Saturday, May 19, 2018

We're off to Brandon, Vt. with 'Wizard of Oz,' where it's all about the audience

'The Wizard of Oz' (1925) as you've never seen it.

Tonight is opening night for another season of silent cinema with live music at Brandon Town Hall in Brandon, Vt.

It's the eighth year I've come up to Brandon for a monthly series of silent film programs. And one reason I keep doing it is the audience.

For some reason, silent film remains big news in Brandon, at least judging by the turnout.

We routinely get more than 100 people who pack into the Town Hall, a mid-19th century building never intended to be a movie theater.

But it works pretty well, and has especially good acoustics with its open stage and high ceiling and wooden floor.

The shows draw everyone from "tiny tots to octogenarians," to borrow a phrase from author Walter Kerr.

Attendance is important because any donations go to ongoing renovations to the facility, which lay abandoned for decades until its recent renaissance.

In the eight years I've been going there, the committee of volunteers has updated the bathrooms, added a heating system, worked on replacing the slate roof, and improved accessibility for the disabled.

But it's also important because a big and lively audience is an essential ingredient for the silent film experience.

You can have live music. You can have a beautiful print. You can have a big screen.

But without an audience, it's not the experience that prompted people to first fall in love with the movies.

And in working with an obsolete art form, I don't take attendance for granted.

Consider the turnout we had for a screening of 'The Black Pirate' this past Thursday night at the Capitol Theatre in Arlington, Mass.

This is an actual movie theater, and it's my privilege to do music for a monthly series there as well.

This is in the middle of world-class city known for its long-term affinity for the arts and culture, including cinema.

And for this screening, I'd snagged an on-air interview on WBZ-AM 1030, Boston's powerhouse news radio station and the most-listened-to radio station in New England.

And attendance for 'The Black Pirate' was...16 people. Wow! There were way more pirates on screen than people in the seats.

We still had a great time. And at least that was up from about a dozen we had last month for Buster Keaton's masterpiece 'The General.'

We enjoyed better numbers last year at the Capitol, so I'm not sure what's going on.

In talking with the management, theories range from "too many other silent film programs in the area" (which, alas, could be true) to "too many home entertainment options," a phenomenon that's affecting attendance at all movies, not just silents.

Maybe we could take a page from the Brandon playbook: somehow wreck the Capitol, and then get people to come in support of restoring it.

Heck, they could even charge people for taking swings at it with a sledgehammer. Anything to get people to the theater!

If this trend catches on, you heard it here first.

In the meantime, we're launching this year's Brandon series with a real curiosity: the silent film version of 'The Wizard of Oz' (1925).

I avoided this Larry Semon film for years, given its abysmal reputation among cinephiles.

But I finally ran it a year ago in Wilton, N.H., and was surprised at the strong (and strongly positive) reaction it got.

People enjoyed it. They actually applauded when Larry had his big moment with Dorothy Dwan near the end.

If you're in the area this evening (Brandon is about 20 minutes north of Rutland, Vt.), please come by and check it out!

Here's the press release for the show, which includes the line-up for the reason of the 2018 season. See you in Oz!

* * *

Larry Semon, Dorothy Dwan, and Oliver Hardy are off to see the Wizard...sort of.

For more info, contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Brandon Town Hall to host summer silent film series with live music

Schedule leads off on Saturday, May 19 with silent film version of 'The Wizard of Oz'

BRANDON, Vt.—Classics of the silent film era return to the big screen starting next month in Brandon Town Hall, which hosts another season of vintage cinema with live music in the historic facility.

It's the 8th year of the town hall's popular silent film series, which gives residents and visitors a chance to see great movies from the pioneering days of cinema as they were meant to be shown—on the big screen, with an audience, and accompanied by live music.

Screenings are held once a month on Saturday nights starting in May and running through October. Admission is free; donations are encouraged, with proceeds to benefit the Town Hall's ongoing restoration.

Over the years, silent film donations have helped support projects including handicapped access to the 19th century building; renovating the bathrooms; and restoring the structure's original slate roof.

Live music for each silent film program will be provided by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based performer and composer who specializes in scoring silent films.

"It's great to be bringing silent film back to the big screen in Brandon for another series," Rapsis said. "Brandon Town Hall is a wonderful place for these movies to be seen at their best."

In accompanying silent films live, Rapsis uses a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of the full orchestra. He improvises the music in real time, as the movie is shown.

First up in this season's line-up is the silent version of 'The Wizard of Oz,' the nearly forgotten 1925 silent film version of the famous tale.

Long overshadowed by the immensely popular 1939 remake, the rarely seen silent 'The Wizard of Oz' (1925) will be screened on Saturday, May 19 at 7 p.m. at Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Route 7, in Brandon, Vt.

Released by Chadwick Pictures, 'The Wizard of Oz' was intended as a vehicle for slapstick comedian Larry Semon, who directed the picture and played the role of the scarecrow.

Dorothy is played by Dorothy Dwan, Semon's wife. Also in the cast is Oliver Hardy as the Tin Man. Prior to his teaming with comedian Stan Laurel later in the 1920s, Hardy often played Semon's comic foil.

The silent 'Wizard of Oz' bears little resemblance to the highly polished MGM musical released just 14 years later. However, due to the enduring worldwide popularity of Baum's 'Oz' characters and stories, the silent 'Wizard of Oz' remains an object of great curiosity among fans.

The film departs radically from the novel upon which it is based, introducing new characters and exploits. Along with a completely different plot, the film is all set in a world that is only barely recognizable as the Land of Oz from the books. The film focuses mainly upon Semon's character, who is analogous to Ray Bolger's Scarecrow character in the 1939 version.

Also on the program is an even earlier 'Wizard of Oz' film from 1910 that runs less than 10 minutes.

Because silent films were designed to be shown to large audiences in theaters with live music, the best way to experience them is to recreate the conditions in which they were first shown, Rapsis said.

"Films such as 'The Wizard of Oz' were created to be shown on the big screen to large audiences as a communal experience," Rapsis said. "With an audience and live music, silent films come to life in the way their makers intended. Not only are they entertaining, but they give today's audiences a chance to understand what caused people to first fall in love with the movies."

The program is sponsored by Pat Hanson.

Other shows in this year's Brandon silent film series include:

• Saturday, June 9: 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.' (1928) starring Buster Keaton. Pampered Buster returns home from college to help his father, a tough riverboat captain, battle to save the family business. Climaxed by an eye-popping cyclone sequence, 'Steamboat Bill' is crammed with classic Keaton gags and sequences. Silent comedy at its finest! Sponsored by Nancy and Gary Meffe.

• Saturday, June 30: 'The Adventures of Prince Achmed' (1926). Taken from 'The Arabian Nights,' the first full-length animated feature tells the story of a wicked sorcerer who tricks Prince Achmed into mounting a magical flying horse, sending him off to a series of wondrous and romantic adventures. Sponsored by Pam and Steve Douglass.

• Saturday, Aug. 11: 'Laurel & Hardy: A Silent Fine Mess.' The beloved comedy team got their start in silent film, and so celebrate their origins with a selection of their funniest short comedies. Get ready to laugh as Stan and Ollie made fine messes out of everything from a day in the country to a night on the town. Sponsored by the Brandon/Forestdale Lions Club.

• Saturday, Sept. 8: 'Sherlock Holmes' (1916) starring William Gillette. Recently discovered in France after being lost for nearly a century, see this original 1916 adaptation of Sherlock Holmes stories as performed by William Gillette, the actor who created the role on stage and performed it more than 1,000 times. Sponsored by Kathy and Bill Mathis, in memory of Maxine Thurston; also an anonymous donor.

• Saturday, Oct. 20: Chiller Theatre, 'Der Golem' (1920). In 16th-century Prague, a rabbi creates a giant creature from clay, called the Golem. Using sorcery, he brings the creature to life in order to protect the Jews of Prague from persecution, but then complications ensue. Early German fantasy movie anticipates Frankenstein story. Sponsored by Jan Coolidge, Lucy and Dick Rouse, Marc & Arlyn Briere, Dorothy Leyseth and Edward Loedding.

The silent version of 'The Wizard of Oz' (1925) will open this season's silent film series at Brandon Town Hall. The movie will be screened on Saturday, May 19 at 7 p.m. at the Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Route 7, in Brandon, Vt. All are welcome to this family-friendly event. Admission is free, with free will donations accepted in support of ongoing Town Hall renovations.

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