Thursday, February 26, 2009

Radio City Music Hall Wurlitzer

Here are some photos taken on Tuesday at Radio City Music Hall. I was there as part of an invited walk-through of RCMH held by SVA's creative and tech teams for their annual graduation exercises. Last year I played piano for their graduation, improvising 15-or-so pieces of music while graduates came up one-by-one to get their diplomas. You can read my posting from May 2008 by clicking here.

This year we're trying to see if I'll be able to use the Music Hall's Wurlitzer for the ceremony, and this was a chance for me to saddle up and acquaint myself with the organ, and also to give the SVA people a chance to hear how quiet the instrument can be so it doesn't overpower the Dean(s) reading off people's names.

Here's a view of the whole console. There's actually two of 'em, and this is the main one, on the house left side of the stage.

A closer view of the console. There are 4 manuals (organ lingo for "keyboard") and 58 ranks (sets of pipes), plus tuned percussion. The little white buttons are thumb-pistons where combinations of ranks are stored.

Notice the swiveling organ seat used here, rather than the wide wooden bench. The concept behind the "Howard" is to give an audience a clearer view of the organist's footwork.

Donnell Media Center - now at Lincoln Center Library

Spent a piece of yesterday screening The Whirl of Life (1915) and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910) at the NYPL for the Performing Arts. The legendary Donnell Media Center and its film and video collection as well as its staff (as of now sans Joe Yransky, who retired in January) were absorbed by the branch when the Donnell Library was closed in August.

If you are not aware of the collection, it's a phenomenal resource in both the circulating items and those in the reserve collection. There are screening carols for video and 16mm. If you are a silent film fan and can't find something you're looking for, it's possible it may be here.

I'd not seen either of these pictures before, and noted that the Whirl of Life print came from MoMA. The picture stars Vernon & Irene Castle and, as Mr. Yransky has told me, while it purports to take place on Long Island, the film was actually shot in Westchester and in New Jersey.

Both films looked a little fast at 24fps, and I offered to loan them for the show the pair of custom-rigged Eiki's that Silent Cinema Pres/Silent Clowns owns that run at 21 fps. The Bruno Walter auditorium has a short throw (maybe 35 feet?) and there's room in the booth for these. Bruce Lawton and I use these at the Silent Clowns series et al for films made before 1920-ish and it makes a huge difference.

Here's a link to a blog posting by animator and animation historian Mark Mayerson all about my "undercranking" studies. Lots of nice response postings by other animators.

More show bookings pop up every day, and I'll post about them when the dates get closer. Next week is gonna be a lu-lu:
  • Mar 1 Safety Last in Woodmere
  • Mar 2 Antonia Lant's silent film class at NYU
  • Mar 3 The Whirl of Life at the Bruno Walter
  • Mar 4 Beau Brummel at MoMA and
    The Iron Horse at the Ossining Library
  • Mar 5 Underworld at MoMA
  • Mar 6 The Freshman at MoMA
  • Mar 8 Hands Up! at the Silent Clowns
See you at the silents!

Ben Model

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Buster Keaton in "The General"

Hey, isn't that Al St. John next to the bone-head commander who thinks the Rock River bridge is strong enough to hold his train? Bruce and Steve were talking about this after the show, pretty certain it's Al, and so I grabbed this frame from the DVD. Al's not in the shot of the commander that follows the train's plunge into the river, though.

We had a great season opener, with quite a few kids in the audience. I think if the weather prediction for snow hadn't been a factor (since it turned out to be a light drizzle) we'd have had a bigger crowd. Still The General went over well, as did Mooching Through Georgia – which was released in August 1939, four months before Gone With the Wind. Mooching actually played really well, further convincing us that a lot of Keaton's talkie shorts do play well with an audience. We've run a couple of the Educationals in the past, and they've done well. When we ran One-Run Elmer, which has almost no dialogue, I played to it...and it was really effective.

As usual, the score for The General went really well for the audience, and somewhat unsatisfactorily for yours truly. Playing for this picture is a bit of a paradox for me, as it's one of my favorite silents to present to audience and also one with which I feel I never "click" when I accompany it. Again, I'm the only one who notices, and I'm sure when I figure it out it'll all make sense. Took me a number of shows of The Gold Rush before I felt right about it...before it got taken off the menu.

No performances in the past week, but I spent a bit of time arranging my orchestral score for Cops for high school band. The high schools in Milford CT and Hot Springs SD, who performed my band score for Chaplin's The Immigrant last year, want another one. I've changed keys in a couple places to make things a little easier for the school kids, and got some suggestions from the conductors of the bands and the conductor of the TVYS in Boise as well about making the score more playable for high school musicians with limited rehearsal time.

Also, over the past week, I booked several shows, including the infamous Cinefest in Syracuse that so many of my colleagues who attend have told me about, and attended the always-entertaining Downtown Clown Review.

Up next is my monthly show at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, a program of Chaplin Mutual shorts. It's the same program as the one Bruce and I did at the Burns Film Center, using my 16mm prints. Dylan would prefer to do the show in 35mm, and rightly so, but the Mutuals in 35mm have been elusive or unaffordable and since the CAC is showing Monsieur Verdoux later in the week, we thought we'd slot a Chaplin shorts show in this month. Most of the rest of our shows for the rest of the year are now set; next month is Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Will new FilmLinc staff cuts affect "Golden Silents"?

I saw an article online this morning announcing the layoffs of eight staff members at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Sayre Maxfield, who programs the "Golden Silents" series at FilmLinc, is one of the staffers being let go, as is Will McCord who runs the "Young Friends of Film" program there.

Click here to read the article on that I found – "Under New Leadership and Facing Economic Realities, Film Society Cuts Staff" – and which was posted there late last night. While the article states that FilmLinc says the "Golden Silents" and "Young Friends of Film" programs will continue, an article from July 2008 in the New York Times announcing FilmLinc's new Exec Dir Mara Manus – which you can read by clicking this link – states "While renowned for the annual New York Film Festival and financially sound, the organization rarely draws much public attention."

Hopefully the expansion of FilmLinc to include an additional two theaters – 150-seat and 90-seat – plus an amphitheater for talks and events will mean that specialized progamming like silent films will get more play than just 3 or 4 "G.S." events a year, and that the initiative to bring a greater audience in will mean the one or two silent films series that are programmed each year will lean more toward silent films that will develop a greater audience for the genre.

Still, if $ is the key interest, it could go either way. It depends on the agenda of the people at the top. One arts cinema I play at feels the fewer silent film shows booked each year, the more that silent show will seem like a special event and therefore sell more tickets. Another, the Cinema Arts Center in Huntington, feels the inclusion of silent film as part of their cinema landscape is important and offers a monthly series; we program the shows based on what we want to present and have built up an audience for silents there.

With the recent retirement of Joe Yransky (Donnell Media Center), Steven Higgins (MoMA) and now with Sayre's being let go – along with the Museum of the Moving Image's being closed for renovations – it will be interesting to see what effect on silent film in NYC this will have. Meantime, I'm doing what I can to keep silent film on screens – the Silent Clowns Film Series is still going (although we are looking for a new theater to move to for the fall), and the public screening series version of the "Cruel and Unusual Comedy" class I taught at MoMA with Steve Massa and Ron Magliozzi is on the MoMA calendar for five dates in May. Will the Film Forum program any silents this year...? Stay tuned...and support your local silent film shows!

See you at the silents!


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Chaplin undercranking study - boxing

Here's a clip I just (finally) uploaded to YouTube. It's one of the studies I did for my talk at the Clown Theater Festival last fall, Undercranking: The Magic Behind the Slapstick. There are a few others I need to record narration for, render and upload. Chaplin seems to be the master of this technique of creating a gag that would only appear funny or to even be a gag when the film is run faster.

Stuart Oderman photos

Just got these photos in from my friend, photographer Steve Friedman, who is also a major silent film fan and Buster Keaton maven. These were taken in the lobby near Titus 1, and the posters you see in the background are from the Batiste Madalena poster exhibit.

photos by Steve Friedman

Sunday, February 08, 2009

other accompanists: David Arner, Bernie Anderson

Silent film accompanist and accomplished jazz pianist David Arner was at last Friday's (Feb 6) showing of The Kid Brother. He came over and said 'hi' after the show and we chatted for a while. I couldn't place where I'd known his name till he mentioned that he played for silents at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck, NY. He's played at the Knitting Factory as well, and told me he'd played at the silent film accompanist "summit" that was held at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria in the early '90s. David mentioned something coming up at the National Gallery and at Upstate Films, so check their websites (or his) for info. We exchanged emails, and I've now found his website (click his name, above).

Fellow Lee Erwin student/devotee Bernie Anderson is playing for Ben Hur at Chaminade High School in Mineola on March 1st; there's a theatre organ in the school's auditorium. And as is always my luck with NYTOS events, it conflicts with a show I have. And so, if I were not already helping Mr. Lloyd up the side of the Bolton Building out in Woodmere (show is in Woodmere, not the building), along with film historian Philip Harwood, I'd get to hear Bernie live. [I'd already missed Bernie when he played at the Donnell last year, a booking I'd recommended him for.]

Silent Clowns on Facebook and MySpace

The Silent Clowns Film Series now has a presence on FaceBook and on MySpace! If you spend online time at either of these sites, join the FB group or become a MySpace friend. Click on the images below to go to the Silent Clowns pages on those sites.

Silent Clowns winter/spring season announced

For those of you who aren't on our snail-mail list, here's a peek at what you miss by just receiving our eBlasts. Our new brochure, designed masterfully by Marlene Weisman-Abadi, arrived from the printers a couple days ago. Seen at right is our front cover panel, and if you scroll down you'll see the inside of the brochure with our 5 shows listed. The season, as always, is programmed (and proudly projected) by Bruce Lawton. Marlene has been part of our team since the late '90s and somehow manages to out-do herself with each brochure.
Our brochures are tri-fold B&W on coated paper -- a format we've been using for several years -- and are printed by Rolling Press, out in Brooklyn. RP are an amazing printing outfit who uses environmentally-friendly inks and have turned around jobs for us a little quicker than we expect.
Bruce wanted to feature Chaplin on the cover to highlight the 120th birthday program we're planning for our April 19th show (the real birthday is on April 16). We'll do a program of Essanay shorts, and will undoubtedly run some or all of these on our custom-rigged Eiki' SL-O's that go at 21fps.
We are currently hunting for a new space to present our shows at starting in the fall. Over the years we have been at the 78th Street Theatre Lab, The New-York Historical Society, The Little Theater at the West Side YMCA, Makor, and then back at the N-YHS. We always wind up somewhere whenever we have to move on and — like Charlie's "Little Fellow" does atter the end of every iris-out — will undoubtedly find somewhere special to hang our derby/porkpie/boater hats.
See you on Feb 22nd for Keaton's The General!
-- Ben

Variety, Loves of Carmen, Kid Brother & The Wanderer

Well, I'd only seen the American-release version of Variety, up till Weds (Feb 4). I'd played for it a number of times, and was glad I finally got to see the film with its original first 2 reels and storyline intact. When Paramount released it they cut out the film's prologue where Emil Jannings and his wife and baby are part of a circus or carnival, and Lya de Putti's character is introduced...she is the survivor of a ship that sank and is brought to the home of Emil and his wife. They take her in, at his insistence, and she becomes a new act at the carnival. There are sequences involving Emil looking at Lya's bottom, then at his wife's etc and eventually Lya seduces Emil and he leaves his wife and baby and he and Lya go off. In the cut version, this is where the picture begins, and the titles make Jannings and Putti the couple and there is no mention of the prior wife, so when the handsome acrobat enters the picture and Jannings murders him, his motivation is purely revenge, whereas the original shows Jannings as being kind of a decrepit guy himself.
35mm print came from L.O.C., and we ran it at 22fps. There were opportunities at the beginning and end for me to use the snare and bass drum on the organ, when Jannings is plodding slowly down hallways with that I-just-got-my-heart-ripped-out-and-I'm-devastated look on his face that is in nearly every Jannings picture. I also managed to repeat something that I'd done last time I played to the picture. In the scene at the Wintergarten when Jannings is jealous of Artinelli and has a fantasy of dropping him during a climactic somersault-and-catch, I'd built the tension up and at the moment he doesn't catch Artinelli and he falls I went silent for half a second, and the audience gasped. I managed to pull it off again this time, and got the same effect.
As I'd experienced a month ago playing for The Last Command, I was kinda emotionally spent at the end of the picture. When you go on the ride with the film, you process the emotions that the characters go through, and Jannings is such a compelling performer – there are not that many titles in the picture – that you can tell what he's thinking just looking at him. [Lillian Gish is another one with this quality.] Not so with Thursday's picture...
The Loves of Carmen, shown (24 fps) in a 16mm print in MoMA's collection, is a piece of fluff with little drama coming off the screen. It seemed to be a vehicle for Dolores Del Rio to flounce around and "act spanish" in pretty dresses, basically. McLaglen doesn't have much to do, and the bullfighting scenes look like they used stock footage shot for Blood and Sand. Anyway, I got through the picture just fine – only played snippets of the Bizet as the lights went down so I didn't have to use it in the picture (didn't fit anyway) – and the audience seemed to enjoy the picture, judging from the applause at the end.
Harold Lloyd's The Kid Brother is probably his best feature. It's so well-crafted, so well shot and lit, and has an excellent balance of character comedy and gag-sequences. I played this one on piano, as the show had been moved, as of the day before, to Titus 2 and I just didn't feel like schlepping the Miditzer equipment from the Education building to the other one, and then back again afterward, just for the one show. When I sat down after my introductory bow I heard mutterings about the organ (a lot of the regulars really prefer it, I think). I quickly apologized that we weren't using the organ, and then I remembered I'd left my phone on and turned it off, encouraging the audience to do so. Darned if someone's phone didn't go off during the feature anyway, someone in the 7th or 8th row (?) who probably was in the audience when I made my announcement. One of these days, I'm going to just stop and wait for the offender to shut their phone off. If you haven't heard the infamous stopping-the-show Patti Lupone rant about someone taking pictures of her during "Rose's Turn" you can hear it here on YouTube. Before Kid Bro was a surviving fragment of The Wanderer with Ernest Torrence and Greta Nissen. Was that Bynunski Hymen I spotted in a brief part?

Saturday I didn't play, but I did go to MoMA to hear Makia Matsumura, who was making her MoMA debut three times that day. Ron Magliozzi was there as well, and introduced her to the audience. She did a great job on Variety, and friend who was at the 8:30 Kid Brother said she did a good job on that as well. Photo at right was snapped with my camera by Fred von Bernewitz; Fred helps us out by dropping our Silent Clowns brochures at art/rep cinemas all over town, and is also a film editor -- this weekend some the films directed by Robert Downey (senior) that he edited are being shown at Anthology Film Archives.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Ben Model on NY1 - January 2000

Just uploaded this video to YouTube. This was aired in January 2000, during MoMA's six-month silent film series coinciding with their museum-wide "MoMA 2000" gallery exhibitions. I was playing for 5-8 shows a week. If my years at NYU as an accompanist was silent film accompaniment boot camp - as I often refer to it - this was a master's degree in the field, as well as a chance to make a living as a silent film accompanist and take a break from doing tech support in law offices for almost half a year.