Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Launching a series in Exeter (N.H.) Town Hall
with 'The General' (1926) on Friday, Nov. 20

Keaton and his co-star in 'The General' (1926).

I'm thrilled to announce a new silent film series in New Hampshire's Seacoast area, at the Exeter Town Hall in Exeter, N.H.

And our first screening is this Friday, Nov. 20 at 7 p.m., when we'll run Buster Keaton's 'The General' (1926) with live music by yours truly.

Admission is free, with a suggested donation of $5 per person. All proceeds to support the Penn Program, a local homeschooling co-op program that emphasizes the arts and creativity for students of high school age.

And I have to say, how odd to be running a film set during the Civil War in a building where Abraham Lincoln actually spoke prior to the 1860 presidential campaign!

The exterior of Exeter Town Hall.

Actually, I've wanted to do a series in this part of the state for a long time now, and for years I imagined it would be at a different location not far away: the Ioka Theater, also in downtown Exeter.

This venerable venue, built in 1915 as a motion picture theater by the family of Louis B. Mayer (what a pedigree!) would have been great. The opening night attraction in 1915 was 'The Birth of a Nation' exactly a century ago this year.

I had played a few shows there and it felt right—not a surprise, since silent films were once the main attraction.

Alas, the theater shut down several years ago and remains in limbo. It's now doubtful the Ioka will ever reopen as a theater as that would require an expensive fire sprinkler system.

What the interior of the Ioka looked like prior to closing in 2008.

For awhile, community leaders tried to acquire the Ioka and reopen it as a non-for-profit community cultural center.

To help rally support, I was brought in to do a silent film screening a few years ago. Since the Ioka itself was shuttered, our default venue was nearby Exeter Town Hall.

The old Town Hall was erected in 1856, and of course was never designed as a movie venue.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century. Built in the era before amplification, the old gal is blessed with wonderfully live acoustics that allow everyone to hear what's said no matter how quiet the speaker may be.

This makes it perfect for doing live music to accompany silent films, which I discovered during the screening to aid the campaign to reopen the Ioka.

The Ioka never reopened, but I felt really blessed to have discovered another venue right down the street: the Exeter Town Hall.

Even if you've never been to Exeter, you've probably seen the inside of the Town Hall thanks to media coverage of New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation Presidential Primary.

Exeter is widely recognized as the birthplace of the Republican Party, making it a key stop for candidates. Sooner or later, they all seem to hold a "town hall" type meeting or rally in Exeter Town Hall, leading to images such as these:

Bernie Sanders at Exeter Town Hall.

From 2012: Republican candidate John Huntsman at Exeter Town Hall.

George Pataki at Exeter Town Hall.

From 2012: Ron Paul at Exeter Town Hall

Marco Rubio at Exeter Town Hall.

But we're putting politics aside for our inaugural screening this Friday night, unless you consider the Civil War a contemporary issue that needs to be addressed. (I suppose that argument could be made.)

The series is in support of an innovative educational initiative that I first learned about earlier this year, when the gentleman running it approached me about running a silent film for his students.

The gentleman is Andrew Lapham Fersch and the initiative is The Penn Program. Housed in downtown Exeter, the program provides an alternative homeschooling curriculum for students of high school age. Emphasis is placed on creativity, with the arts playing a big role.

So after a private screening last spring, we came up with the idea of starting a silent film series at Exeter Town Hall as a worthy project for the kids and a fun thing for the community.

And here we are!

Hope you're able to join us as we launch our series with what many consider Buster Keaton's masterpiece, and one of the best films of all time: 'The General.'

Details in the press release that follows. See you there!

* * *

An original poster for 'The General,' which we're screening on Friday, Nov. 20 at Exeter (N.H.) Town Hall.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Silent film classic 'The General' with live music at Exeter Town Hall on Friday, Nov. 20

Buster Keaton's comic masterpiece to open new silent film series to support Penn Program

EXETER, 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 'The General' (1926), one of Keaton's landmark feature films, at Exeter Town Hall, 9 Front St., Exeter, N.H. on Friday, Nov. 20 at 7 p.m.

Keaton rides the rails in 'The General.'

Admission is free. A free will donation of $5 per person is suggested, with all proceeds to support the Penn Program, a homeschool co-op based in Exeter designed to challenge and engage creative students of high school age.

The screening, which is entertainment for the whole family, will include live music performed by N.H.-based silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

'The General,' set during the U.S. Civil War, tells the story of a southern locomotive engineer (Keaton) whose engine (named 'The General') is hijacked by Northern spies with his girlfriend onboard.

Keaton, stealing another train, races north in pursuit behind enemy lines. Can he rescue his girl? And can he steal his locomotive and make it back to warn of a coming Northern attack?

Critics call 'The General' Keaton's masterpiece, praising its authentic period detail, ambitious action and battle sequences, and its overall integration of story, drama, and comedy.

It's also regarded as one of Hollywood's great train films, with much of the action occurring on or around moving steam locomotives.

"Keaton's 'The General' is a great mix of comedy, history, pantomime, and movement, all presented in the timeless format of silent film," Rapsis said.

By screening 'The General' at Exeter Town Hall, local audiences will get a chance to experience silent film as it was meant to be seen—in a high quality print, 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 improvises a movie's musical score live as it screens. "Recreate those conditions, and the classics of early Hollywood leap back to life in ways that can still move audiences today."

Rapsis performs on a digital keyboard that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra and creates a traditional "movie score" sound.

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."

Critics review 'The General':

"The most insistently moving picture ever made, its climax is the most stunning visual event ever arranged for a film comedy."
—Walter Kerr

"An almost perfect entertainment!"
—Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader

"What makes the film so special is the way the timing, audacity and elegant choreography of its sight gags, acrobatics, pratfalls and dramatic incidents is matched by Buster's directorial artistry, his acute observational skills working alongside the physical élan and sweet subtlety of his own performance."
—Time Out (London)

'The General' is the first in a series of silent film screenings to benefit the Penn Program, a homeschool co-op based in Exeter designed to challenge and engage creative students of high school age.

The program, launched by educator and writer Andrew Lapham Fersch in 2012, seeks to explore new methods of education. The Penn Program emphasizes active involvement in a wide range of artistic and creative activities ranging from video production to stand-up comedy.

Under Fersch's direction, the program operates in downtown Exeter, enrolling students from several area towns.

The Penn Program seeks to create a new model for integrating the arts into education, with the goal of fostering creativity, originality, hard work, dedication, kindness, and a spirit of giving.

"We felt presenting a silent film series was a great way to reach out and introduce ourselves to the community while bringing people together," Fersch said. "We're all eager to celebrate the creativity of early Hollywood in Exeter Town Hall, which is a great space, and we're doubly excited to be able to bring the community together to enjoy such a talented musician and wonderful movie."

Upcoming screenings in the silent series include:

• Friday, Jan. 29, 2016, 7 p.m.: 'Metropolis' (1927); Exeter Town Hall, 9 Front St., Exeter, N.H. German director Fritz Lang's amazing epic about a futuristic society where an educated elite enjoys life in a glittering city, all supported by colonies of workers forced to live deep underground. A film that set new standards for visual design and changed movies forever!

• Friday, March 25, 2016, 7 p.m.: 'Grandma's Boy' (1922) starring Harold Lloyd; Exeter Town Hall, 9 Front St., Exeter, N.H. A cowardly young man must learn to conquer his fears before dealing with a larger menace to his community. Riotous small town comedy that helped propel Harold Lloyd into the most popular movie comedian of the 1920s.

• Friday, May 20, 2016, 7 p.m.: 'The Big Parade' (1925); Exeter Town Hall, 9 Front St, Exeter, N.H. MGM's landmark film, a sweeping drama about U.S. doughboys facing down death in the World War I trenches. Starring John Gilbert and directed by King Vidor, an epic that set the standard for generations of war movies to come.

Buster Keaton's 'The General' (1926) will be shown on Friday, Nov. 20 at 7 p.m. at Exeter Town Hall, 9 Front St., Exeter, N.H. A free will donation of $5 per person is suggested, with all proceeds to support the Penn Program. For more information about the Penn Program, visit www.facebook.com/thepennprogram. For more information on the screening, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.

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