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Paragon Ragtime Orchestra

I had to take advantage of the opportunity to see old silent films on the big screen accompanied by a live pit orchestra. Directed by Rick Benjamin, the band played period pieces, the first being "Prelude to Motion Picture Comedy," from 1918. In the pit, from the perspective of the audience, the strings were on the left: two violins, a viola, a cello, and bass. On the right, flute, clarinet, two cornets and a trombone. Also the vintage drum set, with mallets and special effects.

We forget, or never think in the first place, that way back in the day, our lives weren't accompanied by a soundtrack supplied by radios, ipods, computers, and stereos. Before radio really took off, the movie theater (along with the municipal bands playing in the park), was a main source for hearing music. Benjamin provided some figures as to the number of movie theaters back in the twenties, and it was a pretty impressive number. I know that some just had an organ or piano for music (my grandmother played piano for silent movies), but if many had pit bands, that would have meant a lot of jobs for musicians. Talkies did away with that. Benjamin quipped that talkies and saxophones signaled the end of civilization. Naturally, I have to disagree with half of the statement.

After the initial piece, they opened the curtains and we watched a Buster Keaton film, "Cops," from 1922. I noticed the conductor was wearing white gloves, but it was not out of any dandyism, but rather so that the musicians could see his hands in the dark. Part of Keaton's charm is his constant deadpan expression, but his real talent is seen in his stunts, many of which look pretty dangerous.

Keaton may be my favorite silent star, he's hilarious, but that stone face of his makes him melancholy at the same time.

After the thoroughly enjoyable Keaton film, we were treated to some "reel change music," Louis A. Hirsch's 1918 fox trot, "Orchestral Interlude," and then once again they opened the curtains and we saw Charlie Chaplin's "Behind the Scenes" from 1916. Granted, it's a series of gags, and not up to the level of his later work like "Modern Times" or "The Great Dictator," but Chaplin was predictably charming and funny.

After the intermission, we were treated to a little more music, by Scott Joplin and W.C. Handy, and then it was time to view Harold Lloyd's "Get Out and Get Under," about a guy, a girl and a car. How much more American can you get than that? Of the three silent movie greats, I am the least familiar with Lloyd, but he is excellent in his own way. His "Glasses Character," according to the program " is "a resourceful, success-seeking go-getter who was perfectly in tune with 1920s America." This film was probably the best of the three, not necessarily for the gags, which were funny, but because of its internal logic or cohesion.

While the orchestra played its "exit music" I walked down and listened to the band from the first row. Good stuff.

We watch silent movies in a different way, in tune not with words but with physicality. Gestures and motion have increased meaning in the absence of words. There is a lot of truth in the commonplace notion that we lost something with the advent of talking motion pictures.

What a great way to spend a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon.


pit orchestra

I've played in several pit orchestras for musicals...the older I get, the more important those white gloves are...

wish I was there

Too much fun. I love Harold Lloyd.

February 2019



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