Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Great Popcorn Spill of 2018, plus Chaney's 'Hunchback' Sunday, 10/28 in Wilton, N.H.

A legendary local disaster is the Great Molasses Flood of 1919. Seriously! Click on the link and you'll see. (But come back!)

Well, to that catastrophe we can now as the Great Popcorn Spill of 2018. Again, seriously! (But no link as of yet.)

This happened on Friday, Oct. 26 at the Regent Theatre in Arlington, Mass., a close-in suburb of Boston.

I know because not only did I witness this disaster, I actually caused it.

What happened was I was at the keyboard below the stage, playing spooky warm-up music for one of the Regent's trademark original shows. That night, it was a tribute to iconic illusionist Harry Houdini, who died on Halloween in 1926, hence the timing.

The show included 'Terror Island' (1920), one of Houdini's starring silent pictures, with me on hand to do music, preceded by two local magicians who would recreate some of Houdini's astonishing feats live on stage.

It being a Regent spectacular, I wasn't surprised that the event was reserved seating. But as I sat there spinning spooky music prior to the show, I was surprised when a couple came in and had seats right behind me.

I mean right behind me. Like there was no room for their legs with the keyboard and me taking up all the space.

But we shifted things around a bit and they were fine with it, they said. So I continued until showtime, when Leland Stein of the Regent came down to cue me to stop so he could welcome everyone and get things started.

So I stopped, playing a cheesy fanfare to give Leland at least the status of a game show host.

People applauded (because I stopped, I assumed) but then Leland encouraged further applause for the accompanist, which ensued.

Okay, I thought, preparing to artfully swing around on the piano bench and acknowledge the warm welcome. Here we go...

...and BAM! My right hand sailed straight into a gargantuan tub of popcorn being held (not very tightly) by the poor guy behind me.

Before either of us could react, an absolute ERUPTION of popcorn exploded in all directions.

It covered the guy and his companion. It covered the seat and the floor. Drifts of it buried my sustain pedal under the keyboard. Not a single kernel was left in the bucket.

And the guy just sat there, expressionless, while I began making profuse apologies, and also tried not to laugh in his face.

He really did say nothing, even as I swung off the bench and slunk below Leland, squishing popcorn underfoot, to make my way up the aisle the concession counter in the lobby.

I came back with a replacement popcorn for the guy, who still displayed no emotion or reaction, and then began kicking drifts of spilled popcorn out from under my keyboard.

At intermission I approach the couple to offer a full apology. Finally the guy responded, but not in the way I expected.

Quietly and amiably, he said: "I thought it was funny."

Whew! I thought he was quietly summoning a curse on me, but instead he found the Great Popcorn Spill of 2018 entertaining. Duly noted. For future reference: if a film doesn't seem to be connecting with an audience, try throwing food at them. (Before they start throwing it at me.)

So I'm now in the Halloween Home Stretch, having played 'Faust' (1926) last night at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine, and prepping for Lon Chaney's 'Hunchback' (1923) at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

After that, all that remains (remains!) is 'Phantom' at the Colonial Theatre in Keene on Halloween itself. Then I can put away the cape and fake teeth for another year.

I'm actually quite excited about 'Phantom' because it's the first of two big shows at the Colonial, which opened as a silent film theater in 1924. And the Colonial's original opening night will be recreated in January with a screening of Chaney's 'Hunchback,' the first film to play there.

More on all that in weeks to come. For now, here's the press release about this afternoon's screening of 'Hunchback' in Wilton. It's a rainy afternoon here...good weather for movie-going!

* * *

Quasimodo (Lon Chaney) is offered a drink.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Chaney as Quasimodo in 'Hunchback of Notre Dame' on Sunday, Oct. 28 at Town Hall Theatre

Just in time for Halloween: Classic silent version starring Lon Chaney as Quasimodo to be presented with live music

WILTON, N.H.—It was a spectacular combination: Lon Chaney, the actor known as the "Man of 1,000 Faces," and Universal's big screen adaptation of Victor Hugo's sprawling tale of the tortured Quasimodo.

The result was the classic silent film version of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923), which will be shown just in time for Halloween at Wilton's Town Hall Theatre

Silent film with live music returns to the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, with the thriller 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' on Sunday, Oct. 28 at 4:30 p.m.

The special Halloween program will be presented with live music by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free, with a donation of $5 per person requested to help cover expenses.

The film is based on Victor Hugo's 1831 novel, and is notable for the grand sets that recall 15th century Paris as well as for Chaney's performance and make-up as the tortured hunchback Quasimodo.

The film elevated Chaney, already a well-known character actor, to full star status in Hollywood, and also helped set a standard for many later horror films, including Chaney's 'The Phantom of the Opera' in 1925.

While Quasimodo is but one of many interconnecting characters in the original Hugo novel, he dominates the narrative of this expensive Universal production.

In the story, Jehan (Brandon Hurst), the evil brother of the archdeacon, lusts after a Gypsy named Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller) and commands the hunchback Quasimodo (Chaney) to capture her.

Military captain Phoebus (Norman Kerry) also loves Esmeralda and rescues her, but the Gypsy is not unsympathetic to Quasimodo's condition, and an unlikely bond forms between them.

After vengeful Jehan frames Esmeralda for the attempted murder of Phoebus, Quasimodo's feelings are put to the test in a spectacular climax set in and around the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

As the hunchbacked bellringer Quasimodo, Chaney adorned himself with a special device that made his cheeks jut out grotesquely; a contact lens that blanked out one of his eyes; and, most painfully, a huge rubber hump covered with coarse animal fur and weighing anywhere from 30 to 50 pounds.

Chaney deeply identified with Quasimodo, the deformed bell-ringer at Notre Dame Cathedral who was deafened by his work. Chaney was raised by deaf parents and did a lot of his communication with mom and dad through pantomime.

“The idea of doing the picture was an old one of mine and I had studied Quasimodo until I knew him like a brother, knew every ghoulish impulse of his heart and all the inarticulate miseries of his soul,” Chaney told an interviewer with Movie Weekly magazine in 1923.

“Quasimodo and I lived together—we became one. At least so it has since seemed to me. When I played him, I forgot my own identity completely and for the time being lived and suffered with the Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

The film was a major box office hit for Universal Studios, and Chaney's performance continues to win accolades even today.

"An awe-inspiring achievement, featuring magnificent sets (built on the Universal backlot), the proverbial cast of thousands (the crowd scenes are mesmerizing) and an opportunity to catch Lon Chaney at his most commanding," wrote critic Matt Brunson of Creative Loafing in 2014.

Screening this classic version of 'Hunchback' provides local audiences the opportunity to experience silent film as it was intended to be shown: on the big screen, in restored prints, with live music, and with an audience.

"If you can put pieces of the experience back together again, it's surprising how these films snap back to life," said Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist who creates music for silent film screenings at venues around the country.

"By showing the films as they were intended, you can really get a sense of why people first fell in love with the movies."

In creating music for silent films, Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra and creates a traditional "movie score" sound.

'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923) starring Lon Chaney, will be screened with live music on Sunday, Oct. 28 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

Admission is free; a donation of $5 per person is requested to help defray expenses. For more info, call (603) 654-3456 or visit

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