Wednesday, August 7, 2013

'Sunrise' postponed for two weeks
(The movie, not the actual sunrise)

Darling, we'll have to wait two weeks, until Thursday, Aug. 22, for our appearance at the Flying Monkey in Plymouth, N.H.

Yes, sunrise will occur at 6:30 p.m. Nothing's wrong with your almanac—that's when we're showing the great silent film 'Sunrise' (1927) at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H.

However, we've had to change the date due to a booking conflict at the theater, which caused 'Sunrise' to be eclipsed. (Har!)

Originally set for Thursday, Aug. 8, 'Sunrise' will now take place two weeks later on Thursday, Aug. 22. Same showtime: 6:30 p.m. And same admission price: $10 per person.

Should be a good screening, as it's a chance for folks to see a beautiful film—as well as a performance that helped Janet Gaynor snag the first-ever Academy Award for Best Actress.

I'll post more later. For now, here's a round-up of recent happenings on the road before they fade from my overcrowded noggin.

A scene from 'The Seahawk' (1924), the screening of which nearly got scuttled due to a balky car battery.

So near, yet so far: A prolonged heat wave in July did a number on my car battery, to the point where it needed to be replaced. That hadn't quite happened when I headed to the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theater on Sunday, July 28 for a matinee screening of 'The Sea Hawk' (1924), the latest in series of silent sea-faring dramas we're running there this summer.

I was early for once, so pulled into a Dunkin Donuts about a mile from the theater for coffee. Instead of the drive-thru, I went in to use the bathroom, then got the coffee at the counter. Came outside to find the car dead as a doornail!

The time: 3:52 p.m.—just 38 minutes to showtime, and me with a Subaru Forester filled with synthesizer and sound gear. I tried calling the theater, which is just up the road, but only got the recorded "movie line" and couldn't leave a message. So I called AAA in hopes that a jumpstart would work. The wait was about 45 minutes!

Just then a guy came out of the store to get back on his motorcycle, which he'd parked next to my deadster. I asked him if he'd do me a favor, but he said no because he was headed to Greenville.

"But it's on the way," I said, begging him to stop at the theater and let them know I was on my way. He said he would, but I had my doubts. (I later found out he didn't follow through.)

After that, an employee came out and said he could give me a jumpstart. Sure, worth a try! And just as he was backing up his pick-up truck, the AAA guy swung off Route 101 and into the parking lot.

It took him all of 90 seconds to jump-start the car, which instantly came back to life. The time: 4:17 p.m. I might make it after all!

Saying thank you, I wasted no time getting out on the highway to drive the last mile to the theater. As I sped up, I heard a noticeable "clunk" on my car's roof, and then noticed brown liquid was coating my rear window. The coffee! I'd left it on the roof.

Think of it! The very thing I'd stopped to get, and which caused my car to die, was now dribbling down the back of my vehicle. Some kind of evil poetic justice going on there.

I had the last laugh, though. During the screening, a violent rainstorm washed away all the coffee residue, so I was back to where I began, minus one cup of coffee.

The music for 'The Sea Hawk' (1924), by the way, came together quite powerfully, I thought. I was able to improvise well in modal mode during the "Moorish" scenes set in Algeria.

Seen in 2013, the original 'Sea Hawk' emerges as quite a politically charged film. The hero, disgusted by the behavior of people who consider themselves Christians, forsakes his religion and instead joins with the armies of Islam to wage war on the West. Sound familiar?

What? What was that?: On Thursday, Aug. 1, I was thrilled to make my Harvard debut—specifically, at the Harvard Film Archive, which runs a theater that screens a wide variety of esoteric and repertory fare in the Carpenter Center, a big concrete building just off Harvard Yard designed by none other than Le Corbusier.

As an example of Le Corbusier's "brutalism" style, the place has all the ambiance of a parking garage. But the film programming can't be beat. This summer, they're running the slate of nine silent films directed by Alfred Hitchcock and recently restored at by the British Film Institute.

For silents, they work with a regular roster of accompanists, and it can be hard to break into a situation like that. Despite that, I had recently sent in my resume. Still, I was surprised to be contacted about accompanying one of the Hitchcocks.

The reason? No one else was available. Oh well! A young Leonard Bernstein (himself a Harvard man) got his big break as a young conductor when Bruno Walter took ill, so maybe it works the same way with silent film accompaniment. One person's misfortune can be another's gain. :)

So down to Harvard I went, to do music for a rare Hitchcock comedy, Champagne (1928), on the Harvard Film Archive's nice Yamaha baby grand. It had a bright sound, but the action wasn't nearly as heavy as other Yamahas I've played, so off we went.

Before we started, I may have made a faux pas. Before an audience of probably 75 people, programmer David Pendleton was ready to start things off with a few remarks about the film. I had been playing "silent film cocktail music" to warm up, so it seemed only natural to segue to David by means of a modest fanfare.

People laughed somewhat, and then David noted dryly it was the first time he'd ever been preceded by a fanfare.

First time? I had to remember: this was not the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, and I really should be on my best behavior.

But then the film started, and I opened up with a dramatic upwards glissando straight out of Carl Stalling score for a Bugs Bunny cartoon. And I'm afraid from then on, the die was cast.

Because 'Champagne' was a light comedy with a lot of dance scenes, I'd chosen material that was energetic to begin with, and the excitement of the occasion (a new venue, a new film) didn't slow things down, either.

Still, I thought it all came together pretty well, with the music underscoring the comic moments well enough and also adding the right amount of mystery and intrigue that works with any Hitchcock film, even if no bodies are lying around.

Afterwards, people were kind enough to stop and chat. And I was curious: How did I do?

I've learned that you should be careful when asking that question, because you may not like the answer.

So how did I do?

"Well, what you played was very...loud!"

Loud? Loud?!

"Yes. Perhaps in the future you could keep the lid flat on the piano."

Ouch! They found me LOUD at Harvard!

But I also had some kind comments about how the music did support the movie and helped it come to life. David seemed open to the idea of me returning at some point, and that's great!

I just have to remember to bring ear plugs to pass out to anyone who wants them. :)

Brush with celebrity: Saturday, Aug. 3 brought me up to Brandon Town Hall in Brandon, Vt., where we screened 'Sally of the Sawdust' (1925) to an appreciative crowd of just under 100.

Starring W.C. Fields and Carol Dempster, and directed by D.W. Griffith, I've found this film really does have the Griffith story-telling touch, despite its reputation as a lesser picture. 'Sally of the Sawdust' has that peculiar "inevitable" quality of Griffith films, in which the narrative pull is so strong as to be irresistible.

Afterwards, I got to talking with a few folks, including one gentleman I'd never seen before. A nice guy, maybe 60, kinda big at 6-foot-4, and musically knowledgeable—so much so that I asked about his background.

Oh, he said, his grandfather was the real musician in the family, and had worked as a composer years ago on Broadway and in Hollywood. Who was he? No one I'd know, he said. And then he said the name: Rudolf Friml.

Rudolph Friml? The Rudolf Friml? Composer of music for shows such as "Rose-Marie" (1924), which includes the immortal 'Indian Love Call' made famous by Nelson Eddy and Jeannette McDonald in the 1936 film?

Yes! He himself was Bill Friml, and Rudolf (who lived into his 90s, until 1972) was his grandfather. That's a picture of Rudolf in later life.

I shook Bill's hand and was at a loss for words. What a thrill to think that a grandson of Rudolf Friml had been in the audience for something I had just done. (I'm glad I didn't know beforehand, because it would make me self-conscious.)

I later checked into Friml's life story, and found that in his native Prague he was a student of none other than Antonin Dvorak. Also, in the 1930s he claimed to use a Ouija board to communicate with deceased fellow operetta composer Victor Herbert, and as an older man, he'd start every morning by standing on his head to get blood to the brain. Colorful guy!

I especially like one statement he made: that he had so much music in him that he had to make it or he felt he would burst. I can kinda relate. (Just as the folks at Harvard.)

You just never know who you're going to meet at these screenings. I'm almost tempted to get our the Ouija board and try to chat with Rudolf himself. But grandson Bill was good enough, and I hope to see him at another screening, as the night was getting on and I had to get back on the road to New Hampshire for a show the next day...

General Approval: I'll keep this short but I need to say that the silent film screenings I'm doing at the Somerville Theater in Somerville, Mass. are turning out to be the highlights of each month.

We've been getting good crowds, and our screening of Keaton's 'The General' (1926) on Sunday, Aug. 4 was no exception: more than 200 people showed up on one of the finest afternoons of the summer to sit in a darkened theater and take in this exciting film on the big screen, as it was intended.

It's gotten to where I feel comfortable at the Somerville, and so I now find it relatively easy to get into the zone where good accompaniment happens. With 'The General,' a film I know well, it happened almost instanteously, and the music came easily and effectively throughout the show.

So it was one good moment after another, and about two-thirds through the film, I began to feel that nice glow that happens when I know I'm nailing a film. Even the ending came together naturally, producing lots of satisfying laughs from the on-screen action as the music pulled things to the end.

And after that, I got one of those amazing ovations that you never expect to get in life, but there it was. It was, of course, for Buster's film, but I stood up anyway and took a bow. Very satisfying to have collaborated with Mr. Keaton in such an endeavor and one of the most satisfying moments of this journey so far.

So I just had to take a picture. It came out blurry, but here it is:

From now on, I'll concentrate on the music and let someone else handle the visuals. :)

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