Sunday, October 31, 2021

Going the distance with Lon Chaney, 'Dracula' at Somerville Theatre, and one more 'Nosferatu'

'Where East is East' (1929), screening today at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, Wilton, N.H.

It's silent film aerobics. Three more! Two more! One more!

That's the feeling you get when accompanying nine separate feature films in six days.

Physically, it's not that demanding. I'm basically sitting and moving my fingers.

But mentally, it can be taxing. You're concentrating sometimes for hours without a break, again and again.

The trick, I think, is to pace yourself—take the films one a time, do the best you can with each, and always keep something in reserve.

It's like a 10-round boxing match. If you're in Round 7, you don't think about Round 10. You need to stay in the moment, or you'll get in trouble.

One odd effect of accumulated screenings is that the "silent film accompaniment" instinct sometimes keeps going even after a film has ended. 

I find myself opening the car door and thinking "okay, F minor chord here." 

It's like the old gag in which a punch-drunk boxer responds to any bell-like sound by instinctively going into a crouch and coming out swinging.

Well, the bout continues—in fact, it's actually heading toward something of a climax, this being the actual day of Halloween itself. 

Today's action include a round with Lon Chaney in 'Where East is East' (1929), the actor's final collaboration with director Tod Browning. The bell rings at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

Then I head down to Somerville, Mass. this evening to create a live score for a 35mm print of 'Dracula' (1931)—another Browning film, but this one a talkie, with Bela Lugosi in the lead role. 

It's my first time back at the Somerville since accompanying a Rin Tin Tin double feature on March 15, 2020, the day before the venue shut down due to the pandemic.

I've never done music for the talking Dracula, but I think I have some good stuff ready. My aim is to bob and weave with the movie, to find opportunities where music can augment the movie without getting its way. We'll see how it all comes together this evening.

And I'll try to avoid getting too punchy in the process. Once the film starts, it's like the bell rings, and you must stay focused and in the moment to go the distance.

But then maybe boxing is the wrong analogy. Silent film accompaniment is more like ballet: the film and the musician dance together in the hopes of creating something exciting, absorbing, and perhaps even beautiful.

Or maybe it's a little of both.

Either way, see you at 2 p.m. in Wilton for Chaney is 'Where East is East' and then this evening in Somerville for 'Dracula' at 7 p.m. 

More details in the press release below:

*   *   *

Bela Lugosi as Dracula menaces Helen Chandler in the 1931 classic.
 
TUESDAY, OCT. 12, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Halloween special: Lugosi's 'Dracula' on big screen in 35mm with new live score

Horror classic to be shown at the Somerville Theatre on Sunday, Oct. 31 for one screening only

SOMERVILLE, Mass. — Do you dare spend Halloween braving 'Dracula' on the big screen?

That's the question at the Somerville Theatre, where the classic 1931 version of 'Dracula' will run for one showing only on Sunday, Oct. 31.

The movie, starring Bela Lugosi in the title role, will be shown using a 35mm film print from Universal Studios, which released the early horror classic in 1931.

Showtime is 7:30 p.m. General admission tickets are $15, with senior/student discounts. Tickets are available online at somervilletheatre.com or at the box office.

The screening will feature live music by Jeff Rapsis, the Somerville Theatre's silent film accompanist.

Although 'Dracula' is a talking picture, it was released with virtually no musical score, a common practice during the transition period from silent to sound pictures.

Rapsis will perform original music live during the screening using a digital keyboard to recreate the texture of a full orchestra.


Directed by Tod Browning, 'Dracula' was a sensational box office success and has mesmerized movie audiences ever since with its eerie visuals and Lugosi's iconic performance.

The story opens in far-off Transylvania, where mysterious Count Dracula hypnotizes a British soldier, Renfield (Dwight Frye), into becoming his mindless slave.

Dracula then travels to England and takes up residence in an old castle. Soon the Count begins to wreak havoc, sucking the blood of young women and turning them into vampires.

When he sets his sights on Mina (Helen Chandler), the daughter of a prominent doctor, vampire-hunter Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) is enlisted to put a stop to Dracula's never-ending bloodlust.

Located in Davis Square, the Somerville Theatre is one of the few first-run venues in the region committed to preserving the ability to screen movies using 35mm film prints.

"We feel it's important to show films on actual film when possible, the way classic movies were intended to be shown," said Ian Judge, creative director of the Somerville Theatre.

The Somerville recently reopened after a 17-month hiatus for the pandemic, during which significant renovations were made to the 1914 theater.

The Halloween screening of 'Dracula' will include live music by Jeff Rapsis, a local composer and performer who specializes in creating accompaniment for silent films.  

'Dracula' was released when Hollywood and movie theatres were still undergoing the transition from the silent era to pictures with synchronized sound and dialogue.

During the silent era, studios did not produce official scores for most films. Instead, accompaniment was left up to local musicians, and could vary greatly from one moviehouse to another.

When studios converted to talking pictures, the tradition of recording a musical score was not well established. In the case of 'Dracula,' Universal omitted music in part to save production costs.

As a result, after the opening credits, the 1931 'Dracula' contains no music except for a brief scene in an opera house.

In recent decades, composers have experimented with creating original music for the movie—most notably Philip Glass, who composed a score in 1998 for the Kronos string quartet.

Rapsis sees 'Dracula' as closely linked to the silent-era tradition of films shown with live music.

"Tod Browning was a prolific director of silent films, including many thrillers that anticipate 'Dracula,' " Rapsis said. "So even though 'Dracula' is a talking picture, Browning's filmmaking style is strongly rooted in the silent era, when it was assumed that local musicians would be important collaborators in a picture's effect on an audience."

Unlike the Glass score, which plays almost continuously during the movie, Rapsis will use music only in certain places where he feels it will either enhance the mood, heighten tension, or signify a change in the emotional line of the story.

Although 'Dracula' is not a silent film, there are definitely places where the silence speaks volumes and remains very effective," Rapsis said. "I hope to leave those intact, but enrich other parts of the film in the way that only music can."

Silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Yes, those are his real teeth!

Rapsis works largely by improvising as a film plays in the theater, in the tradition of theatre organists of the 1920s.

"There's something very special about the in-the-moment energy of a live improvised performance," Rapsis said. "It's never the same, and at its best it really can help a film connect with an audience and make the whole experience come together."

The original 'Dracula' (1931) starring Bela Lugosi will be shown in 35mm and with live music for one screening only on Halloween night, Sunday, Oct. 31 at 7:30 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.

Tickets are $15 per person, with discounts for students and seniors. For more info, call the theater at (617) 625-5700 or visit www.somervilletheatre.com.


Saturday, October 30, 2021

Three screenings, two states, one day: Chaney in afternoon, then Nosferatu at night

Tonight: Cue the theme from 'The Love Boat.' Not.

The spooky steeplechase continues!

Today's scheduled includes live music for three silent features: at 2 p.m., a double bill of Lon Chaney thrillers in Wilton, N.H., and then this evening it's another 'Nosferatu,' this time in Ogunquit, Maine. 

More on tonight's 'Nosferatu' is in the press release below. 

This afternoon's Chaney features, 'Outside the Law' (1920) and 'The Unholy Three' (1925), are a continuation of a mini-marathon at the Town Hall Theatre that began last night with a screening of 'The Blackbird' (1926), a film I'd never accompanied before.

Lon Chaney as 'The Bishop' in 'The Blackbird' (1926).

Like all the Chaney MGM melodramas directed by Tod Browning, the plot and interaction of the characters build to a level of drama that's almost operatic, even though it's a silent film.

Because of that intensity, 'The Blackbird' does well with music that can rise to the moments when needed. 

At last night's screening, I began with a quiet vamp in a minor key, meant to evoke the seedy music halls of old London in which so much of 'The Blackbird' is set.

As the film progressed, I found the vamp, without any accompanying melody, was able to be transformed in a multitude of ways to support the drama: by turns menacing, sinister, joyous, and/or exhilarating when needed.

Ultimately, with some dissonant notes held above it, the vamp was entirely capable of carrying the great "moment of truth" scenes always found in the Chaney/Browning collaborations.

Let's hope the same magic happens with today's two features, and with 'Where East is East' (1929), which I'm scoring tomorrow (Sunday, Oct. 31) at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre to finish out the Chaney series on Halloween.

And then I head down to Boston to create live music for the Browning-directed 'Dracula' (1931) at the Somerville Theatre on Sunday night—something I've never done before and about which I'm very excited.

But first things first! See this afternoon for two Chaneys, and then this evening for 'Nosferatu' at the Leavitt Theater in Ogunquit, Maine. More details in the press release below.

*    *    *

MONDAY, OCT. 4, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

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

Creepy classic thriller 'Nosferatu' to screen at Leavitt Theatre on Saturday, Oct. 30

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

OGUNQUIT, Me.— Get into the Halloween spirit with a classic silent horror film.

'Nosferatu' (1922), the first screen adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel 'Dracula,' will be screened with live music on Saturday, Oct. 30 at 7 p.m. at the Leavitt Theatre, 259 Main St., Route 1, Ogunquit, Maine.

The screening will feature live music for the movie by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. General admission is $12 per person. Costumes are encouraged!

'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 more time goes by," said Rapsis, a resident of Bedford, N.H. who accompanies silent film screenings at the Leavitt and 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 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 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' episode.

The historic Leavitt Theatre opened in 1923 as a summer-only silent movie house. Now approaching 100 years of operation, it continues to show movies, but also functions as a restaurant, bar, and lounge.

In reviving 'Nosferatu,' the Leavitt Theatre 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 cinema such as 'Nosferatu' 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.

The classic early horror thriller ‘Nosferatu’ will be shown on Saturday, Oct. 30 at 7 p.m. at the Leavitt Theatre, 259 Main St., Route 1 in Ogunquit. Admission $12 per person; tickets available at the door.

For more information, call (207) 646-3123 or visit www.leavittheatre.com.

Friday, October 29, 2021

Three-day Lon Chaney marathon to include silent crime drama about...ventriloquism?

Me outside the Rex Theatre last night in downtown Manchester, N.H.

Last night's screening of 'Nosferatu' (1922) drew about 150 people to the Rex Theater in downtown Manchester. Thanks for everyone (including volunteers and staff at the Rex) for all collaborating on what turned out to be a spooky good time!

But if there's no rest for the wicked, then I must have done something really bad.

Tonight marks the start of a three-day mini-marathon of rarely shown silent thrillers starring Lon Chaney, even while I'm doing 'Nosferatu' again on Saturday night in Maine and then 'Dracula' at the Somerville Theatre on Sunday.

The mini-marathon is the culmination of a two-month series of films directed by Tod Browning, most famous for Bela Lugosi's 'Dracula' (1931) and the cult classic 'Freaks' (1932).

But before that, Browning made a number of very strange silent-era movies, many of them starring Chaney. And that's what we'll be seeing this weekend at the Town Hall Theater in glamorous downtown Wilton, N.H.

Tonight (Friday, Oct. 29) it's 'The Blackbird' (1926), in which Chaney plays two roles: a criminal mastermind of London's underworld, and also "The Bishop," his pious but deformed brother.

The show starts at 7:30 p.m.; more details are in the press release below.

And if you think that sounds strange—well, we're just warming up. 

On Saturday at 2 p.m., how about 'The Unholy Three' (1925), which stars Chaney (at left) as a sideshow ventriloquist who teams up with a circus midget, a strong man, and a gorilla to create an elaborate criminal syndicate fronted by a pet shop. 

Yes, ventriloquism in silent film. It's kind of like Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy on the radio.

But I'm really looking forward to it. When you're celebrating Halloween by accompanying nine silent film shows in seven days, reality begins to blur and anything seems possible. 

'The Unholy Three' is paired with 'Outside the Law' (1920), an early Browning crime drama that pairs Chaney with actress Priscilla Dean.

We'll round things out on Sunday at 2 p.m. with 'Where East is East' (1929), a late Browning/Chaney collaboration and one of the last films Chaney appeared in before his untimely death in 1930.

Hope you can make some or all of the screenings in this spooky smorgasbord. As promised, more info in the press release below.

*  *  *

An original poster for 'Where East is East' (1929).

MONDAY, OCT. 18, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Halloween mini-marathon of Lon Chaney thrillers to run Oct. 29-31 at Town Hall Theatre

Three days of rarely screened silent film classics with live music, all starring the 'Man of a Thousand Faces'

WILTON, N.H.—He's best known for his iconic leading roles in such classics as 'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925) and 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923).

But versatile actor Lon Chaney, known as 'The Man of a Thousand Faces,' starred in dozens of other ghoulish thrillers at the peak of the silent film era in the 1920s.

Four of these rarely screened pictures will be shown with live music during a three-day Lon Chaney mini-marathon over Halloween weekend at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

The screenings are free and open to the public; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to support the Town Hall Theatre's silent film programming.

All screenings will feature live music by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

• The mini-marathon opens on Friday, Oct. 29 at 7:30 p.m. with 'The Blackbird' (1926), a bizarre melodrama in which Chaney leads a double life as a criminal mastermind of the London slums and also "The Bishop," his pious but deformed brother. Will the entrance of a new woman expose his secret?

• On Saturday, Oct. 30 at 2 p.m., it's a twisted Halloween Weekend Double Feature. 'Outside the Law' (1920) features Chaney as a gangster who frames a former rival and turns his young daughter to a life of crime. In 'The Unholy Three' (1925) Chaney is a criminal ventriloquist who runs a pet store that fronts a daring scheme for fleecing wealthy customers.

• The series concludes on Sunday, Oct. 31 at 2 p.m.with 'Where East is East' (1929) featuring Chaney as "Tiger Haynes," a jaded animal trapper in the jungles of Laos, who cares only for his young daughter, Toyo. The daughter plans to marry a circus owner's son, but the couple's happiness is threatened by the appearance of a mysterious woman.

All four films were directed by Tod Browning, a frequent Chaney collaborator best known for helming the original 'Dracula' (1931) starring Bela Lugosi and the early cult classic 'Freaks' (1932), a horror film featuring handicapped circus performers.

The four Chaney films are part of an ongoing retrospective at the Town Hall Theatre highlighting Browning's early work.

Browning (at left) specialized in twisted melodramas, gritty crime thrillers, and bizarre stories that drew on his own background as a carnival sideshow entertainer—themes that are on display throughout the Chaney mini-marathon.

Unlike Chaney's iconic performance in the lead role of 'Phantom of the Opera,' many of the Browning films feature Chaney without heavy makeup.

The roles, however, are as demanding as any that Chaney tackled, and show the actor's immense range as a performer.

"These early Tod Browning pictures starring Lon Chaney are great for Halloween because of the ghoulish ideas that drive them," Rapsis said. "When shown in a theater with live music and an audience, they really come to life, which is also in spirit of Halloween."

The Town Hall Theatre's three-day Halloween weekend Lon Chaney mini-marathon opens on Friday, Oct. 29 at 7:30 p.m. with 'The Blackbird' (1926); followed on Saturday, Oct. 30 at 2 p.m. with 'Outside the Law' (1920) and 'The Unholy Three' (1925); and concludes on Sunday, Oct. 31 at 2 p.m. with 'Where East is East' (1929).

Live music for all screenings will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

Admission is free to all screenings, with a suggested donation of $10 per person. The Town Hall Theatre is located at 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.; for more information, call (603) 654-3456 or visit www.wiltontownhalltheatre.com.

 

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Tonight: 'Nosferatu' in Manchester, N.H. Plus, this Halloween, bringing theaters back from the dead

'Nosferatu': traveling by sea is so relaxing!

Halloween approach-eth!

Tonight I'm doing music for 'Nosferatu' (1922) at the Rex Theatre in downtown Manchester, N.H. 

More details are below in the press release pasted into the bottom of this post.

But now, a few words about an appropriate subject for Halloween: bringing back theaters from the dead.

Example: last night's screening of 'Phantom of the Opera' (1925) in the recently opened Park Theatre in Jaffrey, N.H. 

The brand new venue is a recreation of the original Park Theatre, which operated from 1922 to 1976.

Now it's back, in the form of a completely new building with great acoustics. Bravo!

 

The newly rebuilt Park Theatre in Jaffrey, N.H.

And tonight's 'Nosferatu' is at the Rex, an old theater in downtown Manchester that was recently renovated and transformed into a modern venue for music, film, and comedy.

And then there was last week's screening of 'Phantom' at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H., which about 10 years ago was rescued from oblivion and turned into a vibrant venue for live music and film.

And just before that, I accompanied 'Dr Jekyll & Mr. Hyde' (1920) at the Center for the Arts in Natick, Mass., which is housed in a beautifully renovated 19th century firehouse. 

Up in Brandon, Vt., my monthly screenings at the venerable Town Hall and Community Center produce income to support the ongoing restoration of this 19th century meeting hall.

And the Somerville Theatre (where I'm doing music for 'Dracula' (1931) on Halloween night) just reopened after restoring its original Crystal Ballroom to active duty as an events space.

And the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine—where I'll accompany 'Nosferatu' on Saturday night—was recently transformed by the addition of a restaurant and bar inside the theater.

So here in my corner of the world, we're particularly blessed with venues that, one way or another, have been rescued from oblivion and turned into community gathering places.

I am grateful for that—but that's a sentiment more appropriate for Thanksgiving, and I'm still in the midst of working on Halloween here.

So come out to the Rex tonight and take in 'Nosferatu' with live music by me. More info in the press release below...

*   *   *

A scene from 'Nosferatu' (1922), screaming er, screening tonight at the Rex Theatre.

MONDAY, OCT. 4, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 

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

Creepy classic thriller 'Nosferatu' to screen at Rex Theatre on Thursday, Oct. 28

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

MANCHESTER, N.H.— Get into the Halloween spirit with a classic silent horror film.

'Nosferatu' (1922), the first screen adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel 'Dracula,' will be screened with live music on Thursday, Oct. 28 at 7:30 p.m. at the Rex Theatre, 23 Amherst St., Manchester, N.H.

The screening will feature live music for the movie by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. General admission is $10 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 more time goes by," said Rapsis, a resident of Bedford, N.H. 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."
 

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 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 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' episode.

The Rex Theatre's silent film series is intended to give local audiences a chance to experience the best of early Hollywood the way it was meant to be seen—on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"These films weren't intended to be shown on a laptop," Rapsis said. "It's worth putting the whole experience together, because you can still see why audiences first fell in love with the movies," Rapsis said.

Upcoming screenings include:

• Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, 7:30 p.m.: 'Girl Shy' (1924) starring Harold Lloyd. Celebrate Valentine's Day with the original rom-com, a Harold Lloyd gem starring one of the masters of silent comedy and featuring an unforgettable race-to-the-church finish.

• Thursday, April 21, 2022, 7:30 p.m.: 'Ben Hur' (1925) starring Ramon Novarro and a cast of thousands. In the Holy Land, a Jewish prince is enslaved by the occupying Romans; inspired by encounters with Jesus, he lives to seek justice. One of the great religious epics of Hollywood's silent film era, including a legendary chariot race that's lost none of its power to thrill.

‘Nosferatu’ will be shown on Thursday, Oct. 28 at 7:30 p.m. at the Rex Theatre, 23 Amherst St., Manchester, N.H. Admission is $10 per person. For more info and to buy tickets, visit www.palacetheatre.org or call (603) 668-5588.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Next up: music for 'Phantom of the Opera' at the newly opened Park Theatre in Jaffrey, N.H.

Happy Halloween as I preview a frightening schedule of spooky screenings.

As we enter the busiest stretch of the Halloween silent film season, the state of my mind is best represented by the above selfie, taken just prior to doing music for a screening of 'Phantom of the Opera' (1925) on Thursday, Oct. 21 in Plymouth, N.H.

In a word: Aaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhh!

It's been a wild ride so far, with spooky screenings last week in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Vermont, and for good measure a pair of vintages railroad melodramas last Sunday afternoon.

Next up: 'Phantom of the Opera' again, tonight (Wednesday, Oct. 27) in the brand new and recently opened Park Theatre in Jaffrey, N.H. More details are in the press release pasted in below.

Thursday night brings 'Nosferatu' (1922) at the Rex Theater (another new venue) in downtown Manchester, N.H. Friday brings the first installment of a three-day series of Tod Browning/Lon Chaney thrillers at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H., while Saturday night finds me in Ogunquit, Maine for another 'Nosferatu.'

Sunday night is a biggie: live music for the screening of a 35mm print of 'Dracula' (1931), a talking film with virtually no background music. 

It's the first time I've tried adding a live score to a "talkie" and I'm really looking to trying to help Bela connect but without getting in the way of director Tod Browning's eerie atmosphere—one in which silence plays an important role.

The show marks my return to the venerable (and recently reopened) Somerville Theatre, of of the Boston area's most highly regarded venues. It was where I accompanied my last screening (a Rin Tin Tin program in March 2020) before the pandemic shut everything down.

And the spooky steeplechase continues on Monday with music for 'Nosferatu,' this time for the relaunch of the 'Sounds of Silents' series at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, another Boston-area landmark.

Before plunging ahead, a few scenes from recent screenings.

- After doing music for 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde' (1920) on Sunday, Oct. 17 in Natick, Mass., I was delighted when a woman paid me the ultimate compliment: "I was so absorbed in the movie that I forgot someone was playing the music live."

To accompany the film, I used a harpsichord texture (with percussion mixed in where needed) that I felt was very effective at evoking both the genteel world of the mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll and the depraved manner of his alter ego, Mr. Hyde.

Most importantly, it was one texture that didn't have to change with the various on-screen transformations. Rather, it was the music itself (the notes and chords and so on) that transformed, while still keeping within the same basic sound world.

And I think that's crucial, because anything more would have called attention to the music, which would have taken people out of the film. 

Strange: the 'Dr. Jekyll' story is a tale about transformation. And in scoring it, I managed to make myself invisible! 

- Before setting out on the 2½-hour drive home after accompanying 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1922) in Brandon, Vt., I was warned to look out for moose, as the herd was on the move.

I didn't see any Bullwinkles. But while driving full speed down I-89, a fox darted out from nowhere into my headlines and right in front of my car. 

I actually screamed, and instinctively started to swerve to avoid it—a dangerous think to do at 75 mph. But the fox was foxy enough to quickly scoot back to where it came from as I barreled on through.

Wow! It took it as a good reminder of the experience that people seek when they come to see 'Phantom' and 'Nosferatu,' films I've seen a hundred times. So I'll do my best.

- Sometimes you get unexpected comments. This past Sunday (Oct. 24), after accompanying a screening of the railroad melodrama "West-Bound Limited' (1923) in Warner, N.H., a woman came up to me and posed this question: "What would you do without the diminished chord?" 

Wow! Praise or a slam? I'm still trying to figure out what she meant.

Okay, below is info on tonight's 'Phantom of the Opera' in Jaffrey, N.H. If you're within driving distance, come join us! If you're not, there's still plenty of time to get on plane. 

And remember—in silent film, no one can hear you scream!

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A vintage poster for 'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925.)

MONDAY, OCT. 18, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

'Phantom of the Opera' with live music at Jaffrey's Park Theatre on Wednesday, Oct. 27

Just in time for Halloween: Pioneer classic silent horror flick starring Lon Chaney shown on the big screen with live music

JAFFREY, N.H.—Get into the Halloween spirit with a spooky silent horror film!

'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925), the silent big screen adaptation of the classic thriller, will be shown with live music on Wednesday, Oct. 27 at 7 p.m. at the newly reopened Park Theatre, 19 Main St., Jaffrey, N.H.

The screening will feature live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based composer who specializes in creating music for silent films.

Admission is $12 per person. Tickets are available online at www.theparktheatre.org or at the door.

The show will allow audiences to experience 'Phantom' at the Park Theatre the way it was intended to be seen: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.  

Jaffrey's original Park Theatre opened in 1922, and was a center of community life until closing in the 1970s.

The newly rebuilt Park Theatre opened this past August, the result of a decade-long grassroots effort led by local residents that saw the old theater replaced with a new performing arts center.

'The Phantom of the Opera,' starring legendary actor Lon Chaney in the title role, remains a landmark work of the cinematic horror genre. 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 try to enhance in improvising live music on the spot for the screenings.

"The original 'Phantom' is a film that seems to get creepier as more time passes," said Rapsis, who is based in New Hampshire and frequently accompanies films throughout New England. "It's a great way to celebrate Halloween, and also the power of silent film to transport audiences to strange and unusual places."

'The Phantom of the Opera,' adapted from a 19th century novel by French author Gaston Leroux, featured Chaney as the deformed Phantom who haunts the opera house. The Phantom, seen only in the shadows, causes murder and mayhem in an attempt to force the opera's management to make the woman he loves into a star.

The film is most famous for Lon Chaney's intentionally horrific, self-applied make-up, which was kept a studio secret until the film's premiere.

Chaney transformed his face by painting his eye sockets black, creating a cadaverous skull-like visage. He also pulled the tip of his nose up and pinned it in place with wire, enlarged his nostrils with black paint, and put a set of jagged false teeth into his mouth to complete the ghastly deformed look of the Phantom.

Chaney's disfigured face is kept covered in the film until the now-famous unmasking scene, which prompted gasps of terror from the film's original audiences.

"No one had ever seen anything like this before," Rapsis said. "Chaney, with his portrayal of 'The Phantom,' really pushed the boundaries of what movies could do."

This screening not brought to you by the American Dental Association. 

Chaney, known as the "Man of a Thousand Faces" due to his versatility with make-up, also played Quasimodo in the silent 'Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923) and circus performer 'Alonzo the Armless' in Tod Browning's 'The Unknown' (1927).

The large cast of 'Phantom of the Opera' includes Mary Philbin as Christine DaaƩ, as the Phantom's love interest; character actor Snitz Edwards; and many other stars of the silent period.

'The Phantom of the Opera' proved so popular in its original release and again in a 1930 reissue that it led Universal Studios to launch a series of horror films, many of which are also regarded as true classics of the genre, including 'Dracula' (1931), 'Frankenstein' (1931), and 'The Mummy' (1932).

The silent film version of 'Phantom' also paved the way for numerous other adaptations of the story, up to and including the wildly successful Andrew Lloyd Webber musical from 1986 that continues to run on Broadway and in productions around the world.

‘The Phantom of the Opera’ (1925) will be shown on Wednesday, Oct. 27 at 7 p.m. at the Park Theatre, 19 Main St., Jaffrey, N.H. Admission is $12 per person. Tickets are available online at www.theparktheatre.org or at the door. For more information, call the box office at (603) 532-8888.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

On your marks: My annual Halloween marathon of spooky silent film screenings starts this Sunday

John Barrymore stars in 'Dr Jekyll & Mr. Hyde' (1920) on Sunday, Oct. 17 at the Center for the Arts in Natick, Mass.

This weekend marks start of the annual "Silent Film Halloween Marathon"—a spooky steeplechase of screenings that will take us through the end of the month and beyond.

On Sunday, Oct. 17, I'll be in Natick, Mass. to do music for the 1920 version of 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde' at the Center for the Arts. Showtime is 4 p.m. and lots more info in the press release below.

After that, it's a dozen screenings of classic silents with live music, most intended to scare up some fun in advance of Halloween. (There's a railroad program in there as well!)

It all culminates in two "big time" gigs in the Boston area: live music for 'Dracula' (1931) at the Somerville Theatre on Sunday, Oct. 31, and then 'Nosferatu' (1922) at the Coolidge Corner Theatre.

I'll report on the marathon as it progresses. For now, hope to see you at 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde' in Natick this Sunday...

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Original artwork promoting the 1920 version of 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.'

THURSDAY, SEPT. 23, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Natick Center for the Arts to screen 1920 silent film version of 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde'

Early adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson classic features John Barrymore in title role; shown with live music on Sunday, Oct. 17

NATICK, Mass.— It was first a best-selling novel, then an immensely popular stage play. So it was just a matter of time before the movies tackled 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,' Robert Louis Stevenson's classic tale of a man tortured by two personalities—one thoroughly good and the other completely evil.


Just in time for Halloween, an early (and eerie) silent film version of the 'Dr. Jeykll & Mr. Hyde' released in 1920 will be shown with live music on Sunday, Oct. 17 at 4 p.m. at the Center for the Arts, 14 Summer St., Natick, Mass.


Tickets are $12; Center for the Arts members $10.

Live music will be provided by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist.

Starring iconic actor John Barrymore, the film was a huge early hit for Paramount Pictures. It helped establish the "thriller" genre and showed the potential of the movies to vividly tell disturbing and creepy stories.

Dr. Jekyll, a London physician and philanthropist, becomes fascinated with the dual nature of man after the profligate Sir George Carew exposes him to temptation. When Jekyll invents a potion that separates the good from the evil in a person, he decides to live both roles and names the evil persona Mr. Hyde.

Jekyll is in love with Millicent, the daughter of Sir George; meanwhile, Hyde prowls the poorer districts of London, debases and discards Theresa, a dance hall performer. Jekyll's control over Hyde weakens gradually to the point where his alter ego resorts to murder, forcing Hyde into a showdown to save his loved ones and reign in the evil he himself has spawned.

The film put Barrymore, a noted stage actor, on the cinematic map. Following 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,' Barrymore would go on to be one of the biggest stars of early cinema. His handsome visage, dubbed "the great profile," was instantly recognizable to movie-goers of the time, who flocked to see Barrymore in later films such as 'Sherlock Holmes' (1922), 'Don Juan' (1926), and 'The Beloved Rogue' (1927).


Barrymore's performance in 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde' is noteworthy in part because, in an era of limited special effects, his portrayal of the early stages of Jekyll's transformation was done using only facial expressions and gestures. Make-up was only used later in the film following the full transformation of the Hyde character.

Stevenson's story has been refilmed many times, including versions in 1931 and 1941, and was most recently remade in 2008 as a TV movie starring Dougray Scott.

In screening the original 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,' the Natick Center for the Arts 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.

The silent film version of 'Dr. Jeykll & Mr. Hyde' (1920) will be screened with live music on Sunday, Oct. 17 at 4 p.m. at the Center for the Arts, 14 Summer St., Natick, Mass.

Tickets are $12; Center for the Arts members $10. Tickets must be purchased in advance online at www.natickarts.org. For more information, call the Center box office at (508) 647-0097 or visit www.natickarts.org.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

For this Halloween, something old AND new: original music to accompany 'Dracula' (1931)

Ready for the downbeat: Bela Lugosi in 'Dracula' (1931), to be shown with live music by me on Sunday, Oct. 31 at 7:30 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre.

Most posts on this blog are about what's coming up next on the silent film docket. 

But today I'm skipping ahead all the way to month's end, to Sunday, Oct. 31. That's when I'm doing live music on Halloween night for the classic thriller 'Dracula' (1931). 

The film will be shown in 35mm at the Somerville Theatre, among the best places to see a movie anywhere. More details in the press release pasted in below.

But wait—isn't 'Dracula' a talking picture? With a soundtrack and everything?

Yes. So what am I doing making live music for it?

Well, the thing is, 'Dracula' was released with virtually no musical score. 

This often happened in the early days of talkies. If a film wasn't an actual musical, with singing and dancing on screen, studios would sometimes just not bother with musical underscoring.

After all, music had been left up to local musicians since movies began. Throughout the silent era, the studios regarded music as no different from popcorn: something best made right in the theater.

There were technical reasons for live music, of course. At the time, it wasn't easy to amplify a recording in a way that would work for a large theater. 


But it was also just good box office for music to be done locally, so it could reflect prevailing styles and tastes depending on the location and the theater's audience. 

During the silent era, if a director did use music, it was mostly to have it played on set, to create a mood or to establish a tempo for the performers. 

Which brings us to 'Dracula' and its almost total lack of music. Other than a snatch of Tchaikovsky's 'Swan Lake' ballet score at the beginning, and a brief scene in an opera house, it's music-less.

Universal released the picture in 1931 without a score, in part because the traditional of a recorded score wasn't fully established at that time, and also to save money on production costs.

This certainly didn't harm the film, which proved a box office hit right from the beginning.

But over the years, various attempts have been made to add music to the film. Most notably, Philip
Glass composed a score for string quartet in 1998, and the Kronos Quartet continues to tour with it to this day.

In my little world, I hadn't considered scoring 'Dracula' until recently, when I programmed a series of Tod Browning silent pictures at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. 

It's currently underway—last Sunday, we screened 'White Tiger' (1923), an entertaining crime drama starring Wallace Beery, Priscilla Dean, and Raymond Griffith.

Browning, who directed 'Dracula,' had a prolific career in the silent era, directing a vast catalog of twisted melodramas, including many of Lon Chaney's greatest titles.

So I had Browning on the brain when the Somerville Theatre proposed a screening of 'Dracula' for Halloween, with me doing live music.

I hadn't considered this before, as I specialize in the unique world of silent cinema. Plus who would dare follow in the musical footsteps of Philip Glass, one of the most remarkable and original musical voices of our time?

But I thought about it: Browning's 'Dracula,' although a talkie, displayed many of Browning's techniques honed over the years in silent cinema. Long stretches unfold with no dialogue at all—sequences where the visuals carried the picture, as they had to in the silent era. 

I decided it would be a worthwhile exercise to take my silent film scoring vocabulary and carry it forward to 'Dracula,' which, after all, was the product of one of the most distinctive silent-era directors.

I understand the Glass score (which I've deliberately avoided listening to since this project) runs pretty much throughout the movie, even during passages with dialogue, and works to create an overall texture.

As much as I admire Glass, my silent film accompaniment methods mean I'll take quite a different approach with 'Dracula.'

For one thing, the music won't be continuous. Instead, it will be broken into sections, and used only when I feel it enhances scenes as only music can. 

Yes, it will at time evoke a general mood. But it will also serve to indicate significant changes in the emotional temperature of the narrative, to add motion to scenes that would benefit from it, and do all the things music can. 

I also hope to preserve those moments where the silence worked so well to create the eerie other-worldly mood that's a big part of the original 'Dracula.'

Will it work? I hope you'll join me on Halloween night at the Somerville, and we'll all find out together! 

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Bela Lugosi as 'Dracula' entertains a friend in the catacombs of Carfax Abbey.

TUESDAY, OCT. 12, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

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

Halloween special: Lugosi's 'Dracula' on big screen in 35mm with new live score

Horror classic to be shown at the Somerville Theatre on Sunday, Oct. 31 for one screening only

SOMERVILLE, Mass. — Do you dare spend Halloween braving 'Dracula' on the big screen?

That's the question at the Somerville Theatre, where the classic 1931 version of 'Dracula' will run for one showing only on Sunday, Oct. 31.

The movie, starring Bela Lugosi in the title role, will be shown using a 35mm film print from Universal Studios, which released the early horror classic in 1931.

Showtime is 7:30 p.m. General admission tickets are $15, with senior/student discounts. Tickets are available online at somervilletheatre.com or at the box office.

The screening will feature live music by Jeff Rapsis, the Somerville Theatre's silent film accompanist.

Although 'Dracula' is a talking picture, it was released with virtually no musical score, a common practice during the transition period from silent to sound pictures.

Rapsis will perform original music live during the screening using a digital keyboard to recreate the texture of a full orchestra.

Directed by Tod Browning (at right), 'Dracula' was a sensational box office success and has mesmerized movie audiences ever since with its eerie visuals and Lugosi's iconic performance.

The story opens in far-off Transylvania, where mysterious Count Dracula hypnotizes a British soldier, Renfield (Dwight Frye), into becoming his mindless slave.

Dracula then travels to England and takes up residence in an old castle. Soon the Count begins to wreak havoc, sucking the blood of young women and turning them into vampires.

When he sets his sights on Mina (Helen Chandler), the daughter of a prominent doctor, vampire-hunter Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) is enlisted to put a stop to Dracula's never-ending bloodlust.

Located in Davis Square, the Somerville Theatre is one of the few first-run venues in the region committed to preserving the ability to screen movies using 35mm film prints.

"We feel it's important to show films on actual film when possible, the way classic movies were intended to be shown," said Ian Judge, creative director of the Somerville Theatre.

The Somerville recently reopened after a 17-month hiatus for the pandemic, during which significant renovations were made to the 1914 theater.

The Halloween screening of 'Dracula' will include live music by Jeff Rapsis, a local composer and performer who specializes in creating accompaniment for silent films.  

'Dracula' was released when Hollywood and movie theatres were still undergoing the transition from the silent era to pictures with synchronized sound and dialogue.

During the silent era, studios did not produce official scores for most films. Instead, accompaniment was left up to local musicians, and could vary greatly from one moviehouse to another.

When studios converted to talking pictures, the tradition of recording a musical score was not well established. In the case of 'Dracula,' Universal omitted music in part to save production costs.

As a result, after the opening credits, the 1931 'Dracula' contains no music except for a brief scene in an opera house.

In recent decades, composers have experimented with creating original music for the movie—most notably Philip Glass, who composed a score in 1998 for the Kronos string quartet.

Rapsis sees 'Dracula' as closely linked to the silent-era tradition of films shown with live music.

"Tod Browning was a prolific director of silent films, including many thrillers that anticipate 'Dracula,' " Rapsis said. "So even though 'Dracula' is a talking picture, Browning's filmmaking style is strongly rooted in the silent era, when it was assumed that local musicians would be important collaborators in a picture's effect on an audience."

Unlike the Glass score, which plays almost continuously during the movie, Rapsis will use music only in certain places where he feels it will either enhance the mood, heighten tension, or signify a change in the emotional line of the story.

Although 'Dracula' is not a silent film, there are definitely places where the silence speaks volumes and remains very effective," Rapsis said. "I hope to leave those intact, but enrich other parts of the film in the way that only music can."

Rapsis works largely by improvising as a film plays in the theater, in the tradition of theatre organists of the 1920s.

"There's something very special about the in-the-moment energy of a live improvised performance," Rapsis said. "It's never the same, and at its best it really can help a film connect with an audience and make the whole experience come together."

The original 'Dracula' (1931) starring Bela Lugosi will be shown in 35mm and with live music for one screening only on Halloween night, Sunday, Oct. 31 at 7:30 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.

Tickets are $15 per person, with discounts for students and seniors. For more info, call the theater at (617) 625-5700 or visit www.somervilletheatre.com. For more info on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.

Monday, October 11, 2021

All this and root beer, too! A report from the revived Keaton Celebration in Iola, Kansas

Proof I made it to Iola, Kansas—taken not at the Bowlus Fine Arts Center, but at a long-closed movie theater just off the town's main square.

There's nothing more American than a second act. Buster Keaton certainly enjoyed one, reinventing himself as a TV performer after falling from movie stardom.

So it's only fitting that an annual gathering bearing his name should have a second act as well.

I'm referring to the Buster Keaton Celebration, held each year in late September in the small town of Iola, Kansas, not far from Keaton's rural birthplace.

The annual gathering ground to a halt in 2017 after 24 years. It was good run—but nothing goes on forever, right?

However, this year saw the reemergence of the Keaton Celebration. What's more, organizers intend to resume holding the event on an annual basis.

They also plan to remake the event's format to involve the local community and create more interest among Keaton fans.

Can this be done? That remains to be seen. But for now, here's a report on this year's Celebration, which I attended on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 24 & 25.

As a silent film accompanist, I had been to several past Keaton Celebrations, including what everyone thought was the final one in 2017, where the mood was one of rueful acceptance. 

In 2018, a one-off Keaton program was held in Kansas City. But it really wasn't a continuation of the Iola event. And after that, all was quiet on the Kansas Keaton front, at least publicly.

But behind the scenes, talks were underway to resume Iola's Keaton Celebration. The relaunch might have taken place in 2020 if not for the Covid-19 pandemic.

I didn't know about this until about a year ago (word travels slow from Kansas to New Hampshire), when I learned the event was being revived for 2021. Later, I was thrilled to be invited to accompany some of films, with the prestigious Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra also appearing. 

Along the way, the lingering pandemic nearly torpedoed the 2021 gathering. For a time, organizers considered an all-virtual model. 

But in the end, a hybrid approach was taken, with the Celebration going ahead as scheduled on Friday, Sept. 24 and Saturday, Sept. 25.

The program unfolded at its longtime Iola home, the Bowlus Fine Arts Center. At the same time, all events were streamed and available online for virtual attendees. 

The theme? "Buster Keaton in Changing Times," with a classy logo done as always by the talented Carol Yoho, who has attended every Keaton Celebration since the very first one back in 1993.

What was it like? Here's a brief and idiosyncratic report from the perspective of a piano player invited to accompany some of the silent films on the program. 

First, it was nice to be back. After the "last" Keaton Celebration in 2017, I thought I'd never see Iola again. But here I was, among landmarks such as the town square ("biggest west of the Mississippi River!") and the A&W Restaurant. 

Iola, by the way, is home to an enormous facility that produces Russell Stover candies for shipment all over the nation. So if you've ever wondered where all those boxes of Whitman's Samplers at your local CVS come from, it's likely Iola. 

Iola: Proud origin of Russell Stover candies!

I was eager to meet Dan Kays, director of the Bowlus Center, whose hiring in 2018 was an important step on the road to reviving the Keaton Celebration. Working with many long-time Celebration supporters, Dan has proposed a 10-year plan to help the event thrive and take it in new directions.

When I arrived at the Bowlus late Thursday afternoon, I didn't find Dan, but I did find my way (via an unlocked back door) into the darkened main auditorium, where the Celebration would take place. So I sat down and got reacquainted with the Henry Miller grand piano that lives in the "pit" area. 

I'm glad I did. The Miller is a fine instrument, but its touch is really heavy, or at least heavier than I'm used to, and without the graceful action of a Steinway. So just working with it for a half-hour can go a long way toward calibrating one's playing, of which I would do a lot over the next two days.

Friday morning I arrived before the 9 a.m. start to find Dan up on the podium testing the sound system. Throughout the two days, Dan was a whirlwind of activity, dealing with all aspects of the Keaton program plus the whole online version, which turned out to be a real challenge. 

In the small world department, turns out Dan's wife was recently an administrator at Mary Magdalen College, a small Catholic liberal arts school in Warner, N.H., where I've played for several silent film programs!

I was engaged primarily as the "day" pianist, brought in to provide live music for a grab bag of short comedies on Friday and Saturday. Rodney Sauer and Mont Alto handled the evening programs, although Rodney and I did swap around a bit.

Besides accompanying the movies, I also contributed occasional fill-in music for the program, such as playing "Hail to the Chief" when Iola's mayor took the podium.

Me at the Henry Miller. Photo by Jim Reid.

First up was Keaton's short 'The Playhouse' (1921), in celebration of the 100th anniversary of its release. You never quite know how things will go until a film starts, but I had good material ready and the music came together nicely, I thought. 

What was really interesting, though, was a presentation after by Prof. Frank Scheide, longtime Keaton Celebration participant and chairman of the committee, who walked us all through the actual vaudeville acts that Buster was sending up in 'The Playhouse.'

'The Playhouse,' which I first became acquainted with via a Super-8mm print from Blackhawk Films in the 1970s, is funny on its own terms. But there's so much more to it when you learn about the well-known acts that Buster was parodying in his comedy, and which audiences of the day would have recognized.

Take the "Zouaves" precision marching act that appears in 'The Playhouse.' Totally unknown today, in the 1920s they were a popular vaudeville touring act, descended from a U.S. Civil War regiment that itself was based on French military units in Algeria during the 19th century.

Frank, who is on the University of Arkansas faculty, dug up a film of the original Zouave troupe going through its routines—and astonishingly, they were almost exactly as depicted in Keaton's comedy. (Although in 'The Playhouse,' things soon go disastrously wrong.) 

The film was silent promotional footage, and after it started running, Frank beckoned to me from the stage: "Jeff, do you know any Zouave music?" So I hopped over to the piano and rattled off what I hoped was convincing Zouave music for the rest of the footage. 

Later that morning, I jumped in again when the sound system failed to function for a live on-stage rendition of the famous "Nairobi Trio" routine of Ernie Kovacs. Involving three performers dressed as apes, the pantomime routine is always done to "Solfeggio," a bizarre Robert Maxwell 1950s recording for harp, singers, orchestra, and bongo drums. 

A vintage video clip of the 'Nairobi Trio.'

The performers (wearing ape masks and heavy coats) entered and assumed their positions. But the music didn't happen. It wasn't clear at first what was going on, but after much confused gesturing, the troupe got up and left the stage.

As a lifelong Kovacs fan, I knew the routine well enough, and felt I could find my way on the piano, even without having ever played it before. So I volunteered to do it live, and Dan (who was at the podium) said okay, so off we went.

It didn't quite come out totally right, but was enough to get the players through most of the routine. I can't imagine how it came across to the online audience, but those at the Bowlus seemed to enjoy it.

The other short that morning was 'Backstage' (1919), one of the better Fatty Arbuckle comedies with Keaton in a supporting role. This one is full of dance, all of it played for pure comedy, so on the spur of the moment I started out with the famous 'Swan Lake' theme from Tchaikovsky's well-known ballet score.

I felt it provided a nice ironic introduction to all the wildness to come. And eventually, when thing did get wild, 'Swan Lake' returned in a rag-timey version with jacked-up tempo that I thought was pretty effective.  

Another unexpected task came that afternoon. Rodney Sauer of Mont Alto gave a presentation on silent film scoring, and he asked me to demonstrate an improvised score to a short passage from King Vidor's 'The Patsy' (1928). So I did!

Rodney then ran the same sequence with Mont Alto's compiled score, and then again with a full orchestra taking a very different approach, underlining all the action with musical outbursts that's sometimes called "Mickey Mousing" in the accompaniment world.

Buster, best friend (at left) and mortal enemy in 'Our Hospitality.'

The evening's program was 'Our Hospitality' (1923) with music by Mont Alto. I was surprised to learn many attendees had never seen the film before! I think I've accompanied it four times this year so far, and seen it several other times with other music. It's as familiar to me as my back yard, but it's important to remember how this is definitely not the case for 99.9% of people.

The next day saw two more Keaton shorts in the morning: 'Convict 13' and 'Neighbors,' both from 1920. Both were a lot of fun, with a jazzy underscoring working well for Buster's prison scenes in 'Convict 13.'

A Saturday highlight was lunch with Rodney Sauer and well-known film collector Jim Reid, who came up from Dallas to attend the Celebration. We drove to, yes, the Iola A&W Restaurant, where we enjoyed root beer served in frosted glass mugs.

That evening, I got to do music for the Keaton short 'Cops' (1922), which I felt went okay. I really tried hard to take a "less is more" approach, using the simplest possible texture to start and then build gradually as Buster's misadventures spiral wider and wider. 

Playing for 'Cops' (1922). The sheet music belongs to Rodney Sauer, who would lead Mont Alto in a compiled score for Keaton's 'Three Ages.'

Mont Alto then delivered a crackerjack score for Buster's feature 'Three Ages' (1923), and that was it. The 26th annual Keaton Celebration was in the books—thanks to the pandemic, not exactly what organizers had envisioned, but still revived and back in business. 

But for how long? Dan Kays has spoken of a ten-year plan, and that's probably a good thing, because it takes time for a long-running event to evolve to reflect different needs and changing times. 

So, in an effort to be helpful, here are some uninvited observations.

It's my observation that a lot of what drove the Keaton Celebration for its first 20 years was the special opportunity for attendees, both fans and scholars, to interact with major figures from the entertainment world who knew or worked with Keaton, who died in 1966.

Such folks were still around in quantity when the festival started in 1993. But time has passed, and almost anyone who knew or worked with Buster has now joined him in the great Green Room in the Sky. That direction connection has faded.

Keaton family members also made regular appearances, which was always a special element of the Iola event. This continues: this year was attended in person by Keaton's nephew Harry Keaton Jr., while Buster's daughter-in-law Barbara Talmadge and granddaughter Melissa Talmadge Cox attended virtually.

Still, time is passing. Keaton's widow Eleanor attended the event twice in the 1990s before she passed away in 1998. Harry is now past 80. Barbara is 96. It would be great if Keaton family members continue to be involved, but the Celebration can't rely too heavily on that element year after year without it getting to seem a little repetitive.

On screen: Keaton's daughter-in-law Barbara Talmadge and her daughter Melissa Talmadge Cox, committee member Hooman Mehran, and emcee Bruce Symes; on stage, from left: Lisa Geisler, daughter of Keaton's nephew Harry Keaton Jr., and Frank Scheide.

At the same time: just as I have to remember that most people have never seen 'Our Hospitality' (1923), most people interested in Keaton have not had a chance to meet any members of his family. It's a rare treat (I remember how thrilled I was to take Melissa out to lunch one day about 10 years ago) and their tradition of being part of the Iola event is a strong card in the Celebration's hand.

So I think here it's really a question of striking the right balance.

One curious element of the Keaton Celebration is that for many years, it was supported financially by the Kansas Humanities Council. This meant it was always been heavy on lectures and talks from visiting academics, and panel discussions among experts—all worthwhile, but not as entertaining as a Keaton comedy on the screen.

As a relative newcomer to the event (first attending in 2012), I felt this need to structure it as  something of a scholarly symposium, or at least to conform to an academic view of the humanities, was a curious way to put together a Buster Keaton Celebration.

Why? Because academic conferences are fine, but they're not ever going to draw or satisfying large general audiences. They really can't be the basis of a popular, well-attended event of this type. In this instance, less could be more.  

However, the presentation by Frank Scheide on the vaudeville routines in 'The Playhouse' was lively and informative and really added value to the event. So there's a balance to be struck here too, it seems.

I was given an unexpected chance to speak during this year's Celebration, and the one point I tried to make was that the event has a future. 

Me yakking from the piano bench. Another photo by Jim Reid. I didn't get a chance to take many photos, other than of the Russell Stover candy plant, so apologies for the lack of images.

Why? Because of Buster. His audience isn't shrinking or fading out. Rather, a century after what's recognized as his best work, his audience seems to be growing.

Really. I accompany more than 100 silent film programs each year, and the Keaton titles are the most frequently requested and the most well-attended.  

Young people (who generally believe any film before 'Star Wars' is pre-history) love Keaton and respond readily to his work. 

In this sense, it was great to see some high school students attend for a brief period on Friday afternoon. I think it would have been much better for them to see one of the Keaton features with live music, which is what young people really respond to, I've found. But it's a start.

So the Keaton Celebration holds another crucial card in its hand: Buster himself. If it can evolve to continue to showcase his work to new generations of fans, the event will thrive and prosper for a long time to come. 

The proximity to his birthplace is great, and can always be used to keep a sense of "pilgrimage" associated with the event. It's a claim that no other event or place can make. 

But more important are the basics: show Buster's films as they were intended to be shown: on a big screen, in the best restored prints, with live music, and—most importantly—an audience. 

When I talked with him, Dan Kays spoke of future Keaton programs that involve the local community more, in keeping with the original mission of the Bowlus to serve as a cultural resource for the region.

So ideas for future Buster Keaton Celebrations include showcasing the work of local filmmakers, involving students from local high schools, and just finding ways for the Iola community to become engaged. 

More of that, and the Keaton Celebration will not just be revived, but reinvented. 

After all, Keaton's motion picture artistry is timeless. Why can't this annual event possess the same quality?

And let's finish off with some A&W root beer served in a frosty cold mug. Wonder if they get this in Pordenone?

Friday, October 1, 2021

Benefit screening of 'Wings' (1927) to land at Manchester's Rex Theatre on Tuesday, Oct. 5

Arriving on Tuesday, Oct. 5: the epic Academy Award-winning  drama 'Wings' (1927).

Creating music for silent films is separate from my "day job," which is managing a local non-profit organization.

In that light, I'm a big admirer of the composer Charles Ives (pictured below, at left). A century ago, he worked full-time as partner in a very successful insurance business, while continuing his musical activities on the side.

It was a choice he made early in life, recognizing that his at-times bizarre avant garde compositions were never going to provide an income. And he didn't want his family to "starve on his dissonances," as he said.

However, Ives saw advantages in this double life. He claimed his work in business helped his art, and his work in art helped his business. I subscribe to that outlook, which I've found to be true for me as well.

And the two lives aren't always separate. Occasionally, they overlap. In the case of Ives, he would sometimes try to supply music for insurance industry events, often with mixed results. After all, he wasn't about to write music like the State Farm Insurance "Like a Good Neighbor" jingle, which was actually composed by...Barry Manilow! 

(Manilow, by the way, also composed the "Stuck on Band-Aid" jingle, and, most famously, "You Deserve a Break Today" for McDonalds, but that's is a whole other topic.)

And every now and then, my own two lives collide—such as on Tuesday, Oct. 5, when I'll provide live music for a screening of 'Wings' (1927) to benefit the Aviation Museum of N.H., where I'm executive director. (That's the non-profit I manage.)

For me, it's a nice coincidence that aviation and the movies grew up at roughly the same time, during the first decades of the 20th century. Early cinema is filled with flying stories, especially following Lindbergh's 1927 solo journey across the Atlantic.

So there's a lot of synergy. Over the years, I've done several aviation-themed silent film programs in support of the museum or other organizations. As the first 'Best Picture' in Academy Award history, 'Wings' is far and away the favorite title. 

But other titles include the Al Wilson stunt picture 'The Phantom Flyer' (1928), an airborne melodrama titled 'The Sky Rider' (1928) starring Champion the Dog, and the goofy Monty Banks feature-length comedy 'Flying Luck' (1927). 

Ironically, Ives himself was no fan of either airplanes or the movies. He would famously shake his fist at airplanes that flew overhead, intruding on the rural quiet of his native Connecticut. And he felt movies were a form of dissipation that weakened the collective American spirit.

Well, even if Ives might not approve, 'Wings' is on the bill next Tuesday. If you're in the Manchester area, I invite you to join us. If you've never had a chance to see this picture on the big screen, and with live music, and with an audience—well, it's a flight you don't want to miss.

More details in the press release below. Hope to see you for an on-time departure on Tuesday, Oct. 5 at  p.m.

*   *   *

Another colorful poster for 'Wings' (1927), to be shown with live music on Tuesday, Oct. 5 at 7 p.m. at the Rex Theatre in Manchester, N.H.

FRIDAY, SEPT. 17, 2021 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Epic silent film 'Wings' (1927) on Tuesday, Oct. 5 at Manchester's Rex Theatre

Story of U.S. aviators in World War I won first-ever 'Best Picture'; Aviation Museum benefit screening to feature live musical accompaniment

MANCHESTER, N.H.—It won 'Best Picture' at the very first Academy Awards, with spectacular midair flying sequences and a dramatic story that still mesmerizes audiences today.

'Wings' (1927), a drama about U.S. pilots in the skies over Europe during World War I, will be shown on Tuesday, Oct. 5 at the Rex Theatre, 23 Amherst St., Manchester, N.H.

The screening, part of the Rex Theatre's "Movies for a Cause" program, will benefit the non-profit Aviation Museum of N.H. and the Rex Theatre.

Showtime is 7 p.m. Tickets are $12 per person, general admission.

The screening will feature live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based composer who specializes in creating music for silent films.

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

'Wings,' a blockbuster hit in its original release, recounts the adventures of U.S. pilots flying combat missions behind enemy lines at the height of World War I in Europe. 'Wings' stunned audiences with aerial dogfight footage, vivid and realistic battle scenes, and dramatic love-triangle plot.

Looking glum: a downcast still from 'Wings' with stars Buddy Rogers, Clara Bow, and Richard Arlen.

'Wings' stars Clara Bow, Charles 'Buddy' Rogers, and Richard Arlen. The rarely-seen film also marked one of the first screen appearances of Gary Cooper, who plays a supporting role. Directed by William Wellman, 'Wings' was lauded by critics for its gripping story, superb photography, and technical innovations.

'Wings' is notable as one of the first Hollywood films to take audiences directly into battlefield trenches and vividly depict combat action. Aviation buffs will also enjoy 'Wings' as the film is filled with scenes of vintage aircraft from the early days of flight.

Seen today, the film also allows contemporary audiences a window into the era of World War I, which was underway in Europe a century ago.

" 'Wings' is not only a terrific movie, but seeing it on the big screen is also a great chance to appreciate what earlier generations of servicemen and women endured," accompanist Jeff Rapsis said.

"It's a war that has faded somewhat from our collective consciousness, but it defined life in the United States for a big chunk of the 20th century. This film captures how World War I affected the nation, and also shows in detail what it was like to serve one's country a century ago."

Rapsis, a composer who specializes in film music, will create a score for 'Wings' on the spot, improvising the music as the movie unfolds to enhance the on-screen action as well as respond to audience reactions. Rapsis performs the music on a digital synthesizer, which is capable of producing a wide range of theatre organ and orchestral textures.

"Live music was an integral part of the silent film experience," Rapsis said. "At the time, most films weren't released with sheet music or scores. Studios relied on local musicians to come up with an effective score that was different in every theater. At its best, this approach created an energy and a connection that added a great deal to a film's impact. That's what I try to recreate," Rapsis said.

Rapsis is executive director of the Aviation Museum of N.H., which is co-sponsoring the screening.

'Wings' will be followed on Wednesday, Oct. 6 with "The McConnell Story" (1955), a Warner Bros. dramatization of the life and career of N.H. native Joseph C. McConnell, a U.S. Air Force pilot who became the top American ace during the Korean War.

'Wings' runs about 2½ hours. The film is a family-friendly drama but not suitable for very young children due to its length and intense wartime battle scenes.

‘Wings’ (1927) starring Clara Bow, Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen will be shown with live music on Tuesday, Oct. 5 at 7 p.m. at the Rex Theatre, 23 Amherst St., Manchester, N.H.

Tickets $12 adults, general admission. For more information and to buy tickets, visit www.palacetheatre.org or call (603) 668-5588.