I can't wait to tell you all about this week's screening of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923) at the Colonial Theatre in Keene, N.H.
But it says a lot about my priorities when I have to say first that I was flat-out amazed by the meal I had just before the show down the street at Lindy's Diner.
Really! Two chicken croquettes, mashed potatoes with gravy, a generous helping of carrots—mind you, all served piping—plus two rolls and butter, and coffee with refills, all for...$8.18!
Can you believe it? I actually took a picture:
On a cold night with snow starting to fall, this was just what the doctor ordered. Really—if prescribed, I believe it would mitigate the symptoms of most afflictions, physical or mental.
In any case, it was great show prep for the on-screen visual feast to come at the Colonial.
And, given my inexpensive meal, would it not seem equally amazing that the admission price for our screening of 'Hunchback' was the sum of...35 cents!
Really? 'Hunchback' on a cold Tuesday night in Keene, N.H., and an absurdly low admission price? What's going on here?
What was going on is that the Colonial's grand opening night was exactly 95 years ago: Jan. 29, 1924. And the opening night attraction, yes, was 'Hunchback,' the Universal blockbuster starring Lon Chaney.
And yes, admission that night was 35 cents per person.
So last Tuesday night in Keene, the audience and I all joined in to recreate not just the early movie-going experience, but also opening night at the Colonial, a terrific medium-sized theater which continues to serve Keene and the surrounding Monadnock Region as a first-class (and now non-profit) performing arts center.
And the comedian in me has to observe that a 35-cent ticket price isn't about to endanger their non-profit status. Har! (Rim shot here, please.)
With a snowstorm looming, no one was sure who might show up, despite the bargain entrance fee. But we got a healthy crowd, and it didn't take long for 'Hunchback' to get everyone absorbed. Reaction was gratifyingly strong throughout.
I think it's a great film for music: lots of scenes that lend themselves to the big lines that I like to spin.
I've done the film quite a few times, but not recently. One element with which I've never been satisfied is the music I create for Esmeralda, the gypsy girl, which always ends up sounding too slow and too much like the Habanara from 'Carmen.'
This time, I deliberately used different material: specifically, a 3/4 riff that I created for action scenes in 'Zorro' (1920) starring Douglas Fairbanks. It worked really well as a theme for Esmeralda! Specifically, it has a modal flavor, and so I could use it to shape some of the big scenes so "her" music was referenced, at least harmonically.
Anyway: another reason to support recycling!
The film got a big ovation, and I had some great conversations afterwards with people who couldn't believe the score was improvised live.
I try to illustrate how it's not all that unusual by pointing out that we're doing it right now: we're having a conversation in real time, and we're not following a script.
The folks at the Colonial were excellent to work with, and there's been enough of an audience interest to merit exploring a regular series of screenings to round out the Colonial's offerings.
I would love to work with them on this, as I love how a venue such as the Colonial are perfect places to exhibit films from a century ago in the way they were intended to be shown.
Plus, these films were designed from the ground up to be experienced by a group of people coming together. And a hundred years later, we need that kind of experience more than ever!
And in the theater world, which faces more and more competition from so many other sources of entertainment (most of it consumed at home), it's important to offer experiences that only a theater can do: such as silent film with live music!
So we'll see what the schedule brings for Keene, N.H. Me—I'd be delighted at the chance to eat regularly at Lindy's. :)
Before that happens, two upcoming screenings might warm you up during this cold spell that's now hit New England. (It's 10 below outside as I write.)
On Saturday, Feb. 2, the good folks at the Campton Historical Society (in Campton N.H.) will hold their now-annual pot luck summer/silent movie night. It's free and the public is welcome, especially if you bring a dish to share at the supper, which starts at 5 p.m. (Here we go with food again, but every year some excellent dishes turn up at this event.)
The movie program, highlighted by Buster Keaton's 'Our Hospitality' (1923), begins at whatever time everyone finished eating. Usually that's about 6:15 p.m. or so.
It'll be interesting this year because I've volunteered to play bass tuba (my other instrument) for a youth concert in Manchester, N.H. that afternoon. It's about an hour and some change up to get to Campton, so if you see a green Subaru Forester bombing up Interstate 93 that afternoon, that'll be me trying to make it to Campton before all the vittles is gone.
More details about this show are on the "Upcoming Screenings" page. Hope to see you there, but make sure you leave some dinner for me, willya?
And then the week after that, it's Rudolph Valentino in 'The Eagle' (1925), a pre-Valentine's Day show on Sunday, Feb. 10 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.
At Wilton, we usually run silents the last Sunday of the month, but that weekend I'm making my annual pilgrimage to the Kansas Silent Film Festival, so we moved the Wilton date up to take advantage of Valentino/Valentine's Day synergy.
Hope to see you at that one as well. For more info, check out the press release below.
THURSDAY, JAN. 31, 2019 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • email@example.com
Warm up for Valentine's Day with Valentino at the Town Hall Theatre
'The Eagle' (1925), starring silent film icon Rudolph Valentino, to screen in Wilton, N.H. on Sunday, Feb. 10 with live music
WILTON, N.H.—He was the cinema’s first sex symbol, causing hordes of female moviegoers to flock to his pictures throughout the 1920s. He starred in films designed to show off his Latin looks, his smoldering eyes, and his dancer’s body. And his untimely death in 1926 prompted mob scenes at his funeral.
He was Rudolph Valentino, who remains an icon for on-screen passion long after he caused a sensation in the 1920s.
To celebrate Valentine’s Day, one of Valentino’s most acclaimed films will be screened with live music on Sunday, Feb. 10 at 4:30 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.
‘The Eagle’ (1925), a racy story set in Czarist Russia, proved one of his most popular features and marked a peak in his brief career.
Based on the novel Dubrovsky by Alexander Pushkin, ‘The Eagle’ casts Valentino as a lieutenant and expert horseman in the Russian army who catches the eye of Czarina Catherine II. After he rejects her advances and flees, she puts out a warrant for his arrest, dead or alive. When he learns that his father has been persecuted and killed in his hometown, he dons a black mask and becomes an outlaw, finding unexpected romance along the way.
The screening of ‘The Eagle’ will be accompanied by live music by local composer Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free, with a suggested donation of $5 per person to defray expenses.
An Italian immigrant who arrived penniless at Ellis Island in 1913, Valentino rose to superstar status in a series of silent pictures that enflamed the passions of female movie-goers from coast to coast and around the world.
But he was more than a pretty face—during his career, critics praised Valentino as a versatile actor capable of playing a variety of roles; his achievements included popularizing the Argentinian tango in the 1921 drama ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.’
But Valentino's brief stardom was defined by roles that brought a new level of exotic sexuality to the movies, causing a sensation at the time. In theaters, women openly swooned over Valentino’s on-screen image, especially in pictures such as ‘The Eagle,’ which featured foreign locales and elaborate costumes.
At its peak, Valentino's popularity was so immense that it inspired a backlash among many male movie-goers, who decried Valentino’s elegant image and mannerisms as effeminate.
Valentino’s sudden death fueled his status as a legendary romantic icon of the cinema. For years, a mysterious woman dressed in black would visit his grave at the Hollywood Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, leaving only a single red rose.
Valentino was aware of his effect on audiences, saying that “Women are not in love with me, but with the picture of me on the screen. I am merely the canvas upon which the women paint their dreams.”
‘The Eagle’ is the latest in the Town Hall Theatre's series of monthly silent film screenings with live music. The series aims to recreate the lost magic of early cinema by bringing together the elements needed for silent film to be seen at its best: superior films in best available prints; projection on the big screen; live musical accompaniment; and an audience.
“These films are still exciting experiences if you can show them as they were designed to be screened,” said Jeff Rapsis, the accompanist for the screenings. “There’s a reason people first fell in love with the movies, and we hope to recreate that spirit. At their best, silent films were communal experiences in which the presence of a large audience intensifies everyone’s reactions.”
Live music is a key element of each silent film screening, Rapsis said. Silent movies were never shown in silence, but were accompanied by live music made right in each theater. Most films were not released with official scores, so it was up to local musicians to provide the soundtrack, which could vary greatly from theater to theater.
"Because there's no set soundtrack for most silent films, musicians are free to create new music as they see fit, even today," Rapsis said. "In bringing a film to life, I try to create original 'movie score' music that sounds like what you might expect in a theater today, which helps bridge the gap between today's audiences and silent films that are in some cases nearly 100 years old."
For each film, Rapsis improvises a music score using original themes he creates beforehand. None of the the music is written down; instead, the score evolves in real time based on audience reaction and the overall mood as the movie is screened.
‘The Eagle’ will be shown on Sunday, Feb. 10 at 4:30 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.
Upcoming features in the Town Hall Theater's silent film series include:
• Sunday, March 24, 2019, 4:30 p.m.: "Seven Chances" (1925) starring Buster Keaton. In this 1925 farce, Buster is about to be saved from bankruptcy by an unexpected inheritance of $7 million—but only if he gets married by 7 p.m. that very day. One of Keaton's best comedies, climaxed by one of the great chase scenes in all film, silent or otherwise.
The next installment in the Town Hall Theatre's silent film series will be ‘The Eagle’ (1925), to be screened with live music by Jeff Rapsis on Sunday, Feb. 10 at 4:30 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Admission is free; a donation of $5 per person is suggested to help defray expenses. For more info, visit www.wiltontownhalltheatre.com or call (603) 654-3456.