Icons.

What is the Museum of Russian Icons, you may ask? Well, even if you didn't, let me tell you: it's a wonderful museum in an old mill building that houses a spectacular assemblage of Russian icons, the core of which was assembled by a local collector, as well as many other things.

They run a wide range of programming, and that includes movies. Earlier this year, I was approached by an Icon Museum staffer who asked about doing a silent film with live music. We got talking about the "Russian Revolution" sub-genre of silent dramas, romantic and otherwise, and here we are.

And what's great about this, I think, is that the audience is likely to be people who have never seen or experienced this film, or any silent film of any kind. What an introduction to the timeless power and eloquence of this art form!

Phyllis Haver tears up the screen—and the room—in 'Chicago.'

And then 'Chicago'—well, that's just going to be a hoot and a half. In this case, it's a story that most people know already from the long-running Broadway musical or the 2002 movie, which won 'Best Picture.'

So what a surprise to find that there's a silent film version of the story, and that it's a crackerjack ripped-from-the-headlines adaptation of the original play that started it all! What's more, it was made right in the era the story is set, so it has an unmatched immediacy and authenticity that's still palpable even today.

Hope to see you at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre on Sunday at 4:30 p.m.

And if you'd like more info on 'The Last Command' at the Museum of Russian Icons, here's the press release.

* * *

Emil Jannings won the first-ever 'Best Actor' Academy Award in part for his performance in 'The Last Command.'

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Silent epic 'The Last Command' with live music at Museum of Russian Icons on Saturday, Sept. 29

Russian Revolution picture from 1928 won 'Best Actor' for Emil Jannings at first-ever Academy Awards

CLINTON, Mass.—'The Last Command' (1928), a silent film drama that won Emil Jannings 'Best Actor' honors at the first-ever Academy Awards, will be screened with live music on Saturday, Sept. 29 at 2 p.m. at the Museum of Russian Icons, 203 Union St., Clinton, Mass.

Admission is $12 for members, $18 for non-members. Register by calling (978) 598-5000 ext. 121 or pay at the door.

'The Last Command,' directed by Josef von Sternberg, tells the sweeping story of a powerful general in Czarist Russia (Jannings) forced to flee his homeland during the Bolshevik Revolution. He emigrates to America, where he is reduced to living in poverty.

Evelyn Brent and Emil Jannings in 'The Last Command,' the 'Before' picture...

Finding work as an extra at a Hollywood studio, the former general lands the part of a commanding officer in a movie about the Revolution, causing flashbacks to his traumatic experiences. The conflict leads to a spectacular climax and a towering performance that earned Jannings 'Best Actor' honors.

The film takes audiences on a journey through big emotions as well as issues of history, time, power, and especially a man's duty to his country and to his fellow citizens—and what happens when the two obligations diverge.

...and now, the 'After' picture.

'The Last Command' is also one of early Hollywood's most creative and challenging looks at the global conflicts that contributed to World War I, which ended 100 years ago this fall.

The film also stars a young William Powell as a Hollywood movie director who crosses paths with the general during the Revolution, and 1920s starlet Evelyn Brent as a seductive Russian revolutionary.

Live music for the screening will be provided by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based musician recognized as one of the nation's leading silent film accompanists.

Rapsis will create the film's score live as the movie is shown by improvising music based on original melodies created beforehand.

"Making up the music on the spot is kind of a high wire act," Rapsis said. "But there's nothing like the energy and excitement that comes with improvised live performance, especially when accompanying a silent film."

Rapsis accompanies films using a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of a full orchestra.

Critic Leonard Maltin hailed 'The Last Command' as "a stunning silent drama...a fascinating story laced with keen observations of life and work in Hollywood." Time Out of London called it "the first Sternberg masterpiece, expertly poised between satire and 'absurd' melodrama. The cast are fully equal to it; Jannings, in particular, turns the characteristic role of the general into an indelible portrait of arrogance, fervour and dementia."

Director Sternberg, a master of lighting and black-and-white photography, created 'The Last Command' as a visual tour de force. The film is often cited as a prime example of the emotional range and visual accomplishment of silent films at their height, just prior to the coming of pictures with recorded soundtracks.

Rapsis said great silent film dramas such as 'The Last Command' told stories that concentrate on the "big" emotions such as Love, Despair, Anger, and Joy. Because of this, audiences continue to respond to them in the 21st century, especially if they're presented as intended—in a theater on the big screen, with a live audience and live music.

"Dramas such as 'The Last Command' were created to be consumed as a communal experience," Rapsis said. "With an audience and live music, they come to life as their creators intended them to. This screening at the Museum of Russian Icons is a great chance to experience films that first caused people to fall in love with the movies."

'The Last Command' (1928) will be screened with live music on Saturday, Sept. 29 at 2 p.m. at the Museum of Russian Icons, 203 Union St., Clinton, Mass. Admission is members $12, non-members $18. Register by calling (978) 598-5000 ext. 121 or pay at the door. For more info, visit visit For more information about the music, visit

Saturday, September 22, 2018

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

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

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

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

You can read about that project here.

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

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

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

Checking out the Wurlitzer prior to the show.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside the Orpheum: the organ and the screen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A future organist checks out the Wurlitzer.

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

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

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

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

Hope to see everyone next year!