Monday, September 30, 2013

Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013:
Day 6 on the road / Topeka, Kansas

The Hanover Pancake House in Topeka, Kansas.

Here's a post that's not really about silent film. We'll see.

Driving back from the Keaton Celebration in Iola, Kansas to Kansas City, I stopped in Topeka for lunch at the Hanover Pancake House, a local restaurant to which I have a strange attachment.

This is where I came for lunch all by myself one rainy Saturday back in March, 2000, during my first visit to the Kansas Silent Film Festival.

I had just seen Buster Keaton's 'The Cameraman' (1928) with live music from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, which I'd never heard live before.

The picture resonated with me profoundly for many reasons, but mostly because it reawakened me to the immense possibilities that are all around us if we're just creative enough to recognize them.

I was at a low ebb and it was exactly what I needed.

By the way, I've just read the most perceptive analysis of 'The Cameraman' I've ever encountered. It's by a young cinema enthusiast and blogger I met earlier this month in Brandon, Vt., and it's really, really worthwhile and filled with insightful comments. Check it out.

So there I was, sitting in a booth as rain pelted the window, a sense of optimism and even excitement about life growing within me thanks to the film I'd just come 1,000 miles to see.

I picked up the menu and saw something unexpected: fried and breaded pickle spears. Really? Why not?

And so they came: five of them, with a small dish of ranch dressing. I didn't know what to expect, just as I didn't know what to expect from the Kansas Silent Film Festival, but went anyway.

I found I really liked fried pickles. And ever since, they've been synonymous with rebirth and renewal. And not just any fried pickles, but the way they do them at the Hanover Pancake House, which is unusual: they serve complete spears, each breaded and fried, with the pickle inside often too hot to eat for a little while.

I went back to the festival, made new friends, and started on a fresh path that eventually led to founding a new business and so many other things. Somehow the Kansas Silent Film Festival and the Hanover Pancake House became tangible touchstones of renewal and positive energy for me.

So of course I went back, both to the festival and to the Hanover Pancake House, which hasn't changed (except there's now no smoking) and the fried pickles, which they continue to carry. And I went back not just once, but every since year since. (And sometimes in the off-season, such as this pit stop.) We all need our rituals, and this has become one of mine.

And it's odd that a restaurant that hasn't changed, seemingly, since it opened in 1969, would emerge as a personal symbol of renewal. But it did, and it felt right, and I just accepted that as one more random aspect of life that need not conform to some pattern or expectation. Why should it have to? Not everything needs to be explained, you know.

But a few years ago, I saw a photo of the the aftermath of the great F5 tornado that struck Topeka in 1966. It came at the city from the southwest, destroying a lot of Washburn University (home of the silent film festival) and carving a wide swath of devastation right up to the southern part of Topeka's downtown on Kansas Ave.

In fact, right up to where the Hanover Pancake House was.

The large cement water tower survived the tornado and still stands today. The Hanover Pancake House is located right across the street in the photo on the right.

And then it all made sense. I had wondered why Topeka's old downtown core just stopped on the south end, giving way to a random collection of low buildings and open spaces, including the Hanover Pancake House. Now I knew. It was because the whole area had been wiped off the map in 1966.

Talk about a place for renewal!

I pondered this during my off-season visit while the staff coped with a gigantic church group that arrived in two vans. It was Sunday, and the church-goers had already had their religious experience. As the fried pickles came out, I was just about to have mine.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013:
Day 5 on the road / Iola, Kansas

That's me flanked by Barbara Talmadge (Buster Keaton's daughter-in-law) and Melissa Talmadge Cox, Buster's granddaugther, after accompanying a screening of 'Seven Chances' (1925).

Heavy lifting today: live music for two feature films plus a good amount of impromptu fill-in. At daybreak, torrential rains as thunderstorms moved through. Worked all morning, then attended the afternoon Keaton Celebration sessions at the Bowlus Center.

First up was Kate Guyonvarch of the Chaplin Office with archive materials about Chaplin's film 'Limelight' (1952), a presentation highlighted by a clip of the scene with Keaton and Chaplin performing together.

Then came an on-stage conversation with Melissa Talmadge Cox (Buster's granddaughter) and Buster's daughter-in-law Barbara Talmadge, who played tennis on Charlie Chaplin's court and is still going strong as she closes in on 90.

Barbara tells a good story, and I hope someone sits down and thoroughly interviews her at some point. Both ladies had stories not only of Buster, but also the two "aunts," Norma Talmadge and Constance "Dutch" Talmadge.

And then I was up with music for 'Her Sister From Paris' (1925), a funny battle-of-the-sexes romantic comedy starring Dutch and Ronald Colman. It's set in Vienna, and includes a couple specific references to "The Blue Danube" waltz, so I had to get that under my fingers and ready to go.

Things fell together quite naturally, helped by the excellent condition of the Bowlus Center's 1911 Steinway grand. What a joy to skip among those keys! It really makes a difference in terms of what kind of music you can do.

The highlight for me was a sequence where a sidekick character is asked to go play a piano to cover the noise of Talmadge and Colman stealing away. He indulges in some kind of intense romantic ballad (to express his own longing for Connie), and that's what I played, even though most of the footage was devoted to the two would-be lovers.

And then, after the plot threads were tied up, I brought back the romantic ballad music for real underneath the closing scenes, which I felt lent a really effective touch. Sometimes that happens!

Near the end, I began to get that feeling that I was in fact nailing it, which is always a rush. Response was very generous, and folks afterwards had some very kind words to say about the music.

Then dinner at El Charro, a Mexican place in downtown Iola, and then back to the Bowlus for 'Seven Chances' (1925) preceded by a mixed bag of short subjects and other material.

Got laughs when Bill Shaffer announced that they'd try to keep on schedule, and I snuck in with the opening bar of Handel's 'Hallelujah' chorus. Also when Kate Guyonvarch came up to translate the French titles in the rediscovered footage from Keaton's 'Blacksmith' and I launched into the opening bars of "La Marseille."

We saw a few minutes of newly rediscovered footage of Keaton and Joe Roberts in 'The Blacksmith' that was quite good. And I had a good time doing music for Chaplin's 'One a.m.,' which I didn't realize I'd be doing and hadn't seen in years.

Also on the program: improvised music for a nice video tribute to festival co-founder Fred Krebs, who passed away last December. There was also music to go with the announcement of next year's festival, or so I thought.

For this, I plunged in with all keys blazing in my best 20th Century Fox fanfare style, only to see the on screen text announcing that there would in fact be NO Keaton Celebration next year.

What? Was this a joke? Continue the fanfare? Change to funeral music? What was going on?

I then remembered an announcement for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Bowlus Fine Arts Center for Sept. 26 & 27, 2014, and I wondered what dates the Keaton Celebration would be. Now I had my answer, and it was no joke, so I did morph the music into something a little more somber but hopeful, as organizers promise to come back in 2015.

We'll see. Not every vintage film festival has to continue forever. This same weekend, my colleagues Ben Model and Phil Carli did music for what is apparently the last "Fall Cinesation" festival in Massillon, Ohio. Rats! Never got to that one.

But these things are a lot of work, and if the same people have to keep doing it year after year, the glow eventually wears off.

The best argument for keeping the Keaton Celebration going is the reaction to 'Seven Chances,' the main event feature. Roars of laughter from a large crowd, and it somehow seems so correct that it's taking place just down the road from Buster's birthplace. People turn up wearing Buster-style porkpie hats and even in complete Buster outfits!

I feel really fortunate to have had the chance to do my own style of music at this event, and for this audience, and especially for 'Seven Chances,' and so I'm grateful to Bill Shaffer and Frank Scheide for bringing me in to help out.

At "The End," for some reason the house lights didn't come up, and I've never had so many flashbulbs go off in my face at once. But most gratifying of all were the very kind words from Barbara and Melissa, who made a point of approaching me afterwards to offer thanks for helping bring the films to life. High praise!

An afterglow followed at a nice house in Iola, followed by modest after-afterglow in the parking lot of the motel where we were staying at, featuring many very funny jokes that I will have to leave up to your imagination, or I'd have to click the "Adult Content" setting. :)

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Friday, Sept. 27, 2013:
Day 4 on the road / Iola, Kansas

The banner greeting those arriving in Iola, Kansas from the east on U.S. Route 54.

Got a late start, not hitting the road until 9:12 a.m. Still, got to Iola, Kansas before noon, arriving under an impressive "Keaton Celebration" banner that straddles U.S. 54 as you arrive from the east. Nice!

The Bowlus Center (home of the festival) was locked up tight, so went for lunch to the B & B Country Cafe, a favorite from last year. Place was packed, and staff was struggling with giant takeout order, but had yet another plate of fried chicken, which was the day's special and is starting to become a theme of the Great Early Fall 2013 Silent Film Accompaniment Road Trip.

At the Keaton Festival, supplied live accompaniment to 'Seeing Stars,' the Hollywood promotional short presented by Hooman Mehran, so I can say now that I've officially collaborated with him.

Amused to find the name of 'Paul Rapsis' on my stipend check. The Bowlus Center folks were most apologetic about it, and director Susan Raines even walked with me across the street to have it cashed, which was the easiest solution for them. Nice! But now here I am, in the big city of Iola with all this cash on me. Watch out!

But the real big news of the afternoon was being in the presence of actor Paul Dooley, whose long list of credits include being head writer of the original 'Electric Company' PBS show in the 1970s, which I was addicted to as a kid.

Here's me and Paul Dooley in the lobby of the Bowlus Fine Arts Center.

Dooley gave a nice presentation on Keaton, and also did a great stand-up routine that he seems to be trying out for use elsewhere. Hope I get a chance to tell him what the Electric Company means to me: I just looked at excerpts on YouTube (that amazing resource) for the first time in decades and it all came rushing back, yet another source of primary source childhood memories all locked up in bits and bytes ready to be streamed again. And he was the guy!

Skipped dinner to prepare for the evening's session, which included live accompaniment to 'Out West' (1918), the Keaton/Arbuckle short. But as I was playing prior to the start, Bill Shaffer came over and whispered in my ear (inevitably, it seems) that there was a change of program.

Instead, they'd be showing Keaton's short 'The Blacksmith' (1922) with the newly discovered footage. Okay, fine! I hadn't seen the film in years, but I actually remembered some of the structure of it (opening gag titles about the "Village Smithy," etc.) and so started getting ready mentally.

But first there were remarks from the mayor of Iola, who was welcomed with me playing "Hail to the Chief," which got a few laughs, and an award to actor James Karen, a long-time friend of the festival and of Buster himself. For a guy about to turn 90, he's in amazing shape! Sporting a beard, he resembles an older Ernest Hemingway.

And on to Buster, which came in the form of a file on a thumb drive brought over from Paris by Kate Guyonvarch. Into the laptop went the drive, and off we went. But not quite: the computer had trouble reading the file, so all we got was a jumpy series of freeze frames of Buster and then Joe Roberts chasing each other around.

I did what I could, but what can you do? They then shut it down and transferred the file to another machine right on screen in full view of the audience, giving me a chance to earn a few more cheap laughs by playing Merv Griffin's iconic "waiting" music from Jeopardy.

But it still didn't work, but they'll try it again Saturday night, I'm told. Well, at least I got to preview it! Afterwards, I couldn't resist following Kate Guyonvarch up the aisle just to tell her I was glad to help out, and that we should work together more often! :)

Still haven't had a chance to connect with her, and at this point it's getting to be a little like "Waiting for Guyonvarch." Still, it's nice to make her acquaintance after all the back-and-forth over the years.

A screening of Chaplin's 'A King in New York' (1957) followed, the first time I'd ever had a chance to see this film. Lots of interest in it, especially if you're interested in seeing how agile Chaplin was in his late 60s, and how sharp his pantomime and acting skills remained.

But the film itself was a mixed bag, and the washed out video image (and a weird rumbling in the audio whenever anyone spoke) didn't help. Alas, I came away from it thinking that was two hours of my life I wouldn't get back again, which is not the kind of feeling you want to get when attending a festival like this.

Well, props to the organizers for screening a film that rarely gets shown, and that fit perfectly into the celebration's theme of the "Fabulous Fifties," which were not so fabulous for Chaplin, anyway.

But then again, where else can hear rock 'n' roll with music and lyrics by Charlie Chaplin? So it was worthwhile in the "being complete" sense. Now all I have to do is sit through 'A Countess from Hong Kong' (1967) and I can say I've seen it all, with the exception of a few of the Keystones, probably.

Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013:
Day 3 on the road / Bentonville, Arkansas

'Old Main' on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, site of Giffels Auditorium, home of tonight's program.

A full day in Bentonville, Ark. began with a run through streets around our hotel, which felt good. Then it was off to Crystal Bridges for more symposium activities on a day that was already warm and would soon become downright hot.

Very light attendance for the morning's discussion of City Lights. And then most people left for lunch while I sat down for more Mutuals: 'Behind the Screen' and 'The Rink.'

Had a good discussion with the few folks on hand, and also spent time teasing Sara Segerlin about the museum's lack of a piano suitable for live performance.

"You march right up to that Alice Walton and tell her it's no use filling up this place with all this old junk if you don't have a good piano on hand," I would say. Sara is nothing if not a good sport, although she probably wanted to take a swing at me before it was all over.

I went back to the hotel for the afternoon. Then dinner on my own at Neal's Cafe in Springdale, Ark., which has been serving fried chicken since 1944. Back on Interstate 540 to head to the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, but somehow missed the exit, had to turn back, and then got disoriented as time began to run out.

Tried calling folks, but no luck. Finally took an exit, kept going, and surprised myself by broadsiding Maple St., the very road I was looking for! Somehow last year's whirlwind visit made just enough of an impression for me to recognize where I was.

Found a parking space, and was then surprised when one of the adorably cute students immediately came up to me and asked, "Are you with the Chaplin program?"

Wow! One doesn't expect to be recognized on the streets of Fayetteville, Ark. Turns out I wasn't: she said I looked clueless and she just put two and two together.

Healthy turnout in 'Old Main' for our get-together. Played a score for the Chaplin Keystone 'The Masquerader' (1914) in Giffels Auditorium on the same Steinway I played last year. This time, instead of being behind a curtain, I was actually visible to the audience. But it's always something, it seems, and this time I had no light and couldn't see the keyboard, so the score was a bit more dissonant than it should have been. :)

Afterwards came a set of excerpts from an in-progress documentary by Lynn Cadwallader on silent film music. The presentation, alas, was delayed because they couldn't get any sound! Funny how the great slot machine of life coughs up such ironies!

One the sound worked, it turned out Lyn's materials include filmed interviews with some wonderful practitioners who worked in the original era. She's based in the Boston area and hope to keep in touch with her.

I was supposed to be part of a panel discussion that followed. For this, they'd set up a long table with six chairs. As all the other experts crowded in, I figured I'd stand aside in a rare attempt to see what humility actually feels like.

But then Frank handed me the microphone anyway, and that's all I needed to start jawboning the audience into seeing 'City Lights' with live orchestra on Sunday. Still, I'm starting to learn about proportion. :)

Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013:
Day 2 on the road / Bentonville, Arkansas

The fun begins with a reception this evening!

A summer-like morning saw me head over to the campus of Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, where major construction is underway on 17th Street. But that didn't stop the Great Early Fall 2013 Silent Film Accompaniment Road Trip.

I popped into the music department, where I borrowed the use of a piano in for a couple of hours to review material, and then hit the road for the trip to Bentonville, Ark., home of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, where I was on that evening for the opening reception of the 'Art for the Citizen' symposium.

Uneventful drive through Missouri on newly christened "Interstate 49," formerly just U.S. Route 71. If you travel this road, ignore all the signs for pecans and stop at Butler, Missouri for the donuts at Koehn's Bakery.

Due at the museum at 6 p.m., so thought I was cutting it close in getting to Bentonville at 5:30 p.m. Turned out my car clock was ahead one hour! For once I had time to spare, which was good, because the elevator where we stayed has to be the slowest in the Western Hemisphere.

Many luminaries on hand. Met Chaplin expert Hooman Mehran in the lobby, and some other university folks here for the museum's symposium.

Then over to Crystal Bridges, a brand spanking new museum funded by Wal-Mart money. (Bentonville is Ground Zero for the Walton family and Wal-Mart, which was founded here in 1950.) It's quite a place, part museum and part airline terminal, all set on a surprisingly vertical site and with water everywhere.

I found Frank Scheide from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville carrying the promised keyboard, which turned out to be a lightweight all-plastic Yamaha model that could be held under one's arm. Uh-oh!

We set it up and it turned out to be better than I expected. We couldn't get the sustain pedal to work properly, so I futzed with the thing until I found a theater organ setting that sounded effective, and that's what I used.

More luminaries, including Steven Byess, conductor of the Arkansas Philharmonic, which is doing a live score to a screening of Chaplin's 'City Lights' (1931) on Sunday after just two rehearsals. (I wish him luck with that and wish I could get back here to see it!)

Also met the charming Sara Segerlin of Crystal Bridges after much e-mail correspondence (that's her on the right) and traded glances with Kate Guyonvarch of the Chaplin office, whom I'd love to chat with more extensively if the chance arises.

Small group on hand in the museum's 'Great Hall' for opening night of the symposium, which happened to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Chaplin signing his Keystone contract. Got a chance to speak beforehand, so said that in honor of the anniversary and to pay homage to the spirit of the Little Tramp, everything I was wearing had been purchased two days ago in a Topeka thrift store.

Accompanied 'The Immigrant' as best I could. The film got a good reaction, and so afterwards, Frank asked if people would like to see one more. Yes! So we went right into 'The Adventurer,' which was a little more assured, except things got a bit frantic in the last few minutes.

Finished the night with a "Jamocha" shake from Arby's, a rare culinary treat for me.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013:
Day 1 on the road / Topeka, Kansas

The lime green chick magnet that I'm tooling around Kansas in this week. Otherwise known as a Ford Fiesta.

Here I am in Topeka, Kansas, preparing for the four-hour trek down to Bentonville, Ark. later today.

That's where the four-day "Art for the Citizen" symposium opens tonight at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Culture. I'm doing live accompaniment for at least one Chaplin short, maybe more. We'll see.

But before that happens, here's an up-to-date account of events so far on the Great Early Fall 2013 Silent Film Accompaniment Road Trip:

Yesterday saw an early flight (6 a.m.) out of Manchester, N.H., putting me in the Kansas City airport just after 10 a.m. local time. Nice to get so far so early in the day. I often wonder what the covered wagon folks would think of covering so much ground so quickly -- in this case, half a continent before lunch!

The airport has a good free wireless signal, so I worked there until mid-afternoon, also scoring a nifty shoe shine for $7.

I then hopped in my rented car (a lime green Ford Fiesta!) and sped across the prairie to the Candlewood Suites in Topeka, which I selected because the rooms have DVD players (to preview discs I brought) and also because this morning I wanted to go over to Washburn University and use one of the piano practice rooms.

Arriving in Topeka under rainclouds, I stopped at my favorite thrift store on the city's north side. I went in without any intention of buying anything, but came out with two sport jackets, a black shirt, two neckties, swim trunks, and a t-shirt from Omaha, Neb. Total cost: $14.60.

This is the same place where I purchased the now-legendary "Mulatto Chaplin" statue several years ago and presented to Bill Shaffer of the Kansas Silent Film Festival.

I was exhausted by then, so took a nap. Then, instead of working on Tuesday night, I met Bill Shaffer (the Mulatto Chaplin caretaker) for what turned out to be a two-hour dinner at the Tuptim Thai Restaurant, during which we consumed an enormous amount of some of the best Thai food I've had outside of Thailand itself.

My wife jokes that the only reason I do silent film music is because of the dining possibilities. I'm beginning to think she's right.

This morning, I'm equally as excited at the prospect of visiting the Hanover Pancake House in Topeka as doing music for the Chaplin short later on. (But now that I look at the schedule, and consider how full I am from last night, I realize the Hanover Pancake House might have to wait until the return leg.)

Big news in Topeka: what for a long time was the Holidome on Fairlawn Boulevard, site of the very first Kansas Silent Film Festival afterglow that I attended back in 2000, has recently been rebranded a Ramada Inn!

As Yeats wrote, things fall apart, the center cannot hold. Funny how things change around you, bit by bit, until at some point you find yourself in a different place, even if you've been standing still.

But then you've changed as well, haven't you? So a large part of life, I think, consists of celebrating the present, as it's a place that we'll only visit once in our lifetime. May as well make the most of it!

So today's agenda consists of going out for a short run, packing up, heading to Washburn University to use a piano room until noon, and then hitting the road to get to Bentonville by 4 p.m. if possible to allow time to get ready for Opening Night!

More later.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Thoughts on 'Foolish Wives' (1922)
prior to Sunday, Sept. 22 screening

We're coming to the last screening before I leave for Arkansas and Kansas next week, and it's a big one: 'Foolish Wives' (1922), the Erich von Stroheim drama set in Monte Carlo, as rebuilt on the Universal back lot.

I like one story that comes from the making of this film: for money on-screen von Stroheim insisted on using accurate reproductions of Monte Carlo banknotes. These were so life-like that some extras began bringing them to banks and successfully exchanging them!

How ironic for for a film in which counterfeiting plays such a prominent role!

Anyway, it's a big meaty drama that runs almost 2½ hours, and will provide a good workout prior to going on the road. Come see it on Sunday, Sept. 22 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. For more info, visit

And here's something I just found out: the date of our screening is actually von Stroheim's birthday! He'd be 128 years old.

The screening of 'Foolish Wives' comes on the heels of two screenings last week: 'Show People' (1928) drew about 50 people last Thursday (Sept. 19) to the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine, where it got a very positive reaction. A screening of Rin Tin Tin in 'Clash of the Wolves' (1925) at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H. was less well attended, with about 18 people on hand, but the reaction was strong.

In case you're curious, here's the road schedule next week:

Wednesday, Sept. 25: accompanying some Chaplin Mutuals for opening night of an "Art for the Citizen" symposium at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.

Thursday, Sept. 26: During the day, more Chaplin Mutuals during the symposium. In the evening, I'm part of "A Tribute to Charlie Chaplin and Early Movie Music," a panel discussion at the University of Arkansas campus at Fayetteville. Not sure if I have to accompany anything here, but I'll be ready.

Friday, Sept. 27: Day 1 of the 2013 Buster Keaton Celebration in Iola, Kansas finds light accompaniment duties: Chaplin's short 'One A.M.' in the evening and possibly some other things during the daytime seminars.

Saturday, Sept. 28: Day 2 of the Keaton Celebration is heavy lifting in terms of accompaniment. I'm slated to do piano scores for the Constance Talmadge feature 'Her Sister from Paris' (1925), the Arbuckle/Keaton short 'Out West' (1918), and Keaton's feature 'Seven Chances' (1925).

I'll file reports here from on the road. And looking forward to October, which brings a Pickford program at Keene (N.H.) State College, 35mm screenings of 'Safety Last' (1923) and 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' (1920) at the Somerville (Mass.) Theater, and about a half-dozen different screenings of 'Nosferatu' leading up to Halloween.

See you at the movies!

Monday, September 16, 2013

What to say about William Haines
in 'Show People' on Thursday, Sept. 19?

A movie within a movie: a scene from 'Show People' (1928), with William Haines (right) made up as comedy star Billy Boone.

The more silent film I see, the more I appreciate 'Show People' (1928).

It's not just a funny insider tale about the movie biz. It's actually a wonderfully knowing Valentine to a medium that by then everyone knew would soon be history.

Yes, it gets laughs and has a satisfying story, even if today's movie-goers recognize few of the stars in cameo roles. (With Charlie Chaplin the obvious exception. And even then, that's because he's clearly identified in several titles.)

But it's also a chance for male lead William Haines, then at the height of his career, to show his versatility as a performer.

And it's also a chance to ponder what would soon happen to Haines: that his career would be ended by his refusal to follow studio orders to keep his homosexuality a secret.

It actually makes for a wonderful story by itself: Haines refused to enter into a "sham" marriage with a starlet to make him more acceptable as a leading man to Middle America. As a result, he was blackballed from all the major studios.

But Haines, his career as a leading man over, had the last laugh by starting an immensely popular and successful interior design firm. Among his best clients: loyal acquaintances in the Hollywood movie colony. Later in life, he was said to be a favorite of Ronald and Nancy Reagan!

I usually don't mention any of this prior to a screening of 'Show People.' If I do, every time he appears on screen, a good portion of the audience will think, "Hey, there goes Ronald Reagan's gay interior decorator!" And that's not exactly good for the movie's flow.

However, one thing about successful promotion is knowing your audience. And the Leavitt Theatre, where we're screening 'Show People' on Thursday, Sept. 19 at 8 p.m., is in downtown Ogunquit, longtime coastal haven for the region's gay community.

So, for this screening of 'Show People,' I felt it was worth playing up what Paul Harvey used to call "the rest of the story." Screening or not, I think Williams Haines should be remembered as a pioneer (and a courageous one at that) in overcoming prejudice and bigotry.

That's something to celebrate, and we will with 'Show People' on Thursday, Sept. 19. Hope to see you there! Below is the text of a press release with all the details...

* * *

William Haines and Marion Davies meet Charlie Chaplin in 'Show People' (1928).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Leavitt Theatre to celebrate Hollywood's
first openly gay leading man

William Haines stars in classic silent film comedy 'Show People' with live music on Thursday, Sept. 19

OGUNQUIT, Maine—He was the Tom Hanks his time: a leading man with a winning manner and breezy charm who always got the girl.

But the film career of William Haines, one of early Hollywood's brightest stars, was cut short for an unfortunate reason: at a time when sexual preference was a taboo subject, he was openly gay.

See Haines at the peak of his popularity in 'Show People' (1928), an MGM comedy co-starring Marion Davies that spoofs the movie industry, pitting high drama against low comedy. Showtime for 'Show People is Thursday, Sept. 19, at 8 p.m. at the historic Leavitt Theatre, 259 Main St., Route 1, Ogunquit, Maine.

All are welcome to this family-friendly event; admission is $10 per person general admission. The screening, the latest in the Leavitt Theatre's silent film series, will feature live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based composer who specializes in creating scores for silent films.

William Haines was one of MGM's biggest stars in the late 1920s, often playing the male lead in the studio's romantic comedies. But off-screen, Haines was gay—and, unusually for the era, he did not hide his homosexuality.

This led to friction with his bosses. MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer, convinced that movie audiences would not accept a gay leading man, urged Haines to keep his long-term relationship with actor Jimmie Shields a secret.

Haines maintained his star status at MGM during the move to talking pictures. But a publicity crisis arose in 1933, when Haines was arrested in a YMCA with a sailor he had picked up in Los Angeles' Pershing Square.

Mayer then delivered an ultimatum: Haines had to choose between a sham marriage to an MGM actress or giving up his career. Haines refused to submit, chosing to be himself rather than to pretend to be someone he wasn't. Mayer subsequently fired Haines, terminated his contract, and banished him from the industry.

His movie career over, Haines recovered by launching an interior design firm, using his connections to become the most sought-after decorator in the Hollywood movie colony. The business prospered over the decades, with a client list of A-list celebrities as well as political figures such as Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

Haines remained with his partner Shields for the rest of his life. Joan Crawford, who co-starred with Haines in several pictures, described the pair as "the happiest married couple in Hollywood." In recent years, Haines has been recognized as a courageous pioneer in gay rights in the early Hollywood community.

'Show People,' directed by King Vidor, shows Haines at the height of his leading-man status. The light-hearted story follows Peggy Pepper (Marion Davies), a beauty queen from Georgia trying to break into the movies as a dramatic actress. Haines plays Billy Boone, lead actor of a slapstick comedy studio where Pepper gets her first break.

Can the young actress yearning for drama survive the indignity of pies in the face? And when her big break finally comes, will it mean sacrificing her growing friendship with Billy? And can Billy rescue the fun-loving Georgia girl from a studio that aims to invent a whole new persona for her as a serious actress, descended from European royalty?

Can low comedy win out over high drama? In answering that question, 'Show People' pokes fun at Hollywood phoniness and the culture of celebrity worship that had already emerged by the 1920s. 'Show People' also offers rare behind-the-scenes glimpses of movie-making at the very end of the silent period, when studios were rushing to prepare for sound.

"It's like they knew an era was ending, and 'Show People' is kind of a Valentine to the whole silent film experience," said Rapsis, who will accompany the screening at the Leavitt. "It's a love letter to all the craziness that went into creating the movie business."

Set in backstage Hollywood, 'Show People' features cameos by dozens of major stars of the period, including Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., William S. Hart, and John Gilbert.

In 2003, Show People was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Marion Davies prepares to launch her weapon of choice.

The Leavitt, opened in 1923 as a summer-only seaside resort silent film house, now offers a wide variety of programming, including first-run films, live comedy, open mic nights, and more.

The Leavitt Theatre's silent film series aims to recreate the full silent film experience, with restored prints projected on the big screen, live music, and with a live audience. All these elements are essential to seeing silent films they way they were intended, Rapsis said.

“These films are still exciting experiences if you show them as they were designed to be screened,” Rapsis said. “There’s a reason people first fell in love with the movies, and we hope to recreate that experience. At their best, silent films were a communal experience very different from today’s movies—one in which the presence of a large audience intensifies everyone’s reactions.”

Other upcoming features in the Leavitt Theatre's 2013 silent film schedule include:

• Saturday, Oct. 26, 8 p.m.: 'Nosferatu' (1922). Just in time for Halloween, see the original silent film adaptation of Bram Stoker's famous 'Dracula' story. Still spooky after all these years—in fact, some critics believe this version is not only the best ever done, but has actually become creepier with the passage of time. See for yourself, if you dare!

‘Show People’ (1928), a classic silent comedy starring William Haines and Marion Davies, will be shown on Thursday, Sept. 19 at 8 p.m. at the Leavitt Theatre, 259 Main St. Ogunquit, Maine. Admission $10 per person; for more info, call (207) 646-3123 or visit (Courtesy Image)

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For more info, contact:
Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •
Images attached. More high-resolution digital images available upon request.

Notes from 'Tempest,' 'The Cameraman,'
'The Last Command,' and Lloyd / Keaton

Talk about synchronicity! Last week, several monthly gigs pig-piled into the span of a few days, providing quite a workout. A few notes to keep the memories fresh, starting with 'The Freshman.':

Sunday, Sept. 8: 'The Freshman' (1925) starring Harold Lloyd, at the Somerville Theatre, Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.: Great crowd despite street fair limited access to theater. Did harried interview with Lisa Mullin of National Public Radio during set-up; will be curious to hear what she comes up with! Fun intro by Annette D'Agostino Lloyd, who asked newbies to raise their hands and at least half the crowd did so.

Score was okay but not a triumph. I thought a childhood friend was in the audience, and that somehow threw me and made me more self-conscious than I usually am. (And turned out he wasn't!) But got to use my new call bell (Ding!) during the Fall Frolic scene, and also a referee's whistle as added effect. Limited the whistle to just opening titles and then only three or four times during the climactic game; no less an authority than vintage film expert Richard Finegan offered praise for my restraint.

Tuesday, Sept. 10: 'Tempest' (1928) starring John Barrymore, at the Manchester City Library, Manchester, N.H.: We continue to get good crowds at these monthly library screenings, now being done without the help of my high school helper Matt, who went off to college this fall. Damn that higher education!

First time doing 'Tempest,' an extravagent "historical" drama (the Russian Revolution was still underway, arguably, when the film was made) which I found surprisingly adept and polished. Our audience agreed, drinking in the visual feast set out by cameraman Charles Rosher and designer Wiliam Cameron Menzies. Great scenes include the opening framing device using miniatures and a travelling camera; Barrymore looking through the bottom of a glass; and Barrymore having visions while locked in prison. A real gem that I'm sure to do again.

Wednesday, Sept. 11: 'The Cameraman' (1928) starring Buster Keaton, at Merrimack College, North Andover, Mass.: Opening night of the 2013-14 season of silents at the Rogers Center for the Arts drew a surprisingly big turnout: maybe about 80 folks, or twice what I would have expected. Lots of newbies roared at Buster's antics in his first film for MGM.

But the experience also contained a first for me. A little more than half-way through the film, I had to go. I mean I really had to go, as in go right now, to the bathroom. And there was clearly no way I was going to be able to tough it out, especially with the Tong War sequence still to come. On screen, Buster was just getting the tip that would send him the Tong War. I weighed my options, which weren't plentiful, and then made my move.

Pushing away from the keyboard, I muttered "Folks, I'll be back in just a second." And then, as Buster silently collided with Jocko the Monkey, I sprinted up the aisle to the men's room off the lobby. There! And I sprinted back just in time to pick things up when the monkey revives.

That had never happened before, I hope it never happens again. It felt awful, like I had abandoned the audience and Buster as well, breaking the silent movie spell and disrupting the experience. But as awful as it felt, I'm sure it would have felt even worse to...well, let's not go there. :)

Thursday, Sept. 12: 'The Last Command' (1928) starring Emil Jannings, at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H.: Modest turnout for this powerhouse film, which I'm doing in New York in November and wanted to brush up on. Score didn't quite jell due to lack of prep, and also I was starting to feel performance fatigue. Still, people enjoyed it, with the ending coming across as particularly powerful.

However, this is a movie with a lot of subcurrents, both in the story and visually, as in how cigarettes and smoking are used to illustrate positions of power and subserviance. Done properly, music can help bring these things out for an audience not used to watching a film for that kind of stuff. And I have to say, I didn't quite hit all the moments, so it's a testament to the power of this movie that it still help up and made quite an impact.

Saturday, Sept. 14: 'Dr. Jack' (1922) starring Harold Lloyd and 'Seven Chances' (1925) starring Buster Keaton at Brandon Town Hall in Brandon, Vt.: Ended the week with a terrific comedy double-feature that drew our largest crowd ever (119 people) to Brandon Town Hall in Brandon, Vt. This was partly due to an article in the Rutland (Vt.) Herald and other great press we received.

The Herald piece (posted at right) is notable because the reporter actually quoted me about my "big-ass keyboard," something I usually think of as an offhand remark. Well, now it's officially in print. Maybe Korg will build their next marketing campaign on it.

Shades of Somerville: Lots of Harold newbies who responded to Lloyd like a geyser. I introduced 'Dr. Jack' as "another perspective on the timeless conundrum of healthcare" and that seemed to set things up just about right. Right from the start, one big laugh after another! The Keaton film, by contrast, seemed to produce fewer laughs, at least at first.

A very thorough and thoughtful account of the evening was posted by a student at Middlebury (Vt.) College who writes about vintage cinema on her Nitrate Diva blog. She has a lot to say and says (or writes) it all very well. She introduced herself after Saturday night's screenings and it was a pleasure to make her acquaintance. I look forward to following her blog!

Now I get a few days to recover before another busy stretch this weekend...

Monday, September 9, 2013

Something of a busy week:
Five days, four shows, three states

Fresh off a fun screening of Harold Lloyd's 'The Freshman' (1925) at the Somerville Theater in Somerville, Mass., I'm heading into a week with four diffent films in three different states over the next five days.

Luckily, this is New England, and the states are small. So the driving isn't too bad, although Saturday's trek up to Vermont is about 2½ hours one way.

Below is the schedule. But before I take off, a few quick thoughts about yesterday's music for 'The Freshman.'

We had a lively crowd of about 120 people on hand for an afternoon screening that took place right at the same time as opening game for the New England Patriots (so scratch off any serious football fans) and also during a fair that blocked several key streets around the theater. (Scratch easy access.)

The score marked the debut of my new referee's whistle for the football scenes as well as a call bell for the "Fall Frolic" sequence.

I blew the whistle right at the start, to get things going, but then held off until the climactic game scenes. I didn't use it at all during the extended football practice sequence because no one is visibly seen blowing a whistle, and besides, a little goes a long way.

So it was nice to hear afterwards from some folks who were glad I used it sparingly. Even so, a couple of times during the climax, the whistle was the victim of "dry mouth" syndrome, meaning when I tried to blow on it, nothing came out!

The call bell was a little trickier because it kept sliding down the the synthesizer's cover panel and onto my keys, making it kind of a nuisance during the film. And then, when it was time to use it, it was tougher than I thought to synchronize hitting it to the scenes on-screen of a bell being hit impatiently, while at the same time keeping the dance music going with my left hand.

Maybe I'm a little too demanding on myself, but a sound effect cue like this really has to be exactly right on or it's not worth doing, because then it draws attention to itself and kills the comedy. I was close, but didn't quite hit one cue exactly right, I thought.

Afterwards, no one seemed bothered by it. But that didn't matter because it bothered me, and I found myself wishing for another chance.

Things went well overall, though, especially considering the traffic diversions around the theater. Any kind of disruption can effect a performance, and I did have a tough time getting into the film, but it all came together for Harold's big scene with Jobyna and then the big game that follows.

I also had the pleasure of being interviewed by Lisa Mullins, a public radio journalist whose work is heard on 'The World' and other programs. She's planning on putting together a piece that might hit the Boston airwaves prior to our next Somerville Theatre screening, another Lloyd film: 'Safety Last' (1923) on Sunday, Oct. 6 at 1 p.m. As they say, stay tuned!

In the meantime, here's a round-up of this week's busy schedule, which brings a mix of drama and comedy...

• Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013, 6 p.m.: "The Tempest" (1928) starring John Barrymore, Camilla Horn; Carpenter Memorial Auditorium, Manchester Public Library, 405 Pine St., Manchester, N.H.; (603) 624-6550; Manchester Public Library. Epic drama in which an officer in the Czar's army (Barrymore) falls hard for a haughty princess (Horn), who spurns him and causes him to be stripped of rank. But the tables are turned with the Russian revolution, which upends the aristocracy and puts the soldier and the princess at the mercy of forces that no one can control. Monthly series of rarely screened silent films presented with live music in 1913 auditorium. Admission free, donations encouraged.

• Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013, 7 p.m.: "The Cameraman" (1928); Rogers Center for the Arts, Merrimack College, 315 North Turnpike St., North Andover, Mass. (978) 837-5355. Portrait photographer Buster exchanges his still camera for a movie camera in an effort to break into the newsreel business and win the attention of a special gal. Spectacular movie-themed Keaton comedy filled with great stunts filmed on a grand scale. Silent film with live music on the campus of Merrimack College. Free admission. For more information, visit the Rogers Center online.

• Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013, 6:30 p.m.: "The Last Command" (1928) starring Emil Jannings, William Powell; The Flying Monkey Movie House and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.; (603) 536-2551; Jannings snagged the first-ever Best Actor Academy Award for his towering portrayal of a Czarist general and patriot forced to contend with love and the Russian Revolution in this sweeping late silent drama directed by Josef von Sternberg. Part of a monthly silent film series at a newly restored moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H. Admission, $10 per person.

• Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, 7 p.m.: "Lloyd and Keaton: Silent Comedy Double Feature"; Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Main Street/Route 7, Brandon, Vt.; In 'Dr. Jack' (1922), Harold Lloyd stars as a country doctor with unorthodox methods that get results! But now comes his toughest case yet: a poor little rich girl (Mildred Davis), bed-ridden with a mysterious condition. Harold's cure is sure to make you smile! In 'Seven Chances' (1925), Buster will inherit a fortune provided he's a married 7 p.m. today! Classic Keaton comedy, complete with one of the best silent film comedy endings ever created. Part of a summer series of silent film and live music in a wonderfully restored town hall in Brandon Vt. that features great acoustics. Admission free, donations accepted, with proceeds to help continuing preservation work.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Back to school (and football!) with Lloyd's
'The Freshman' in 35mm on Sunday, Sept. 8

Harold hangs on during the big game in 'The Freshman' (1925).

I'm not quite ready to give it up on summer, but the calendar is beginning to disagree with me. Just today, September arrived, and that puts us one week away from a screening of Harold Lloyd's 'The Freshman' (1925) on Sunday, Sept. 8 at the Somerville Theatre outside of Boston.

Also, I'm pleased to report that introducing the film will be Annette D'Agostino Lloyd, noted Lloyd author and scholar and enthusiast for all things Harold!

This is one I've really been looking forward to, as the Lloyd pictures are great for audience reactions and we've been steadily building attendance for the Somerville's monthly silent film series.

And the timing is right, too. Boston is a college town, with students now arriving for the fall semester. Plus, it's also the start of football season, with our local NFL team (the New England Patriots) starting against Buffalo on Sunday, Sept. 8. Game time is...oops, exactly the same time as our screening: 1 p.m.!

Well, you can see the Patriots play anytime, but how often do you get to see a Harold Lloyd feature in 35mm on the big screen with live music and a large audience? Okay, we're doing 'Safety Last' (1923) in October, but still, it's not every day that everything gets put back together for a Lloyd film to be seen the way it was intended.

About 'The Freshman' (1925): although I never played football, I was a band geek in high school (baritone horn and sousaphone), and so went to a lot of games. And even to someone like me, one element of 'The Freshman' that's interesting is to see how football has changed since the 1920s. The game is still the same, but the uniforms and equipment have really come a long way.

Interestingly, the Lloyd crew filmed several sequences for 'The Freshman' during actual big college-level games on the West Coast. So football fans, take note: you'll get to see glimpses of a real stadium setting from nearly a century ago.

And although all of Harold's films hold up well and need little explanation to contemporary audiences, the opening of 'The Freshman' has a curve ball that most people today won't get. Harold's Dad is described as the "the best bookkeeper in the county and the worst radio liar in the state." What's that all about?

At the time, with radio so new, it was common for people to try to pull in distant signals on their home receivers. People kept logs and compared them, and apparently it was not uncommon for some people to stretch the truth just a little. Hence the humor when Harold's father, hearing his son's vaguely Asian college chants upstairs, mistakenly thinks he's received China!

China or not, I hope you'll join us for 'The Freshman' on Sunday, Sept. 8 at 1 p.m. at the Somerville Theater in Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. For more info about the film and the screening, the press release is pasted in below. See you there! Go team!

* * *

Harold Lloyd with the lovely Jobyna Ralston, co-star for most of his great features in the 1920s.

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

Silent film classic 'The Freshman' in 35mm
on Sunday, Sept. 8 in Somerville, Mass.

Head back to school with Harold Lloyd's comic masterpiece about college life, with live music at historic Somerville Theatre

SOMERVILLE, Mass.—What happens when a first-year student's dreams of college collide with the realities of campus life? The result is Harold Lloyd in 'The Freshman' (1925), one of the most popular comedies of the silent film era. Filled with classic scenes and a great story, 'The Freshman' endures as one of Lloyd's most crowd-pleasing movies.

See for yourself with a screening of 'The Freshman' (1925) on Sunday, Sept. 8 at 1 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.

'The Freshman' will be screened in the Somerville's main theater using a 35mm print made available by the Harold Lloyd Trust. The program will be accompanied live by silent film musician Jeff Rapsis. General admission is $15 per person.

The program is the latest in the Somerville Theatre's 'Silents Please' series, which offers audiences a chance to experience silent film as it was intended: on the big screen using 35mm film, with live music, and in a theater with an audience.

"Put the whole experience back together, and you can see why people first fell in love with the movies," said Rapsis, one of the nation's leading silent film accompanists. Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra, creating a traditional "movie score" sound.

'The Freshman,' Lloyd's most successful silent film of the 1920s, was hugely popular at the time of its release. It sparked a craze for college films that lasted well beyond the 1920s, and even a popular hit song, the collegiate fox trot "Freshie."

The story follows Lloyd, small town newbie, to Tate College, where he hopes to achieve fame as Big Man on Campus. Instead, his quest to win popularity becomes a college-wide joke, with Harold getting tricked by upperclassmen into hosting the school's annual "Fall Frolic" at his own expense.

Lloyd finally decides he can make his mark on the college football team, where he holds the lowly position of waterboy and serves as tackling dummy. On the day of the Big Game, can the bespectacled "freshie" somehow save the day and bring gridiron glory to dear old Tate?

For football fans, the film's climactic game sequence was shot on the field at the actual Rose Bowl in 1924. The crowd scenes were shot at halftime at California Memorial Stadium during the November 1924 "Big Game" between UC Berkeley and Stanford University. Other exterior scenes were filmed near the USC campus in Los Angeles.

Beyond its comic appeal, 'The Freshman' today has acquired an additional layer of interest in its depiction of college life in the 1920s—a time of raccoon coats, ukeleles, and many other long-gone fads and fashions.

"It was long before television, the Internet, cellphones, or Facebook," said Rapsis. "To us today, it looks like college on another planet, which I think adds to the appeal of a film like 'The Freshman.' But at its core, 'The Freshman' is still a great story about people, and that's why it remains such an entertaining experience today, especially when shown as Lloyd intended it."

In 1990, 'The Freshman' was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant," named in only the second year of voting and one of the first 50 films to receive such an honor.

Lloyd, along with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, is recognized as one of the silent screen's three great clowns. Lloyd's character, a young go-getter ready to struggle to win the day, proved hugely popular in the 1920s. While Chaplin and Keaton were always critical favorites, Lloyd's films reigned as the top-grossing comedies throughout the period.

However, Lloyd's public image faded after his retirement in the 1930s, when Lloyd turned his energies to charitable causes such as the Shriners. He retained control over his films, refusing to release them for television and only rarely allowing them to be screened at revivals, fearing modern audiences wouldn't know how to respond to his work or to silent films in general. He died in 1971.

In recent years, Lloyd's family has taken steps to restore Harold's reputation and public image. They're released his work on DVD, and arranged for more frequent screenings of his films in the environment for which they were made: in theaters with live music and a large audience.

Despite Lloyd's fears, audiences continue to respond just as strongly as when the films were new, with features such as 'The Freshman' embraced as timeless achievements from the golden era of silent film comedy.

Critics review 'The Freshman':

"Regarded as the quintessential Harold Lloyd vehicle.”
—TV Guide

"Gag for gag, Lloyd was the funniest screen comic of his time. Passionately recommended. "
—Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader

Upcoming films in the Somerville's 'Silents Please' series include:

• Sunday, Oct. 6, 1 p.m.: 'Safety Last' (1923) starring Harold Lloyd. Landmark comic romp that finds go-getter Harold, eager to climb the corporate ladder, instead forced to clamber up the exterior of a towering downtown department store. Filmed without trick photography. Hilarious and terrifying at the same time; one of the great thrill rides of the cinema.

• Sunday, Nov. 17, 1 p.m.: 'Peter Pan' (1924) starring Mary Brian, Betty Bronson, Ernest Torrence. Original silent film adaptation of J.M. Barrie's stage classic, supervised by the author himself, retains its appeal to children of all ages, especially ones who refuse to grow up. Heartfelt acting, imaginative set design, and pioneering special effects combine to create pure visual magic.

Head back to school with Harold Lloyd's 'The Freshman' (1925), to be shown in 35mm on Sunday, Sept. 8 at 1 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. Admission is $15 per person. For more information, call (617) 625-5700 or visit