Monday, December 9, 2013

Looking back at Charlie and Buster,
looking forward to 'Peter Pan' in Connecticut

A handmade sign promoting the evening's entertainment at the Tuscan Opera House in Dixfield, Maine.

Two unusual one-off screenings this past weekend as things wind down to the holiday season lull.

Last Friday night (Dec. 6), I had the pleasure of accompanying a screening of Chaplin's 'The Kid' (1921) for the Media and Design Club of Southern New Hampshire University. It was a pleasure despite lugging my gear in a light snow and the late hour: a 9:30 p.m. start!

But it was the club's sole activity this semester, and I was delighted that they'd decided a silent film with live music was the way to go. The venue: a small lecture hall with rows of bench desks, but it worked well enough.

Thanks to Bill Millios (on the SNHU faculty) for recommending me to the club, and organizer Jennifer Lampro for all her efforts. Lots of good questions afterwards, and also fun with a couple of students fascinated by my aging digital synthesizer. ("Wow, this is damaged and beat up like a road guitar.")

But real adventure was Saturday, where I put in 370 miles up and back to Dixfield, Maine, where high school students staged a silent film show at the town's opera house to benefit the town's historical society.

This part of Maine is unfamiliar to me, so I left home around noon to allow for plenty of time for some Christmas shopping on the way in Littleton, N.H. I then got on Route 2, the great east-west highway of northern New England, and even though I made good time (no lumbering lumber trucks), I just barely made it to Dixfield for the appointed 5:30 p.m. arrival.

One reason was Rumford, Maine, the town just before Dixfield. Route 2 runs right through the middle of this compact community, which is dominated by a truly enormous paper mill. The sun had gone down, and somehow I'd lost the scent of Route 2 through town, instead getting trapped in a small area of narrow one-way streets in Rumford's vintage downtown.

I finally found Route 2 after driving right through a portion of the paper mill, among piles of logs several stories high that awaited their fate. I later discovered that the Rumford Mill is the nation's largest producer of "coated paper" used in magazine publishing. So next time you pick up your copy of "Field & Stream," I may have already seen it in raw form.

The auditorium of the Tuscan Opera House, seen from the front. About a third of the floor space (at right) is taken up by a kitchen that was installed when the place functioned as a restaurant.

Dixfield's "Tuscan Opera House" turned out to be a sprawling multi-floor wood frame relic from another era. Built by the International Order of Odd Fellows in 1905 (on the foundations of a former opera house that burned to the ground), the structure hosted dances, movies, and school graduation ceremonies for generations of town residents.

In more recent years, the place has functioned as an antique shop and a restaurant, with long stretches of inactivity. Changes to the building have resulted in a really unusual layout for the auditorium, which now has about a third of its floor space taken up by a walled-off kitchen. But the stage is intact, and so it's still a good (if slightly lop-sided) place for a show.

A view of the proscenium in the opera house, with handmade movie screen front and center, restaurant kitchen to the left.

These days, building owner Nancy Carpenter is looking for ways to reconnect the Opera House to town life. So when Kurt Rowley, a teacher at the local high school, suggested that his students organize a silent film program to benefit the town's historical society, she was glad to say yes.

So I got the call a few months ago. And the next thing I knew, it was Saturday, Dec. 7, and I was face to face with a large wooden Indian of the "cigar store" type, guarding the main door of the opera house. Inside, the place is an evocative mixture of vintage bric-a-brac, including a massive mechanical cash register that students were using to ring up ticket and concession sales. (That's them "raiding the till" in the photo below.)

Although I had to concentrate on setting up my gear and preparing for the performance, I loved the quirky surroundings and wished I could have spent more time just poking around. (Mrs. Carpenter offered to give me a tour afterwards, but the three-hour drive home beckoned and I had to hit the road.)

One problem with movies at the Tuscan Opera House: it lacks any kind of screen. So, for our program, Mr. Rowley commissioned a homespun version made out of what seemed to be wide strips of cotton crafting fabric sewn together horizontally. It worked brilliantly!

The film program was preceded by music from this excellent student violinist, who made use of an incredible improvised music stand, and whose name I have misplaced. Someone help me!

The program was Buster Keaton's two "junior" films: first 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924) to warm things up, and then 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' (1928) as the main attraction. We got about 60 people and reaction was what I would call "steady." People really seemed to enjoy both films, but this just wasn't a crowd given to explosive laughter. Maybe interior Maine is just like that, I guess. Ayup. People had some very nice things to say afterwards, however, and I felt I'd hit the mark mostly.

So: a small town I'd never been to, a quirky old auditorium with good acoustics, friendly and polite high school students eager to volunteer, a live audience, and Buster Keaton. What more could a silent film accompanist want?

And that leaves just one more gig before I shut things down for the holiday season: a screening of 'Peter Pan' (1924) at the library down in Stratford, Conn. (A three-hour drive in the other direction.) The fun starts on Sunday, Dec. 15 at 2 p.m. at Stratford Library, 2203 Main St., Stratford, Conn. The screening is free and open to all! That's Betty Bronson, below, in the title role.

I'm looking forward to this, in part because I've done music for 'Peter Pan' twice in the past month, and so I feel like I'm in good shape to help the film come to life. The movie is "in my head," and I have the right musical ideas to go with it, I think. The most problematic part of the exercise will be just getting down there and setting up my gear (disc player, projector, synthesizer, speakers) prior to the show, which always has me worried until everything is hooked up and working.

So I guess that's what a silent film accompanist could want: a tech assistant!

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