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.