Monday, January 22, 2024

Sunday, Jan. 28: Chaney's 'Hunchback of Notre Dame' highlights Colonial's centennial celebration

The Colonial's marquee has brightened Keene's Main Street for a full century.


Talk about milestones!

This month, the Colonial Theatre of Keene, N.H. marks 100 years of service. 

That's a century of movies and popcorn in that rarest of creatures: a downtown one-screen movie theater that was never multiplexed!

And to celebrate, this Sunday, Jan. 28, the Colonial is turning the clocks all the way back to the very first motion picture that opened the place.

It's 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923) starring Lon Chaney. It's my privilege to create live music for this special screening, which is at 2 p.m. and free to all.

The theater is promoting the event with the tagline "Party Like It's 1924!" along with the movie poster showing Esmerelda dancing with a goat. I assume goats are optional.

It's also a personal honor, as I have a history with the Colonial going back to at least 1971—back when the place hadn't even reached the half-century mark.

At that time, my family would spend summers in Harrisville, a small town outside of Keene. 

My mother would drive us into Keene every other Saturday to do laundry. She'd park us at the Colonial for the children's matinee while she washed and dried.

I can pinpoint the year as 1971 because that was when 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' was released. 

And I remember that because to an impressionable 7-year-old, there was no more terrifying film. Things were okay until they entered Wonka's factory, and ghastly things began happening to the children. 

By the time Augustus Gloop got stuck in a clear plastic pipe, I couldn't take it anymore, running up the aisle to get away before anything else could happen.

The Colonial Theatre's interior, pretty much unchanged since it opened in 1924.

My older brother found me in the ladies room hiding in a stall. Coaxing me out, we returned to the darkened theater just in time to see the girl blow up like a giant blueberry and then get rolled off to the "juicing room."

I fled back up the aisle and outside. What happened after that is a blank—we may have ended up on a park bench outside until my mother came to get us.

I've since recovered, but that original version with Gene Wilder in the title role still gives me the creeps. 

Well, Chaney's 'Hunchback' can be creepy, too. But I hope it doesn't compel you to flee the theater!

Lots more info in the press release. Hope you'll join us this Sunday, Jan. 28 at 2 p.m. to celebrate the Colonial's centennial.

There will be cake!

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A scene from 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923). 

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Chaney as Quasimodo in 'Hunchback of Notre Dame' on Sunday, Jan. 28 in Keene, N.H.

Celebrate Colonial Theatre's 100th anniversary with free screening of classic film that opened theater in 1924; featuring live music by Jeff Rapsis

KEENE, N.H.—It was a spectacular combination: Lon Chaney, the actor known as the "Man of 1,000 Faces," and Universal's big screen adaptation of Victor Hugo's sprawling tale of the tortured Quasimodo.

The result was the classic silent film version of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923) — a movie so popular that it was chosen as the opening program at Keene's Colonial Theatre when it first opened to the public on Jan. 29, 1924.

Now, 100 years later, the Colonial will once again screen 'Hunchback' as part of a centennial celebration.

'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' starring Lon Chaney will be shown on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024 at 2 p.m. at the Colonial Theatre, 95 Main St., Keene, N.H. Admission is free, but attendees are asked to RSVP online in advance at

Live music for the movie will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

The program includes cake and champagne afterwards.

'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' is based on Victor Hugo's 1831 novel, and is notable for the grand sets that recall 15th century Paris as well as for Chaney's performance and make-up as the tortured hunchback Quasimodo.

The film elevated Chaney, already a well-known character actor, to full star status in Hollywood, and also helped set a standard for many later horror films, including Chaney's 'The Phantom of the Opera' in 1925.

While Quasimodo is but one of many interconnecting characters in the original Hugo novel, he dominates the narrative of this lavish Universal production.

In the story, Jehan (Brandon Hurst), the evil brother of the archdeacon, lusts after a Gypsy named Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller) and commands the hunchback Quasimodo (Chaney) to capture her.

Military captain Phoebus (Norman Kerry) also loves Esmeralda and rescues her, but the Gypsy is not unsympathetic to Quasimodo's condition, and an unlikely bond forms between them.

After vengeful Jehan frames Esmeralda for the attempted murder of Phoebus, Quasimodo's feelings are put to the test in a spectacular climax set in and around the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

A scene from 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923).

As the hunchbacked bellringer Quasimodo, Chaney adorned himself with a special device that made his cheeks jut out grotesquely; a contact lens that blanked out one of his eyes; and, most painfully, a huge rubber hump covered with coarse animal fur and weighing anywhere from 30 to 50 pounds.

Chaney deeply identified with Quasimodo, the deformed bell-ringer at Notre Dame Cathedral who was deafened by his work. Chaney was raised by deaf parents and did a lot of his communication through pantomime.

“The idea of doing the picture was an old one of mine and I had studied Quasimodo until I knew him like a brother, knew every ghoulish impulse of his heart and all the inarticulate miseries of his soul,” Chaney told an interviewer with Movie Weekly magazine in 1923.

“Quasimodo and I lived together—we became one. At least so it has since seemed to me. When I played him, I forgot my own identity completely and for the time being lived and suffered with the Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

The film was a major box office hit for Universal Studios, and Chaney's performance continues to win accolades.

"An awe-inspiring achievement, featuring magnificent sets (built on the Universal backlot), the proverbial cast of thousands (the crowd scenes are mesmerizing) and an opportunity to catch Lon Chaney at his most commanding," wrote critic Matt Brunson of Creative Loafing in 2014.

The famous cathedral, a symbol of Paris and France, was severely damaged by fire in 2019. After a long period of rebuilding, the Cathedral is scheduled to reopen to the public in December 2024.

Screening this classic version of 'Hunchback' provides local audiences the opportunity to experience silent film as it was intended to be shown: on the big screen, in restored prints, with live music, and with an audience.

"If you can put pieces of the experience back together again, it's surprising how these films snap back to life," said Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist who creates music for silent film screenings at venues around the country.

"By showing the films as they were intended, you can really get a sense of why people first fell in love with the movies."

In creating music for silent films, Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra and creates a traditional "movie score" sound.

'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923) starring Lon Chaney, will be screened with live music on Sunday, Jan. 28 at 2 p.m. at the Colonial Theatre, 95 Main St., Keene, N.H. Admission is free, but attendees are asked to RVSP online in advance at

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