Friday, May 11, 2018

'Steamboat Bill' in 35mm Sunday in Somerville,
plus weird pre-show accompanist rituals

Promotional art for 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' featuring a rosy-cheeked Keaton, making me thankful the films weren't made in color.

Just as some athletes have unusual warm-up routines, silent film accompanists often have weird pre-show rituals.

With me, it's when I plug in the sustain pedal into the back of my synthesizer. I then have to lower the pedal down to the floor behind the keyboard, almost like I'm weighing anchor.

And because of the way the pedal unit hangs from its power cord, getting it to land right side up takes a deft shift of the line at the very last minute, when the unit touches the ground.

If it lands correctly, I consider it a good omen. If not, I steel myself for whatever grand joke the Gods are about to play.

For last night's screening of 'The Winning of Barbara Worth' (1926) at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H., the pedal landed correctly. And so the screening went forward without a hitch, unless you count (SPOILER ALERT) the marriage at the very end. Har!

We'll see how the pedal falls on Sunday, May 13 at the Somerville Theatre, when I'll accompany the screening of a 35mm print of Buster Keaton's 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' (1928) at 2 p.m.

There's a lot of 'Steamboat' around this weekend. I notice fellow accompanist Ben Model is doing music for the iconic film, which he refers to simply as "one where the house falls on him."

It says something about a film when people refer to it with even having to use the title. Nice!

But 'Steamboat' is one of the most popular Keaton's, mostly because it's so good, but also because due to an oversight it's in the public domain.

I've done it so frequently that my material for the film has emerged as not so much improvised but recalled from prior performances.

So it's a good candidate for sitting down this summer and putting the score on paper, which is something I'd like to do more of. We'll see.

For now, there's no sheet music—it's all in my head, and will be at the Somerville Theatre this Sunday when we run 'Steamboat.'

Hope to see you there! And if you'd like more info, I'm pasting in the press release below.

* * *

Buster's burly on-screen father, Ernest Torrence, first encounters his unexpectedly un-masculine grown son in Steamboat Bill, Jr.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Silent comedy 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' at Somerville Theatre on Sunday, May 13

Buster Keaton masterpiece to be screened with live music as venue's 'Silents Please' series returns

SOMERVILLE, Mass.—Silent film with live music returns to the Somerville Theatre this month with 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' (1928), a classic comedy starring Buster Keaton, one of era's top performers. 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' will be revived using a 35mm print for one showing only at the Somerville Theatre, Davis Square, on Sunday, May 13 at 2 p.m.

Live music will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. General admission is $15 per person; $12 seniors and students.

The Somerville Theatre's 'Silents Please!' allows fans to experience silent film the way its makers originally intended: on the big screen, in 35mm prints, with live music, and with an audience.

"If you put the experience back together, you can see why silent films caused such excitement for early movie-goers," said Ian Judge, the Somerville's manager and director of operations.

In 'Steamboat Bill Jr.,' Buster plays the bumbling son of a riverboat’s rough captain. When a rival brings a newer boat to the river, the family is forced to face competition, just as Buster is forced to ride out a cyclone threatening to destroy the community.

Can Buster save the day and win the hand of his girlfriend, who happens to be daughter of his father's business rival?

The film includes the famous shot of an entire building front collapsing on Keaton, who is miraculously spared by a conveniently placed second-story window.

Keaton, who grew up performing with the family vaudeville act, was known for never smiling on camera, an important element of his comic identity. A trained acrobat who learned at an early age how to take falls, Keaton did all his own stunts on camera in the era before post-production special effects.

Critics continue to hail Keaton’s timeless comedy as well as his intuitive filmmaking genius. In 2002, Roger Ebert wrote of Keaton that “in an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, he worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies.”

Keaton, who never attended school, thought of himself not as an artist but as an entertainer using the new medium of motion pictures to tell stories and create laughter.

The screening of 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' will feature live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based composer who specializes in creating music for silent film presentations.

Rapsis will create the accompaniment on the spot, improvising music as the movie unfolds to enhance the action on the screen as well respond to audience reactions. He will perform the music on a digital synthesizer capable of producing a wide range of theatre organ and orchestral textures.

"Live music was an integral part of the silent film experience," Rapsis said. "Because most films at the time weren't released with sheet music or scores, studios depended on local musicians to come up with an effective score that was different in every theater. At its best, this approach created an energy and a connection that added a great deal to a film's impact. That's what I try to recreate," Rapsis said.

Upcoming titles in the Somerville's 'Silents, Please!' series include:

• Sunday, June 10: 'Chicago' (1927). The original big screen adaptation of the notorious Jazz Age tabloid scandal, based on real events. Dancer Roxie Hart is accused of murder! Is she innocent or headed for the slammer? Shown via DCP.

• Sunday, July 8: 'The Docks of New York' (1928). Masterful drama about a ship laborer who rescues a beautiful woman from drowning, but then finds his life changed in unexpected ways. A gem from the late silent years. Shown via 35mm print.

• Sunday, Aug. 12: 'Laurel & Hardy Silent Comedies.' Some of the timeless duo's finest (and funniest) comedy two-reelers, all presented in 35mm, including 'Big Business' (1929), You're Darn Tootin' (1928), and 'The Finishing Touch' (1928).

'Steamboat Bill Jr.' will be screened on Sunday, May 13 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. Tickets are $15 adults, $12 students/seniors. For more information, visit or call (617) 625-4088. For more info on the music, visit

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