Tuesday, February 20, 2024

A big audience for a big celebration—plus some embarrassing confessions in a local newspaper

The audience for a screening of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923) to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Colonial Theatre in Keene, N.H. 

Wow! A screening of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' on Sunday, Feb. 18 was blessed with a very large and thoroughly engaged audience.

From the reaction to the film, you could tell you were intent on having a good time.

And that shouldn't be a surprise, as the screening was to celebrate the 100th birthday of venue: the Colonial Theatre in downtown Keene, N.H.

Depression, war, television, Tiny Tim, the Internet—nothing in the past century succeeded in darkening the marquee of the Colonial.

This makes it a rare survivor: a single screen downtown movie theater from the silent era that survives in its original configuration, and which is today thriving as the anchor of a performing arts center.

To celebrate, the decision was made to repeat the film that opened the Colonial in January 2024: Lon Chaney in the silent version of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame.'

And celebrate we did, with a steady stream of booing and cheering coming from the audience as the film screened.

One thing to note: I've never heard an audience cheer so lustily at the sequence where the peasants break into the aristocrat ball. Yaaah! Stick it to the callous oppressors!

Also, in my introductory remarks, I found myself recounting a personal experience I had in this same theater in 1971, when I was seven years old. We were spending our summers in Harrisville, a small nearby town, where our family had a lake cottage with a well but no running water.

So one Saturday my mother drove us all into town, where she dropped me and my older brother off at the Colonial for what she thought was a kiddie matinee while she visited a laundromat.

It WAS a kiddie matinee, except it really wasn't. It was the Gene Wilder version of 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' in its original release, and I found it nothing short of terrifying. 

When Augustus Gloop falls into the chocolate river and gets stuck in a clear plastic pipe, it was more than I could stand. I ran up the aisle to escape. My brother found me hiding in a stall in the ladies' bathroom.

August Gloop stuck in the pipe.

Assuring me that it was just a movie, we returned to the theater just in time to see the Violet character turn into a giant human blueberry and get rolled off to "the juicing room."

Once again I ran up the aisle, this time through the lobby and outside into broad daylight, my brother this time in hot pursuit. I recall we spent the rest of the time on a park bench, with me inconsolable and hyperventilating. Thanks, Roald Dahl!

So I related this childhood anecdote to the audience for Hunckback, earned a few chuckles, and then moved on. What I didn't know was that a reporter for the local newspaper, the Keene Sentinel, was in attendance. And so this afternoon I found out that my Willy Wonka story made Page 2 of today's paper.

So my traumatic experience was newsworthy after all!

Next up for me: on Thursday, I head out to the Heartland to attend this year's Kansas Silent Film Festival, which takes place Friday and Saturday.

As I joke: Some people get to go to Aruba in February. I got to Topeka.

But looking forward to seeing old friends and making new ones. If you're in the vicinity of Washburn University (where the festival is held), I encourage you to take in some or all of the films. 

Complete info available at the Kansas Silent Film Festival website. See you there!

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