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.

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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.

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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!