Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Comeback time! Silent films with live music return to Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

All this on Sunday, July 12, and flying carpets besides!

Two words I've been waiting nearly four months to write: They're back!

Silent films with live music, that is. After a long, well, silence, silent film programs with live music are starting to reappear as theatres reopen, at least in my corner of the world.

Specifically, the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. will reopen this weekend after being shut for nearly a third of a year due to Covid-19.

And that includes resuming the regular schedule of silent films with live music. So not only are silent films back, but the house accompanist is back as well.

First up is 'The Thief of Bagdad' (1924), which we hoped to run in June to open our "Series of Summer Swashbucklers" (say that five times fast) starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr., but we've now squooshed it over to Sunday, July 12 instead.

The swashbuckler series will culminate in August with a weekend-long celebration of the 100th anniversary of Doug's original megahit, 'The Mask of Zorro' (1920).

I'm looking forward to that one, as these days you can't go wrong with a title that features the word "mask."

But first things first: 'The Thief of Bagdad' is a great way to get back. It's an eye-popping spectacle and among Fairbanks' best work, as detailed in the press release attached below.

One thing about Covid-19: in order to reopen, the Town Hall Theatre has had to make some changes to follow public health guidelines.

First, showtimes are 2 p.m. now instead of the former start time of 4:30 p.m., as the theater needs to be cleaned and sanitized between screenings.

Also, movie-goers are asked to observe social distancing in the theater as in other spaces such as the lobby. Face coverings will be required.

In addition, the theater can sit only 50 percent of its capacity, which means we're limited to about 100 people. I'm not sure what kind of attendance we'll get, but if we max out, we'll try to schedule follow-up screenings at a future date to accommodate everyone.

The Town Hall Theatre's main screening room.

On a personal note: I'm grateful to longtime Town Hall Theatre owner/operater (sounds like a truck driver!) Dennis Markaverich for his continuing support of the silent film series.

We've been presenting every month (and sometimes more often) since 2008. If we keep going, our series will soon have lasted longer than the height of the silent period itself!

So thanks to Dennis, and to our loyal audience. I hope the shows continue to meet expectations as we collaborate in bringing to life this lost but lively period of unique artistic achievement.

My last public screening was Sunday, March 15: a double feature of silent Rin Tin Tin films at the Somerville Theatre. Since then, nothing! Within a few days, dozens of performances were cancelled or postponed going all the way through this summer and beyond.

For an accompanist, it's like a drunk being shut off cold turkey.

In my case, I had plenty to do at my day job, which is director of the Aviation Museum of N.H., a small non-profit here in my home state. We had to close, too, and with no money coming in, it was more than a full-time job to manage us through the situation.

One outcome of our efforts was quite serendipitous, and I'm proud enough of it to want to share it here.

Our museum does a lot of in-classroom educational outreach, but that had to stop as well because schools closed and moved to a remote learning model.

What to do? At the museum, we decided to use our flight simulator to create a virtual "Around the World Flight Adventure," a free online program designed to be a educational resource for teachers and students. Besides the physics of flight, we touch on geography, history, culture, and even local snack foods around the globe.

We left our home base at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport on May 1, and ever since we've been cruising around the world in a vintage (and virtual) C-47 twin-engine propeller transport, the exact same type of plane my father flew in World War II.

Here we are, flying over the Colosseum in Rome.

And to our surprise, it's really caught on. By combining the rarefied world of the flight simulator (and the latest terrain software, which renders any part of the globe in amazing detail), and repurposing it for general education, we may have invented something new.

Not content to leave it at that, we've tried livestreaming some of the flight segments. Our Memorial Day flight over the beaches of Normandy, France, was somehow picked up by Newsweek Magazine as one of five ways Americans could celebrate Memorial Day virtually, giving us a massive audience from all parts of the globe!

I invite you to check out our 'Around the World Flight Adventure,' which is still going on.

Fortunately, not all has been quiet in the silent film world. Among the bright spots: my colleague Ben Model, a New York-based accompanist, has developed a weekly online "Silent Comedy Watch Party" that's entertaining audiences all over the world. Here's a typical episode.

The show, produced out of Ben's home, has the feel of an early television program, almost like something Ernie Kovacs would have done. I keep expecting an appearance by German disc chockey Wolfgang von Sauerbraten, or Edie Adams to come in and do a song.

Congratulations to Ben, his collaborator Steve Massa, and all the others who play a part in bringing the program to life. I hope it continues, pandemic or not.

For my own part, I have used the break to work on my keyboard technique. My big project is to get the entire Chopin Polonaise in A flat (the "Heroic") under my fingers, and believe it or not I'm about 80 percent there.

If you've never heard it, here it is played by someone who can truly handle it. (The image at left is the only photo of Chopin; he looks like he just heard me trying to play his music.)

Although I improvise and create my own music for film scores, taking the time to work through a piece such as the Chopin helps give me the tools and fluency to go to more and different places.

I'll keep working on the Polonaise (and some other pieces) as it'll be awhile before I get back to the former pace of about 100 performances a year. Many theaters aren't close to opening, and of course we may go back into "stay at home" mode if the virus flares up again.

But 'Thief of Bagdad' is a go, so hope you'll be able to join us as we get back in the groove of recreating the magic of early cinema. Here's the press release with more info:

* * *

Douglas Fairbanks Sr. as 'The Thief of Bagdad.'

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Silent film with live music returns to Town Hall Theatre on Sunday, July 12

Summer swashbuckler series to open with Douglas Fairbanks in 'The Thief of Bagdad,' epic 1924 adventure

WILTON, N.H.—It's a comeback worth making some noise about.

After a three-month hiatus due to Covid-19, the Town Hall Theatre's long-running silent film series will restart in July, with extra screenings added to make up for missed shows.

First up is the Douglas Fairbanks Sr. adventure 'The Thief of Bagdad' (1924), to be shown on Sunday, July 12 at 2 p.m. Admission is free; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to help defray expenses.

The screening will be accompanied with live music by Jeff Rapsis.

Accommodations will be made to keep patrons safe in the Covid-19 era. Silent film programs will now start at 2 p.m. so the Town Hall Theatre can comply with CDC and local public health guidelines for movie theaters, which recommend ample time between screenings for cleaning and sanitizing.

Also, seating will be arranged to observe social distancing and masks will be required inside the theater.

Douglas Fairbanks, star of 'The Thief of Bagdad,' was the Harrison Ford of his time—a pioneering action hero who was among the first to entertain movie audiences with thrilling swashbuckling adventures.

'The Thief of Bagdad' stands among his best work. It's a timeless fable on a grand scale, boasting a great story, spectacular sets, and magical special effects.

Another scene featuring the famous flying carpet.

A bare-chested Fairbanks plays a crafty street-smart rogue who can easily steal anything his heart desires—anything, that is, except the love of a beautiful princess, daughter of the powerful Caliph of Bagdad.

To win her hand, he must not only change his ways, but also show his worthiness over many other highly placed suitors.

In making the film, Fairbanks spared no expense for what some critics still regard as the most lavish fantasy movie ever made, a show-stopping adaptation of the traditional "A Thousand and One Nights" Arabian legend. The result is an epic in which a flying carpet is just one of many eye-popping sights designed to astound movie audiences.

Fairbanks, swaggering through massive marketplace sets and cavernous throne rooms as an incorrigible pickpocket, scales towering walls (with the help of a magic rope) and leads merry chases through crowded bazaars in his pursuit of loot.

The jaunty opening is a preamble to the film's spectacular second half, in which the repentant thief embarks on an odyssey through caverns of fire, underwater palaces, and even outer space. Special effects range from a giant smoke-belching dragon to a magical flying horse, and still glow with a timeless sense of wonder from the early days of movies.

William Cameron Menzies's sets were among the largest ever created for a motion picture. Especially noteworthy is his design for a mythical Bagdad, a unique combination of Art Deco and Islamic elements—a dream city inspired by illustrations from story books.

You want a winged horse? Yup, 'Thief of Bagdad' has one of those, too!

Fairbanks, among the most popular stars of the 1920s, was the inspiration for the character of George Valentin in the Oscar-winning Best Picture 'The Artist' (2011). Fairbanks was known for films that used the then-new medium of motion pictures to transport audiences to historical time periods for grand adventures and athletic stunts. He's often referred to as "Douglas Fairbanks Sr." to avoid confusion with his son, the actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

Nearly a century after its premiere, 'The Thief of Bagdad' remains highly regarded. In 1996, the film was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Live music for 'The Thief of Bagdad' will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis, who uses a digital synthesizer to create a traditional full orchestra "movie score" sound.

"Seeing a Fairbanks picture in a theater with live music and an audience is a classic movie experience," Rapsis said.

Rapsis emphasized the unique value of seeing early cinema as it was originally presented.

"These films were designed for the big screen, live music, and large audiences. If you put it all together again, you get a sense of why people first fell in love with the movies," Rapsis said.

'The Thief of Bagdad' opens a summer season of silent swashbucklers at the Town Hall Theatre, all starring Douglas Fairbanks. The series will be highlighted by a special Saturday/Sunday screening of 'The Mark of Zorro' (1920) and its sequel, 'Don Q, Son of Zorro' (1925) on the last weekend of August:

● Sunday, July 26 at 2 p.m.: 'The Three Musketeers' (1921) starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Original screen adaptation that set the bar for movie versions of The Three Musketeers as well as for the swashbuckler genre itself. An action-adventure tale of a young Gascon, D'Artagnan, whose dream is to join the King's Musketeers, and travels to Paris to do so.

● Sunday, Aug. 9 at 2 p.m.: 'Robin Hood' (1922) starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Sword-fighting and archery abound as Fairbanks forsakes his noble identity as the Earl of Huntingdon to become Robin Hood, robbing the rich to give to the poor, all the while pursuing the hand of his beloved Lady Marian.

● Saturday, Aug. 29 at 2 p.m. 'The Mark of Zorro' (1920) starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. 100th anniversary of the break-through adventure film where Fairbanks discovered his talent for playing swashbuckling heroes of yore. Still pleasing crowds a century after it first hit theaters!

● Sunday, Aug. 30 at 2 p.m.: 'Don Q, Son of Zorro' (1925) starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Action/adventure sequel to mega-hit 'Zorro' with Fairbanks playing both son and father, and having a ball in both roles. Builds on the original film to create a hugely entertaining swashbuckler that shows how far Hollywood had come in just five years.

'The Thief of Bagdad' (1924) starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr., will be screened with live music on Sunday, July 12 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Admission is free; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to defray expenses.

For more info, visit www.wiltontownhalltheatre.com or call (603) 654-3456.

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