Monday, December 30, 2019

A big finish for 2019 with 'Four Horsemen,'
now a big start to 2020 with 'Metropolis'

Nigel De Brulier (upper left) gets ready to say his big line at the end of 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.'

One reason I create music for silent films is that the experience allows me to commune with the big emotions of life: Love with a capital L, or Fear, or Joy, or Despair.

I don't get that from any other story-telling art form, with the exception of opera.

So silent film is my way to remind myself I'm still alive, and what the big emotions feel like. It doesn't always happen, but when it does, it makes it all worthwhile.

Well, I'm pleased to say it happened in spades yesterday afternoon at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H., where I accompanied "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" (1921) before a near-capacity crowd.

There are things in this big, sprawling picture that greatly move me. And it all leads up to one very special moment right at the end, when the Nigel De Brulier character is asked if he knew a man buried in an enormous hillside cemetery.

"I knew them all," he cries in the graveyard, and at that moment I feel like I'm connected to all of humanity, to something great and wonderful and meaningful—something larger than myself.

The crowd seemed to get it as well, judging from the response throughout and the reaction afterward. I even earned a partial "Standing O" from one side of the room.

Thank you to everyone who joined the journey, both for this screening and for more than 100 others during 2019. It's been a great year and I'm looking forward to 2020.

Speaking of which...

My next screening (and first of 2020) is 'Metropolis' (1927), which will be screened on Sunday, Jan. 5 at 2 p.m. at the Colonial Theatre in Keene, N.H.

For complete info, here's the press release. Hope to see you at the movies!

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'Metropolis' (1927) will be shown on Sunday, Jan. 5 at 2 p.m. at the Colonial Theatre in Keene, N.H.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Restored classic film 'Metropolis' to screen at Colonial on Sunday, Jan. 5

Landmark early sci-fi fantasy epic, with half-hour of rediscovered footage, to be shown with live music

KEENE, N.H.—A silent film hailed as the grandfather of all science fiction fantasy movies will be screened with live music at the Colonial Theatre in Keene, N.H.

'Metropolis' (1927), an epic adventure set in a futuristic world, will be shown on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020 at 2 p.m. at the Colonial Theatre, 95 Main St., Keene, N.H.

The screening, the latest in the Colonial Theatre's silent film series, will feature live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based composer who specializes in creating music for silent films.

Admission is $10 per person general admission. Tickets are available online at or at the door.

'Metropolis' (1927), regarded as German director Fritz Lang's masterpiece, is set in a society where a privileged elite pursue lives of leisure while the masses toil on vast machines and live in poverty.

The film, with its visions of futuristic factories and underground cities, set new standards for visual design and inspired generations of dystopian fantasies from Ridley Scott's 'Blade Runner' to Terry Gilliam's 'Brazil.'

In reviving 'Metropolis' and other great films of cinema's early years, the Colonial aims to show silent movies as they were meant to be seen—in high quality prints, 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 will improvise an original live score for 'Metropolis' on the spot. "Recreate those conditions, and the classics of early cinema leap back to life."

In 'Metropolis,' the story centers on an upper class young man who falls in love with a woman who works with the poor. The tale encompasses mad scientists, human-like robots, underground spiritual movements, and industrial espionage, all set in a society divided between haves and have-nots.

The version of 'Metropolis' to be screened at the Colonial is a newly restored edition that includes nearly a half-hour of missing footage cut following the film's premiere in 1927. The lost footage, discovered in 2008 in an archive in Argentina, has since been added to the existing 'Metropolis,' allowing plot threads and characters to be developed more fully.

When first screened in Berlin, Germany on Jan. 10, 1927, the sci-fi epic ran an estimated 153 minutes. After its premiere, the film's distributors (including Paramount in the U.S.) drastically shortened 'Metropolis' to maximize the film's commercial potential. By the time it debuted in the U.S. later that year, the film was only about 90 minutes long.

Even in its shortened form, 'Metropolis' became a cornerstone of science fiction cinema. Due to its enduring popularity, the film has undergone numerous restorations in the intervening decades in attempts to recover Lang's original vision.

It was widely believed that this would be the most complete version of Lang's film that contemporary audiences could ever hope to see. But, in the summer of 2008, the curator of the Buenos Aires Museo del Cine discovered a 16mm dupe negative of 'Metropolis' that was considerably longer than any existing print.

It included not merely a few additional snippets, but 25 minutes of "lost" footage, about a fifth of the film, that had not been seen since its Berlin debut.

The discovery of such a significant amount of material called for yet another restoration, a 2½-hour version that debuted in 2010 to widespread acclaim. It's this fully restored edition that will be screened at the Center for the Arts.

" 'Metropolis' stands as an stunning example of the power of silent film to tell a compelling story without words, and reach across the generations to touch movie-goers from the real future, which means us," said accompanist Jeff Rapsis, who provides live music for silent film screenings throughout New England and beyond.

To accompany a silent film, Rapsis uses a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of the full orchestra. The score is created live in real time as the movie is screened. Rather than focus exclusively on authentic music of the period, Rapsis creates new music for silent films that draws from movie scoring techniques that today's audiences expect from the cinema.

The restored 'Metropolis' will be shown on Sunday, Jan. 5 at 2 p.m. at the Colonial Theatre, 95 Main St., Keene, N.H. Admission is $10 per person general admission. Tickets are available online at or at the door. For more information, call the Colonial at (603) 352-2033.


“'Metropolis' does what many great films do, creating a time, place and characters so striking that they become part of our arsenal of images for imagining the world.”
—Roger Ebert, 2010, The Chicago Sun-Times

“If it comes anywhere near your town, go see it and thank the movie Gods that it even exists. There’s no star rating high enough.”
—Brian Tallerico,

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Coming on Sunday, 12/29 in Wilton, N.H.:
'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' (1921)

Rudolph Valentino introduces the Tango in 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.'

Final screening of the year is Sunday afternoon at the Town Hall Theatre at Wilton, N.H., and it's a doozy.

'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' (1921) is one of my favorite silent dramas, and I'm not alone: it was the sixth-highest grossing picture of the era.

To me, it's one of the first mainstream Hollywood pictures to make full use of the visual and imaginative powers of cinema, which were still being discovered.

D.W. Griffith and other first-generation directors knew how to tell stories, which was often the main strength of their work.

But Rex Ingram, who helmed 'Four Horsemen,' and his collaborators were able to take it a step further by weaving visual allegory into their drama in a way that only movies could.

The Four Horsemen of the title aren't just abstract metaphors or symbols. In Ingram's realization of the tale, we get to see them on screen, brought to life before our eyes as they come to life in some kind of steamy underworld, and then ride together through the skies.

And with a giant fire-breathing dragon to boot!

None of this is part of the reality of War I in France, which the movie depicts with documentary realism. But the Four Horsemen are still seamlessly woven into the fabric of the tale, giving the narrative a visual impact that's part of the power of cinema, I think.

Come see for yourself! On top of everything else, 'Four Horsemen' also has Rudolph Valentino introducing the tango, launching a craze that endures to this very day.

Here's the press release with more info about the film and our screening:

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A scene from 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' (1921).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Rudolph Valentino in 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' on Sunday, Dec. 29 at Town Hall Theatre

Ground-breaking silent film epic launched 'Latin Lover' to stardom, started tango dance craze; to be screened with live musical accompaniment

WILTON, N.H.—An epic drama that launched the career of silent film heartthrob and megastar Rudolph Valentino will be shown this month at the Town Hall Theatre.

'The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' (1921), a multi-generational family saga that climaxes during World War I, will be screened with live music on Sunday, Dec. 29 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

The screening is free and open to the public; a donation of $5 per person is requested to defray expenses.

Based on a novel by Spanish author Vicente Blasco Ibañez, 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' tells the story of an extended Argentine family with mixed ethnic background: one side is German, while the other is French.

The family get drawn into World War I in far-off Europe, with members ending up on opposing sides. With brothers pitted against one another on the battlefield, the destruction of war changes lives forever.

'The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' had a huge cultural impact, becoming the top-grossing film of 1921, beating out Charlie Chaplin's 'The Kid,' and going on to become the sixth-best-grossing silent film of all time.

Also, the film turned then-little-known actor Rudolph Valentino into a superstar, associating him with the image of the Latin Lover. In addition, the film inspired a tango craze and fashion fads such as gaucho pants.

Directed by Rex Ingram for Metro Pictures (an ancestor of MGM studios), 'Four Horsemen' grew into a mammoth production: over $1 million was spent in making it and more than 12,000 people were involved. The film was hugely successful at the box office, grossing nearly $5 million during its initial run, an enormous sum at the time.

The film was notable as one of the first major Hollywood productions to include World War I (then known as the 'Great War') in its storyline, and also in that it did not glorify the recent conflict or look past the tragedy that it brought. It's also among the first U.S. feature films to make full use of the unlimited visual power of the new motion picture medium.

Although Valentino dominates the film, other actors of note are featured. Alice Terry, the billed star as well as Ingram's wife, was a popular actress of her day. She would be cast in the next Ingram/Valentino flick rushed out in the same year before Rudy's jump to Paramount, The Conquering Power (1921).

Alan Hale Sr. appears in a supporting role; he was perhaps best known as Errol Flynn's sidekick in numerous films, his role of Little John in several Robin Hood flicks, and as the father of Alan Hale, Jr., who played the Skipper on the television series Gilligan's Island.

'The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' was the brainchild of Metro screenwriter June Mathis, who went on to become one of the most powerful woman in early Hollywood, helping Valentino manage his career until his untimely death of peritonitis at age 31 in 1926.

The film was remade as '4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse' in 1962, with the setting changed to World War II.

In 1995, the silent version of 'The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Regarding the title: the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are mentioned in the Bible in chapter six of the Book of Revelation, which predicts that they will ride during the Apocalypse. The four horsemen are traditionally named War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death.

"This is a big sprawling drama, and a great chance to see Rudolph Valentino in the picture that launched his celebrity," said Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist who will create live music for the screening.

Rapsis will improvise live musical accompaniment during the show, using a digital synthesizer to recreate the sound of a full orchestra and other more exotic textures.

"Creating the music on the spot is a bit of a high-wire act, but it contributes a level of energy that's crucial to the silent film experience," Rapsis said.

‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ (1921) starring Rudolph Valentino will be shown with live music on Sunday, Dec. 29 at 4:30 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Admission is free; a donation of $5 per person is suggested to defray expenses. For more info, call (603) 654-3456 or visit

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Tonight: Harold Lloyd way up on that building and me way up in Maine paper mill country

The paper mill in Rumford, Maine.

If you happen to be in the vicinity of Rumford, Maine tonight, then come join us for a screening of 'Safety Last' (1923).

Rumford, home of the biggest paper mill I've ever seen, is just up the road from Dixfield, Maine, home of the Tuscan Opera House, site of tonight's show.

It's not the first time the Tuscan Opera House has served the community as a makeshift cinema.

Years ago, before television, the grand multi-story structure doubled as the town's moviehouse, showing features and newsreels to keep backwoods Maine connected to the world.

But that was then. The movies stopped a long time ago, and for many years the place was a restaurant.

In more recent years, I've come there do silent film programs with live music.

This has been at the behest of Dirigo High School teacher Kurt Rowley and his students, who hold an annual silent film night to raise funds for the local historical society.

Tonight's show is Harold Lloyd's great comedy 'Safety Last,' which is best seen with an audience.

So a good time will be had by all, including you, if you're within shouting distance of Rumford, Maine. So get in the car. It's only an eight-hour drive from New York!

Here's the press release with more info:

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Harold Lloyd in 'Safety Last' (1923).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Silent film classic 'Safety Last' on Saturday, Nov. 9 at Tuscan Opera House

Thrill comedy climaxed by Harold Lloyd's iconic building climb; with live music

DIXFIELD, Maine—It's an image so powerful, people who've never seen the movie still instantly recognize it.

The vision of Harold Lloyd hanging from the hands of a huge clock, from the climax of his silent comedy 'Safety Last,' (1923), has emerged as a symbol of the "anything goes" spirit of early Hollywood and the magic of the movies.

See how Harold gets into his high-altitude predicament in a screening of 'Safety Last,' one of Lloyd's most popular comedies, on Saturday, Nov. 9 at 7 p.m. at the Tuscan Opera House, 11 Main St., Dixfield, Maine.

The program, organized by Dirigo High School students as a fund-raiser for the local historical society, is open to the public. Admission is $10 per person.

The screening will feature live music by New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis, a New England based composer who specializes in creating music for silent film presentations.

The show will allow audiences to experience silent film the way its makers originally intended: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

The story of 'Safety Last' follows young go-getter Lloyd to the big city, where he hopes to make his mark in business and send for his small town sweetheart. His career at a downtown department store stalls, however, until he gets a chance to pitch a surefire publicity idea—hire a human fly to climb the building's exterior.

However, when the human fly has a last-minute run-in with the law, Harold is forced to make the climb himself, floor by floor, with his sweetheart looking on. The result is an extended sequence blending comedy and terror that holds viewers spellbound.

Lloyd, along with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, is regarded as one of the silent screen's three great clowns. Lloyd's character, a young go-getter ready to struggle to win the day, proved hugely popular in the 1920s. While Chaplin and Keaton were always favored by the critics, Lloyd's films reigned as the top-grossing comedies throughout the period.

The screening in the historic Tuscan Opera House gives today's audiences the chance to experience early cinema as it was intended: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

The Tuscan Opera House dates from 1905, when it replaced an earlier hall that burned in 1901. The building's first two floors housed a movie theater for many years until the advent of television in the 1950s. It later housed the Opera House Restaurant and now hosts occasional shows and programs.

"Put the whole experience back together, and you can see why people first fell in love with the movies," said Rapsis, who practices the nearly lost art of silent film accompaniment.

Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra, creating a traditional "movie score" sound.

"Seeing 'Safety Last' with an audience is one of the great thrill rides of the cinema of any era, silent or sound," Rapsis said. "Harold's iconic building climb, filmed without trick photography, continues to provoke audience responses nearly 100 years after film was first released."

Harold Lloyd in 'Safety Last' (1923).

Tributes to the clock-hanging scene have appeared in several contemporary films, most recently in Martin Scorsese's 'Hugo' (2011), which includes clips from 'Safety Last.'

See Harold Lloyd's iconic thrill comedy 'Safety Last' (1923) on Saturday, Nov. 9 at 7 p.m. at the Tuscan Opera House, 11 Main St., Dixfield, Maine.

Admission is $10 per person; tickets and concessions will be available at the door.

For more information and advance tickets, please contact Dirigo High School teacher Kurt Rowley at (207) 680-0113.


"Impossible to watch without undergoing visitations of vertigo, Safety Last's climactic sequence is all it's reputed to be.”
—TV Guide

"Harold Lloyd manages to make the characters sympathetic enough to carry the audience's concern on his journey of crazy stunts and mishaps. One of the best of this era."
—David Parkinson, Empire Magazine

"The climb has both comic and dramatic weight because it is both a thrilling exercise in physical humor and a thematically rich evocation of the pressures men feel to succeed, lest they be viewed as less than a man."
—James Kendrick, Q Network Film Desk

Sunday, October 27, 2019

One more 'Man Who Laughs' followed by two 'Nosferatus,' but please hold the 'Phantom'

An original lobby card for 'The Man Who Laughs' (1928), which I'm accompanying today at 4:30 p.m. in Wilton, N.H.

Halloween: the busiest time of the year for a silent film accompanist!

It's mostly because people who otherwise aren't into the genre still enjoy seeing 'Nosferatu' and the Lon Chaney 'Phantom' this time of year.

And the inherent other-worldliness of silent cinema lends itself to a kind of out-of-body experience that fits well with the Halloween zeitgeist.

So each year, I do a certain number of 'Nosferatu' and 'Phantom' screenings. But I also try to work in some other worthy pictures to give them exposure.

This weekend, I did Murnau's 'Faust' (1926) up in Brandon, Vt.—not strictly a Halloween film, but it has all the needed elements. It was well received.

And this year has been a big one for Paul Leni's 'The Man Who Laughs' (1928), mostly because the appearance of the title character inspired the look of 'The Joker' of Batman fame, currently being reinterpreted by Joaquin Phoenix and Co. in the just-released "back story" picture.

I've done it twice already, and will be tackling it again at 4:30 p.m. at the Town Hall Theater in Wilton, N.H., where I've done a monthly silent film program for more than 10 years now.

Oddly, this year prompted only a single 'Phantom of the Opera' screening: a week ago in Natick, Mass.

Coming up this week: A double dose of Nosferatu. One of these years I'm going to get screenings sponsored by a cosmetic dentist.

And I haven't yet done 'Nosferatu,' although that will change quickly with back-to-back screenings this week: one on Wednesday, Oct. 30 in Townsend, Mass. and then on Thursday, Oct. 31 (Halloween itself!) at the Colonial Theatre in Keene, N.H.

It's appropriate that I'm playing the Colonial on Halloween, as this is the very same theater where I was scared out of my wits in 1971 by the original 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' starring Gene Wilder.

Really! I was seven years old, and when tubby German boy Augustus Gloop gets stuck in a factory pipe, I remember running up the aisle to get out of there.

I was found in the ladies room and brought back into the theater just in time to see the Blueberry Girl rolled off to the juicing room.

Never mind Nosferatu and Phantom. In my book, Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka beats them all!

Scarier than any vampire.

Hope to see you at 'Man Who Laughs' this afternoon. And if you need a last final blast of creepiness to get into the Halloween spirit, I'm doing 'Nosferatu' on Wednesday, Oct. 30 at 6:30 p.m. at the Townsend (Mass.) Library, and again on Thursday, Oct. 31 at 7 p.m. at the Colonial Theater in Keene, N.H.

For more info, the press release for the Keene screening is below. Wishing all boys and ghouls a deadly Halloween!

Just hoping no trick-or-treaters show up at my place as Gene Wilder.

* * *

Definitely not a time to play 'Me and My Shadow.'

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Classic vampire thriller 'Nosferatu' flies into Colonial Theatre on Thursday, Oct. 31

Celebrate Halloween with pioneer silent horror movie on the big screen with live music—see it if you dare!

KEENE, N.H. — Celebrate Halloween this year with a classic silent horror film that gets scarier as the years go by.

'Nosferatu' (1922), the first screen adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel 'Dracula,' will be screened with live music on Thursday, Oct. 31 at 7 p.m. at the Colonial Theatre, 95 Main St., Keene, N.H.

The screening will feature live music for the movie by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

General admission is $8.50 per person.

'Nosferatu' (1922), directed by German filmmaker F.W. Murnau, remains a landmark work of the cinematic horror genre. It was among the first movies to use visual design to convey unease and terror.

To modern viewers, the passage of time has made this unusual film seem even more strange and otherworldly.

It's an atmosphere that silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis will enhance in improvising live music on the spot for the screening.

"The original 'Nosferatu' is a film that seems to get creepier as time goes by," said Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based musician who accompanies silent film screenings at venues across the nation.

"It's a great way to celebrate Halloween and the power of silent film to transport audiences to strange and unusual places," Rapsis said.

In 'Nosferatu,' actor Max Schreck portrays the title character, a mysterious count from Transylvania who travels to the German city of Bremen to take up residence.

In the town, a rise in deaths from the plague is attributed to the count's arrival. Only when a young woman reads "The Book of Vampires" does it become clear how to rid the town of this frightening menace.

Director Murnau told the story with strange camera angles, weird lighting, and special effects that include sequences deliberately speeded up.

Although 'Nosferatu' is suitable for all family members, the overall program may be too intense for very young children to enjoy.

Modern critics say the original 'Nosferatu' still packs a powerful cinematic punch.

“Early film version of Dracula is brilliantly eerie, full of imaginative touches that none of the later films quite recaptured,” Leonard Maltin wrote recently.

Critic Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader called 'Nosferatu' "...a masterpiece of the German silent cinema and easily the most effective version of Dracula on record.”

Despite the status of 'Nosferatu' as a landmark of early cinema, another scary aspect of the film is that it was almost lost forever.

The film, shot in 1921 and released in 1922, was an unauthorized adaptation of Stoker's novel, with names and other details changed because the studio could not obtain rights to the novel.

Thus "vampire" became "Nosferatu" and "Count Dracula" became "Count Orlok." After the film was released, Stoker's widow filed a copyright infringement lawsuit and won; all known prints and negatives were destroyed under the terms of settlement.

However, intact copies of the the film would surface later, allowing 'Nosferatu' to be restored and screened today as audiences originally saw it. The image of actor Max Schreck as the vampire has become so well known that it appeared in a recent 'Sponge Bob Squarepants' espisode.

‘Nosferatu’ will be shown on Thursday, Oct. 31 at 7 p.m. at the Colonial Theatre, 95 Main St., Keene, N.H. General admission is $8.50 per person; for more info, call (603) 352-2033 or visit

Friday, October 25, 2019

'Faust' and foremost: spooky F.W. Murnau masterpiece tonight at Brandon (Vt.) Town Hall

Emil Jannings as 'Mephisto' in Murnau's 'Faust' (1926), screening tonight (Friday, Oct. 25 at 7 p.m.) at Brandon (Vt.) Town Hall.

It used to be kinda charming: each year in Brandon Town Hall we'd run a Halloween "Chiller Theater" program, so named because the building had no heating system.

Well, after 10 years of fund-raising and building improvements, the place now has central heat and is usable year-round.

That's progress!

But this Halloween, creature comforts won't stop us from exploring uncomfortable cinema. And so this evening I'll be creating music for F.W. Murnau's spectacular 1926 silent screen adaptation of the Faust legend.

You know the tale: a man consigns his soul to Satan in exchange for earthly delights, youth, or, in the case of the Broadway musical "Damn Yankees," a World Series victory.

Murnau's 'Faust' is highlighted by Emil Jannings as Satan, called "Mephisto" in this version. He kind of reminds me of the character of Frances Buxton in 'Pee Wee's Big Adventure.' What do you think?

If you really want to see the similarity, check out a clip of the dream sequence from 'Pee Wee's Big Adventure' with Francis dressed as the devil.

For a lot more info on the film and our screening, I've pasted in the press release below.

And now I'm thinking...given all the Faustian ties to the underworld, maybe it's fitting that Brandon Town Hall does have heat. And maybe we should turn it up real high. :)

Hope to see you tonight in hell — er, I mean Brandon, Vt.

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A poster promoting Murnau's 'Faust' (1926).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Rarely shown 'Faust' adaptation on Friday, Oct. 25 at Brandon Town Hall

Silent film thriller starring Emil Jannings to be shown on the big screen with live music for Halloween-themed program

BRANDON, Vt..— It's been a novel, a stage play, and an opera. So when movies first appeared a century ago, it was only a matter of time before they tackled 'Faust,' the tale of a man who consigns his soul to the devil to obtain power in the present.

At the height of the silent era, German director F.W. Murnau created a cinematic version of 'Faust' filled with stunning images that maintain their power to astonish.

See for yourself with 'Faust' (1926), the original silent film adaptation of the classic legend, to be shown on Friday, Oct. 25 at 7 p.m. at Brandon Town Hall, 1 Conant Square, Route 7, Brandon, Vt.

Admission is free; donations are encouraged, with all proceeds support ongoing restoration of the Town Hall.

A live musical score for the movie will be performed by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist.

Please note that this screening takes place on a Friday evening, not the traditional Saturday night for most silent film programs at Brandon Town Hall.

The screening, the last in this season's silent film series at Brandon Town Hall, is sponsored by Jan Coolidge and Nancy and Gary Meffe.

'Faust' is a 1926 silent film produced by German studio UFA, directed by F. W. Murnau, starring Gösta Ekman as Faust, Emil Jannings as Mephisto, and Camilla Horn as Gretchen.

Would you sell your soul to this man?

As the film opens, the demon Mephisto has a bet with an Archangel that he can corrupt a righteous man's soul and destroy in him what is divine. If he succeeds, the Devil will win dominion over earth.

The Devil delivers a plague to the village where Faust, an elderly alchemist, lives. Though he prays to stop the death and starvation, nothing happens. Disheartened, Faust throws his alchemy books in the fire, and then the Bible too. One book opens, showing how to have power and glory by making a pact with the Devil.

Faust goes to a crossroads as described in the book and conjures up the forces of evil. When Mephisto appears, he induces Faust to make a trial, 24-hour bargain. Faust will have Mephisto's service till the sand runs out in an hourglass, at which time the Devil will rescind the pact.

At first, Faust uses his new power to help the people of the village, but they shun him when they find out that he cannot face a cross. They stone him and he takes shelter in his home. Mephisto then uses the lure of restored youth and love to convince Faust to sign over his soul once and for all.

The remainder of the film follows the grim consequences for everyone, all depicted with vivid visual imagination in the last film Murnau made in Germany before making the move to Hollywood.

'Faust' continues to impress modern critics, including Roger Ebert.

"Murnau had a bold visual imagination, distinctive even during the era of German Expressionism with its skewed perspectives and twisted rooms and stairs," Ebert wrote in 2005. " 'Faust,' with its supernatural vistas of heaven and hell, is particularly distinctive in the way it uses the whole canvas."

In screening F.W. Murnau's version of 'Faust,' Brandon Town Hall aims to recreate all essential elements of silent film experience: high quality prints shown on a large screen, with live music and an audience.

"These films caused people to fall in love with the movies for a very good reason," said Jeff Rapsis, who will improvise a musical score during the screening. "They were unique experiences, and if you can recreate the conditions under which they were shown, they have a great deal of life in them.

"Though they're the ancestors of today's movies, silent film is a very different art form than what you see at the multiplex today, so it's worth checking out as something totally different," Rapsis said.

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

F.W. Murnau's ‘Faust' will be shown on Friday, Oct. 25 at 7 p.m. at Brandon Town Hall, 1 Conant Square, Route 7, Brandon, Vt.

Admission is free; donations are encouraged, with all proceeds support ongoing restoration of the Town Hall.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

'Man Who Laughs' tonight in Concord, N.H. starts run of four spooky shows in three states

As the lyric goes: you're never fully dressed without a smile.

This year, Halloween has come upon us frighteningly fast.

One reason is that as we age, we perceive time as passing more rapidly. (That's scary just by itself.)

But this year, my obligations as director of a non-profit museum have served to put time into a trash compactor: weeks race by like days, months gallop by like weeks, and entire chunks of the calendar disappear every time my alarm goes off.

I do keep up with a pretty ambitious schedule of silent film screenings. I just don't have time to write about it.

But tonight starts a four-day stretch of spooky Halloween screenings that will take me all over the three states of northern New England: Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

So in attempt to stir the bubbling cauldron of audience interest, here's a preview of my spooky road trip, which starts tonight in Concord, N.H. with live accompaniment for 'The Man Who Laughs' (1928) at Red River Theatres.

A press release with complete info is tacked on below. But I have to say right up front: how amazing that Victor Hugo could come up with these sprawling tales that turn on human disfiguration, and often find love amidst unbelieveably human cruelty!

Thursday's 'Man Who Laughs' will be followed by Murnau's 'Faust' (1926) on Friday, Oct. 25 in Brandon, Vt.; then it's 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine on Saturday, Oct. 26, followed by 'Man Who Laughs' again on Sunday, Oct. 27 in Wilton, N.H.

And then Halloween will race by, and the next thing you know I'll be in San Francisco for a William S. Hart film at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum. And then Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and Black History Month, and, and, and...

For complete details, check the "Upcoming Silent Films" link on the upper RH corner of this page.

And if you're up for 'The Man Who Laughs' tonight at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H., here's all you need to know:

Original poster art for 'The Man Who Laughs' (1928), which I'm accompanying tonight at Red River Theatres in Concord.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

'The Man Who Laughs' (1928) to screen with live music on Thursday, Oct. 24 at Red River

Just in time for Halloween: Creepy silent film melodrama inspired the look of Batman's nemesis 'The Joker'

CONCORD, N.H. —'The Man Who Laughs' (1928), a silent film thriller, will be screened with live music on Thursday, Oct. 24 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St. in Concord.

A live score will be created by accompanist Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based performer who specializes in music for silent film presentations. Tickets are general admission $12; Red River Theatres members $10.

Red River's silent film/live music series is sponsored by Alliance Audiology of Concord.

'The Man Who Laughs,' directed by Paul Leni and starring Conrad Veidt, is a silent drama about a disfigured man forced to wear an insane grin all his life.

The movie was a popular and ground-breaking silent film adaptation of a sprawling Victor Hugo novel set in 17th century England.

Veidt stars as Gwynplaine, a child born of English nobility. After his father is executed, a cruel King James II orders a royal surgeon to hideously disfigure young Gwynplaine's face into a permanent smile, so that he may always laugh at his father's foolishness.

Abandoned and shunned, young Gwynplaine is left to make his way on his own. He learns to conceal his face from strangers, befriending Dea, a blind girl who is not aware of his disfigurement.

The pair are then adopted and put to work by a traveling impresario, who makes use of Gwynplaine's startling face in his theatrical productions.

Gwynplaine and Dea grow to adulthood and eventually fall in love, but complications arise when Gwynplaine's noble lineage is revealed, entitling him to his father's estate—provided he marry another woman of noble birth.

An original lobby card for 'The Man Who Laughs.'

Veidt, who starred earlier in the German expressionist horror classic 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' (1919), played the role of Gwynplaine by using a prosthetic device inside his mouth to force his face into a hideous grin and display outsized teeth.

This striking look was later adapted by Batman creator Bob Kane as a model for the physical appearance of iconic villain 'The Joker.'

Critics have praised 'The Man Who Laughs' for its dark visual style and daring story content.

"'The Man Who Laughs' is a melodrama, at times even a swashbuckler, but so steeped in Expressionist gloom that it plays like a horror film," wrote Roger Ebert in 2004. "The film is more disturbing than it might have been because of Leni's mastery of visual style."

Director Leni, originally trained as an artist, made ample use of shadows and darkness in 'The Man Who Laughs,' which set the stage for many legendary Universal horror classics soon to follow, including 'Dracula' (1931) and 'Frankenstein' (1931).

'The Man Who Laughs' (1928) will be screened with live music by Jeff Rapsis on Thursday, Oct. 24 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St. in Concord. General admission $12, Red River Theatres members $10; for more info and to purchase advance tickets, visit or call (603) 224-4600.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Upcoming screenings, plus close encounters with the maker of Play-Doh & Mr. Potato Head

A still photo of Bronson Potter's railroad trestle fly-over in 1979. On Friday, Sept. 20, see newly rediscovered home movie footage (silent, but with music by me) at the Aviation Museum of N.H.

This Friday (Sept. 20) brings an unusual program at the Aviation Museum of N.H., then a spate of weekend screenings in three different states.

At the museum, we're doing a 'Movie Night' program that includes recently rediscovered home movie footage of a local pilot's daring stunt flight under a railroad trestle.

It's silent, but live music will be provided by the museum's executive director, who happens to be me!

We're rounding out the aviation-themed program with 'Flying Luck,' a rarely screened 1927 comedy starring Monty Banks as a wanna-be pilot inspired by Charles Lindbergh.

Although Monty isn't counted among the silent era's great comics, I think he's underrated, and 'Flying Luck' holds up pretty well. Come see for yourself!

Details below. But first, a few words about last night's planned outdoor screening of 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' in Pawtucket, R.I.

Planned an outdoor event, it had to be moved inside at the last minute over concerns about the EEE virus.

The new venue, Lyman B. Goffe Middle School, turned out to be in an interesting location: right across the street from the world headquarters of Hasbro, the iconic toy and game maker.

Yes! Our screening was next to hallowed ground: the maker of Play-Doh, Mr. Potato Head, My Little Pony, and hundreds of other branded lines of playthings.

It's only the largest toy company on earth, as measured by sales volume, which in recent years has averaged about $5 billion annually.

I didn't notice this at first, because the HQ is in a renovated factory building with no obvious exterior signage at its front entrance on Newport Ave. I thought I was passing a plumbing supply warehouse, or something like that.

But later, when I was pulling out, night had fallen, and you could see the inside through the big glass windows: brightly colored displays announcing to visitors the company's mission and promoting its product lines.

Wow! It was like passing by Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. (Although I'm sure nothing Hasbro markets is actually made at HQ.) But rather than use Oompah-Loompahs, the company employs 1,600 people in the area, making it one of Rhode Island's largest employers.

Found online: it wasn't visible to me, but Hasbro does have a Mr. Potato Head statue outside its world headquarters in Pawtucket, R.I.

Looking online, turns out that there's a big question as to where Hasbro will move the corporate offices out of the area, where it was founded in 1923 by three Polish brothers named Hassenfeld. (Hence the name.)

Check out this news story for a slightly outdated look at the potential move.

Here's a more recent story about Worcester, Mass. being a potential new home for Hasbro.

Should Hasbro stay or should they go? I couldn't find anything more recent, but they were definitely still there when I drove by last night.

Okay, here's the press release about 'Movie Night' on Friday, Sept. 20 at the Aviation Museum of N.H. Hope to see you there! And after that, it's screenings in Vermont, Massachusetts, and then New Hampshire again, but more specifics on these later.

* * *

Original poster art for 'Flying Luck' (1927) starring Monty Banks.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Rediscovered film of N.H pilot's stunt flight under trestle to be screened at Aviation Museum

Live music to accompany footage; Movie Night program on Friday, Sept. 20 includes 'Flying Luck,' vintage aviation comedy

LONDONDERRY, N.H. — It was a highlight of the summer of 1979: an aerial stunt that attracted crowds from throughout the region.

It was a local pilot's daring flight under an enormous railroad trestle that once spanned Route 31 and the Souhegan River in Greenville.

Now, 40 years later, local residents can relive local inventor/pilot Bronson Potter's legendary aerial feat via recently rediscovered movie footage.

The long unseen 8mm home movie film, taken by Dave Morrison of Mason, N.H., will be screened on Friday, Sept. 20 at 7 p.m. at the Aviation Museum of N.H., 27 Navigator Road, Londonderry, N.H.

The Aviation Museum's 'Movie Night' program will also include a rare screening of 'Flying Luck,' a silent aviation comedy starring Monty Banks and Jean Arthur.

Live music for both films will be provided by Jeff Rapsis, the museum's director and also a musician who specializes in silent film accompaniment.

Admission to the screening, a fund-raiser for the museum's student plane-building partnership, is $20 for the general public; $10 for members.

Local pilot Bronson Potter in mid-fly-under.

Morrison's long-lost home movie footage received its "world re-premiere" last month at a packed house at Mason Elementary School.

The show led to requests to run the Bronson Potter film again, this time at the Aviation Museum.

"Because of demand, we're making it a highlight of our 'Movie Night' on Friday, Sept. 20, which will give more people a chance to experience the film with a large audience and live music," Rapsis said.

In the annals of N.H. aviation, Bronson Potter's fly-under stunt is an intriguing chapter, in part because no one is entirely sure why he did it.

"We've been trying to get the real story from local residents who knew Potter and were there," Rapsis said. "Some say it was done on a bet. Others say it was a tribute to his flight instructor, who had recently died."

Over time, the fly-under became subject to varying interpretations, somewhat like a piece of performance art, Rapsis said.

The trestle was taken down in 1984, and Potter died in 2004. But the legend of his stunt has endured.

The movie footage of Potter's flight was unearthed earlier this year by Mason resident Dave Morrison, who found the film in storage when the Aviation Museum was planning to celebrate the stunt's 40th anniversary.

"We had no idea anyone had filmed it," Rapsis said. "But when Dave's spectacular movie footage came to light, it quickly became the centerpiece of our program."

The film's first screening last month attracted the notice of WMUR-TV Channel 9's 'New Hampshire Chronicle,' which is scheduled to air a segment on Bronson Potter on Monday, Sept. 16.

"The Aviation Museum's screening will give people a chance to experience the film at its best—with an audience and with live music," Rapsis said.

At the museum's Movie Night, the Bronson Potter "Fly-Under" film will be preceded by a screening of 'Flying Luck,' a vintage aviation comedy from 1927.

A lobby card for 'Flying Luck' (1927), an aviation comedy starring Monty Banks.

In 'Flying Luck,' hapless aviator Monty Banks, inspired by Charles Lindbergh's solo flight over the Atlantic, joins the U.S. Army Air Corps.

Once enrolled, it's one aerial disaster after another in a movie filled with biplanes, stunts, and the flavor of aviation's early days.

The program is family friendly and all are welcome. Popcorn and drinks will be sold, with all proceeds to support the Museum's plane-building partnership with the Manchester School of Technology.

Guided by Aviation Museum volunteers, MST students are building a two-seat RV-12iS light sport aircraft during the 2019-20 school year.

The innovative program gives students a chance to apply math and science knowledge in the workshop with a unique hands-on experience.

For more information about 'Movie Night' and the student plane-build partnership, call the Aviation Museum at (603) 669-4820 or visit the museum's Web site at

The Aviation Museum of N.H. is located at 27 Navigator Road, Londonderry, N.H. The museum is open Fridays & Saturdays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sundays 1 to 4 p.m.

The Aviation Museum is a non-profit 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization dedicated to celebrating New Hampshire's role in aviation history and inspiring the young aerospace pioneers and innovators of tomorrow.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Pawtucket, R.I. 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' screening venue changed on account of...mosquitoes!

Original promotional artwork for 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.' (1928).

No joke!

Our outdoor screening of 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' on Friday, Sept. 13 in Slater Park in Pawtucket, R.I. has been moved inside—due to mosquitoes!

Earlier this week, Rhode Island saw its first death from Eastern Equine Encephalitis since 2007. The virus is borne by infected mosquitoes.

So out of an abundance of caution, organizers of this year's Pawtucket Arts Fest found indoor venues for many of this week's outdoor performances, including Friday night's silent film program.

And I must say, I'm relieved, as one downside to outdoor screenings is that, yes, the keyboard light always seems to attract lots and lots of insects.

Our new location is inside Lyman B. Goff Middle School, 974 Newport Ave. in Pawtucket. Doors open at 6 p.m., there's a presentation at 6:30 p.m., and Buster's adventures start at 7 p.m.

It's still free and open to the public—and I'm sure will be a great show, as Keaton always delivers, indoors or out.

For more info, check out the updated Pawtucket Arts Fest Web site.

And just as a precaution, bring a can of Off.

Just kidding!

Monday, September 9, 2019

Back on the silent film circuit: 'College,' 'Steamboat Bill Jr.,' and a carousel dedication

Close-up of the "Looff Carousel" at Slater Park in Pawtucket, R.I.

Labor Day weekend was a quiet time on the silent film calendar, but things heat up again this week.

On Wednesday night, it's off to 'College' via Buster Keaton's 1927 film of that title. The comedy starts at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey up in Plymouth, N.H. More details in the press release pasted in below.

And then down to Pawtucket, Rhode Island on Friday for an outdoor screening preceded by the re-dedication of a restored carousel.

Really! The "Looff Carousel" in Slater Park is being honored on Friday, Sept. 13 from 6 to 7 p.m., prior to an outdoor screening of Keaton's 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.' (1928).

The rededication is part of this year's Pawtucket Arts Fest. (And so am I!) Here's a little background:
Built by pioneer craftsman Charles I.D. Looff in 1894 the carousel was relocated to Slater Park in 1910. The carousel features a functioning North Tonawanda Military band organ, as well as 44 standing horses, 6 menagerie animals (1 camel, 3 dogs, 1 giraffe, 1 lion), and 2 chariots. The 125-year-old carousel was restored in 1978 and again in 2019. Please join Mayor Don Grebien and Parks and Rec. Director John Blais as we reopen this incredible historic carousel to the public.
This seems to be some kind of carousel. It even has its own Wikipedia entry!

And with apologies to all the great composers, there's nothing that compares to the sound of an authentic carousel.

Can't wait to hear it, and maybe take a ride or two before settling in at the keyboard for 'Steamboat.' (Hoping to claim the giraffe!)

The screening, a presentation by the Pawtucket Film Festival, starts at 7 p.m. and is free and open to the public. See you there!

And bring a jacket: early forecasts call for evening temps around 60 degrees.

* * *

An original poster promoting Keaton's 'College.'

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Buster Keaton comedy 'College' with live music on Wednesday, 9/11 at Flying Monkey

Celebrate back-to-school season in Plymouth, N.H. with screening of timeless classic send-up of campus life

PLYMOUTH, 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, clever visual gags, and amazing stunts, Keaton's films remain popular crowd-pleasers today.

See for yourself with a graduation-time screening of 'College' (1927), one of Keaton's landmark feature films, on Wednesday, Sept. 11 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.

The program will feature live music for the movie by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Admission is $10 per person. Tickets are available online at or at the door.

'College' follows the story of a hopeless university bookworm (Keaton) forced to become a star athlete to win the attention of his dream girl. Can Buster complete the transformation in time to woo her from his rival? And along the way, can he also rescue the campus from sports-related shame?

Keaton the bookworm-turned-athlete in 'College.'

The film was released in 1927, at the crest of a national fascination with college life. In addition to being a great Keaton comedy, 'College' offers vintage glimpses into what higher education was like nearly a century ago.

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."

As a performer, Keaton was uniquely suited to the demands of silent comedy. Born in 1895, he made his stage debut as a toddler, joining his family's knockabout vaudeville act and learning to take falls and do acrobatic stunts at an early age.

A remarkable pantomime artist, Keaton naturally used his whole body to communicate emotions from sadness to surprise. And in an era with no post-production special effects, Keaton's acrobatic talents enabled him to perform all his own stunts, including some spectacular examples in 'College.'

Keaton gets roughed up in 'College.'

In reviving Keaton's 'College,' the Flying Monkey aims to show silent film as it was meant to be seen—in restored prints, 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 will accompany the film. "Recreate those conditions, and classics of early Hollywood such as 'College' leap back to life in ways that audiences still find entertaining."

Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra, creating a traditional "movie score" sound. He improvises the complete score in real time during the screening.

"Creating a movie score on the fly is kind of a high-wire act, but it can often make for more excitement than if everything is planned out in advance," Rapsis said.

Rapsis encouraged people unfamiliar with silent film to give 'College' a try.

"If you haven't seen a silent film the way it was intended to be shown, then you're missing a unique experience," Rapsis said. "At their best, silent films still do connect with cinema-goers. They retain a tremendous power to cast a spell, engage an audience, tap into elemental emotions, and provoke strong reactions."

Upcoming silent film programs at the Flying Monkey include:

• Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019, 6:30 p.m.: 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923); Lon Chaney stars in the original screen adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic novel about a deformed bellringer in medieval Paris. A moving and timeless drama filled with classic scenes and capped with a thrilling climax!

• Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019, 6:30 p.m.: 'The Wind' (1928) starring Lillian Gish; a frail young woman from the east moves in with her cousin in the west, where she causes tension within the family and is slowly driven mad. Towering, intense performance by Lillian Gish in one of MGM's last major silent dramas.

Buster Keaton's 'College' (1927) will be screened on Wednesday, Sept. 11 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 S. Main St., Plymouth, N.H. Admission is $10 per person; tickets are available online at or at the door. For more information, call the theater at (603) 536-2551.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Silent film at Tanglewood: mixing high culture with low comedy, or 'Where are the birds?'

Me at the Steinway in the Linde Center. Wow, that piano is so long it won't fit into the picture! Photo courtesy Joan Gallos.

During the last weekend of August, I took my silent film music thing to a new place: Tanglewood.

No, not the mobile home park in Keene, N.H. We're talking Tanglewood, as in summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Yes, this actually happened. Dressed in black, I got to play on a beautifully maintained Steinway concert grand piano as long as a limousine, and in a brand new performance venue opened earlier this summer.

And for a Buster Keaton film. In front of people! At Tanglewood!

Did I mention this was at Tanglewood?

As a silent film accompanist who often performs in church basements and middle school multi-purpose rooms, I'm still just a little gob-smacked that this took place.

But there I was, invited to be a part of the first-ever Film Weekend, a three-day program organized by the BSO's new Tanglewood Learning Institute.

And if this wasn't enough, I followed a Q & A with John Williams, whom you may recognize as only the world's foremost composer of film and symphonic music. Williams was on the grounds for Tanglewood's annual film music program that Saturday night, and so dropped in on the Film Music Weekend.

I'd like to report that John and I are now close friends, but really the most I can say is that Maestro Williams and I had adjacent dressing rooms. But then again, just having a dressing room was thrilling enough for me.

How did all this come about? I'm still not sure, but I'm grateful to the BSO's Eric Valliere and Tanglewood Learning Institute director Sue Elliott for the opportunity to play a part in this new initiative. Thank you!

And I have to say, it would have been nerve-wracking if I had been expected to do anything other than what I've done more than 1,000 times (literally) in the past decade: create live music for a silent film screening in front of an audience.

The film? Keaton's 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924), chosen because it's a crowd-pleaser. and also because it's short—just 45 minutes long. I had only 90 minutes, and this left time for an introduction, plus discussion afterwards.

It all went well, I'm pleased to relate. But interestingly, it was highlighted by things I hadn't planned for at all.

I had intended to start the presentation, titled 'Music, Motion, and Emotion,' by asking for a volunteer, like in a magician's act.

"Anyone at all! Step right up!"

I would then ask the person to simply walk across the space, back and forth, while I played different kinds of music: happy, sad, agitated, strip-tease, etc.

The goal, of course, was to show how different types of music can affect the perception of what is seen, even if it's the same thing seen again and again, with only the music changing.

But earlier that morning, upon entering the brand new Linde Center's Studio E for load-in, I first saw the facility's enormous glass wall that offers expansive views of the manicured Tanglewood campus.

And yes, people were walking around outside. And I realized then that I wouldn't need to ask for volunteers! People were already strolling by right outside, ready-made for accompaniment.

The interior of the Linde Center's 'Studio E,' with large glass wall. Photo courtesy Boston Symphony Orchestra.

So that's how I started: by sitting down at the Steinway and creating music to accompany unsuspecting Tanglewood visitors who happened to wander into view.

"Look at that guy in the blue shirt," I said, launching into some minor key sad music. "He's just broken up with his girlfriend because she didn't like his cello playing. Oh, the humanity!" Or something like that.

I felt like Steve Allen on the old Tonight Show, where he'd spice up a "man in the street" segment by commenting on hapless passersby, sometimes to piano accompaniment, if I recall correctly.

To my delight, there seemed to be a ready appetite for such shtick. Nice! I was glad we could start with some pre-movie laughs, although Buster was the star of the day.

Later, I found that the glass wall has engendered some controversy. It was intended to create a more open environment and to link performances with the iconic campus—a kind of indoor/outdoor thing.

But now that the Linde Center is in use, some people feel the spectacular scene is distracting and detracts from the focus on performers in the hall.

By creating "music for passersby," I apparently demonstrated an important quality of the glass wall, even as I was mining it for comedy.

Afterwards, Sue Elliott told me that Mrs. Linde (from the donor family) was in the audience, and it helped reinforce the belief in the facility's design.

The Keaton film, which I accompanied on my digital synthesizer rather than the Steinway, produced a solid and sustained reaction. The Q & A that followed was lively and challenging, and probably could have continued for a lot longer.

And in another unplanned moment, I found myself relating a personal Tanglewood story that I'd been waiting more than 40 years for the right opportunity to tell, but didn't realize this until I was standing there in the Linde Center with a microphone.

When I was discovering classic music around age 12, one Sunday afternoon my mother tuned the radio to Boston station WCRB-FM, which was broadcasting a concert live from a place called Tanglewood.

And I listened to long-time patrician announcer William Pierce intone that the first work on the program would be George Gershwin's 'Concerto in F.' (In telling the story, I imitated Pierce's distinctive voice, probably not the first time that's been done at Tanglewood.)

Then came the music, and I remember being delighted to hear that every time the music got quiet or paused, you could hear birds chirping!

"Wow!" I thought. "Gershwin's Concerto in F has bird sounds!" I actually imagined a percussionist blowing into one of those bird call whistles to create the various tweeting sounds called for in the score.

So for a long time, I thought Gershwin's Concerto in F included bird-chirp accompaniment.

Then one day in high school, I borrowed a recording the work from the library and brought it home.

The music started, and I was completely disappointed.

"Where are the bird sounds?" I wondered. "I've been cheated!"

Where are the birds? They were at Tanglewood. And now so was I!

Monday, August 5, 2019

On the road in Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo: movies, skyscrapers, cheese, and canoes

Up next!

Greetings from Buffalo, where I'm awaiting tonight's screening of Buster Keaton's 'The Cameraman' (1928) at the Western N.Y. Film Expo.

It's my fourth year of handling the accompaniment chores at this multi-day festival, which took the vintage film baton from Syracuse Cinefest after that storied gathering ended its run in 2015.

Chief organizer Alex Bartosh has kept it going, with a dealers' room and no less than three separate venues for screening everything from silents to vintage TV show episodes.

This year, I got here by way of screenings at Cinema Detroit and the Cleveland Cinematheque, which ran silent film programs earlier this week. This allowed me to string together something like a Lake Erie Vintage Cinema Tour 2019. I should have had t-shirts made!

First, thank you to everyone for including silent film and live music in their programming: Paula and Tim Guthat at Cinema Detroit; John Ewing and Genevieve Schwartz at the Cleveland Cinematheque; and Alex Bartosh and Dave Barnes at the Western New York Expo.

Such support for keeping these films on screen gives local audiences access to a rich cinematic world. And it also gives audiences in my home area of New England a break from what I inflict on them.

Here's a brief run-down on the adventure so far:

Warming up while the Fisher Building looms over me.

- At Cinema Detroit, a Buster Keaton double feature took a surprising turn when the theater unexpectedly won a prized booking for the new Quentin Tarantino film.

"Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" had to run continuously. So what to do about the Keaton screenings planned for Wednesday, July 31?

Paula Guthat reached out to folks at New Center Park, an urban oasis in Detroit that happens to run a summertime outdoor movie program.

Could they host an evening of Buster Keaton?

Yes, they could. And so the whole program got moved outdoors to a park directly beneath the amazing Fisher Building, a 30-story 1920s Beaux Arts masterpiece from a much earlier era of prosperity.

This was all done about a week before the show, with Paula displaying improvisation skills worthy of any silent film accompanist.

Set-up was a snap, with me rolling into town that evening with my gear to be met by a park staff that knew exactly what to do. In no time at all, I was set up under a roofed structure with my keyboard hooked into a booming sound system.

The New Center Park Pavilion's custom-made screen, engineered by projectionist Jon Hudson, kneeling at right.

Even the weather cooperated, with evening temps falling into the 60s and a welcome breeze, which seemed to keep the bugs away. (They're always a hazard at outdoor screenings. I've had enormous beetles land on my arm that I'm sure that scientists have yet to catalogue.)

We had to wait until well after 9 p.m. for the show to start, as the sun sets much later here (in the Eastern Time Zone) than back home in New Hampshire.

I played for about an hour before the show, hoping to attract interest from the few passersby. I'm not sure if I actually scared them off, or if everyone was at the Democratic Presidential debate happening elsewhere in town.

Alas, by showtime only a relatively small group had assembled in the lawn chairs set out under the trees.

But we went ahead with what turned out to be a great show: a double bill of 'Our Hospitality' (1923) and 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.' (1928), Buster's first and last independent features.

'Steamboat Bill' was notable because in the film's final reels, as Buster rides out the film's climactic cyclone, a steady and stiff wind began blowing, knocking over my plastic cup of popcorn and causing a noticeable ripple in the park's huge outdoor screen. (An impressive and custom creation by projectionist Jon Hudson, complete with sturdy rigging to tie it down like on a sailboat.)

So it was 'Steamboat Bill' in Sensurround. This actually worked quite well! I recommend installing large fans in any theater that programs this picture.

But what really made it was that our audience included a family blessed with two young girls who greeted all of Buster's adventures with continuous and uproarious laughter. Really! They weren't that far from me and I could hear them clearly, and so could everyone else.

They contributed far more to the soundtrack of Buster than any mere accompanist could. What a joy to hear their joy of discovery. Our show ran almost to midnight, making me wonder what the kids were doing up so late, but no matter: they made my day, or night, and made the screening more compelling than anything I contributed with my keyboard.

John Ewing slices into the Cinematheque's birthday cake.

- The next day (Thursday, Aug. 1) brought me to the Cleveland Cinematheque, where long-time head honcho John Ewing was celebrating the theater's 33rd anniversary in part by screening a 35mm print of 'The Crowd' (1928), a title he'd never run before.

The print, from the Library of Congress, looked great, and a healthy crowd turned out to watch 'The Crowd.' I hadn't accompanied the film in awhile, so previewed it the week earlier to refresh my memory. The parts where protagonist John Sims plays his ukulele are tricky because he keeps starting and stopping, but it all seemed to come together nicely.

I greatly enjoy accompanying films at the Cinematheque because over the years the venue has cultivated a sophisticated audience for a wide range of cinema from all over the globe. Many are passionate silent film fans, and not afraid to let you know it.

With that in mind, it was not unexpected for 'The Crowd' to be followed by an extended Q & A session that covered a wide range of topics. I saw it as good practice for my upcoming seminar at Tanglewood later this month.

I sometimes joke that the main reason I return to the Cleveland Cinematheque is to eat at L'Albatross, a French restaurant not far from the venue.

But it's not entirely a joke. I mean, take a look at their cheese board:

Be honest: wouldn't you come to Cleveland to accompany silent films if this was around the corner?

- It wasn't around the corner, but about three hours up the lake: Buffalo, home of the Western N.Y. Film Expo and Movie Memorabilia Convention, an annual gathering for which I again served as resident accompanist.

You never know what kind of silent titles will be screened at this event, and last-minute schedule changes made that more true than ever this time around.

Originally, the schedule called for something like a half-dozen silent feature films, including Von Stroheim's 'The Wedding March' (1925), Eddie Cantor in 'Special Delivery' (1927), and Louise Brooks in G.W. Pabst's 'Pandora's Box' (1929) from Germany.

When the dust settled, however, the balance had shifted to several blocks of short comedies starring the greats and near-greats. The only features were W.C. Fields in 'The Old Army Game' (1926) and Buster Keaton's 'The Cameraman' (1928).

I didn't mind the free time, as it provided a chance to catch up with other attendees as well as see something of Buffalo, including this outdoor sculpture made entirely from aluminum canoes:

"Stainless Steel, Aluminum, Monochrome I, Built to Live Anywhere, at Home Here," was created in 2011 by artist Nancy Rudin and stands outside Buffalo's Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

This outrageous work spoke to me for a very personal reason: the canoes were the same make and model as my father's old canoe, which my older brother now has: an aluminum canoe made by the Grumman Aircraft Co. in the 1950s.

Inside the gallery I found several works by the American abstract artist Joan Mitchell, including "George Went Swimming in Barnes Hole, But It Got Too Cold" from 1957:

Just as the canoes out front remind me of my Dad, any work by Mitchell reminds me of the late May Gruber, a philanthropist and noted patron of the arts in my home area who purchased 'Cous Cous,' an enormous Mitchell canvas, directly from the artist in Paris, eventually donating it to the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, where it's on permanent display.

Big paintings! But small world.

Okay, 'The Cameraman' beckons. And then it's back to home base in New Hampshire until the next "Lake Erie" tour. Perhaps next time I'll go by aluminum canoe.