Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Buster Keaton Night at the Local Movie Palace

I don’t know if time travel is possible, but on Monday night I experienced the closest thing to it when my local movie house, The Tivoli in Downers Grove, IL, ran a silent Buster Keaton program with live organ accompaniment. The program consisted of the short “One Week” (1920) and the feature length “College” (1927) with organist Dennis Scott working his magic on the mighty Wurlitzer organ.

The Tivoli is one of the jewels of the Chicago area. Lovingly restored by the fine folks at Classic Cinemas, a Chicago-area chain, the Tivoli is one of the longest running continually operating movie theaters in the Chicago area.

Designed by the Chicago architecture firm of Van Gunten and Van Gunten, it was one of the first theaters in the country to be constructed with sound equipment in mind. Early newspaper ads trumpeted its Vitaphone equipment and local newspapers called it “the wonder theater of suburban Chicago.”

It opened its doors for the first time on Christmas Day in 1928. The first attraction was Howard Hawks’ “Fazil” (1928) starring Charles Farrell, Greta Nyssen, John Boles and Mae Busch. More than 4,000 people turned up on Christmas to attend that first show, a neat trick since the theater only sat 1,390. It’s been running ever since. In addition to movies, the theater also presents live stage shows and concerts.

The theater’s interior is beautiful French Renaissance and remarkably little has changed over the years. Oh, there’s been repainting and touch ups. There’s a new marquee and a new candy counter. They made the spaces between the rows wider, necessitating removing some of the seats. (Current seating now stands 1,012 seats, a few hundred less than there was originally).

But the rest is still the same. Stepping into that beautiful auditorium is like being transported into a 1928 movie palace, and when vintage films are shown there the results are breathtaking.

I always feel the time travel tingle when crisp, beautiful black and white images are shown there, but last night’s was especially potent.

Organist Dennis Scott performed the “College” score written by John Muri, a well-known organist in the Midwest. According to Scott’s comments before the movie, Muri played the Wurlitzer organ at the Indiana Theatre in East Chicago, Indiana in the 1920s for silent movies. That very same organ now resides at the Tivoli. If “College” did play more than 80 years ago at the Indiana, it’s likely Muri was playing that same organ we heard last night.

In the 1960s Muri became friends with famed film preservationist David Shepard, and provided scores for many silent films in the Blackhawk catalog. I believe it is Muri’s score that accompanies the DVD of “College” on the Kino label.

There was a pretty good turn out to see Buster, and I was pleased to see the variety of attendees. Pretty much all ages were represented and I would guess the theater was more than half filled, which means about 500-600 people showed up on a beautiful summer evening to enjoy Buster.

The short “One Week” is great, with Buster and his new bride given a new house as a wedding present. Of course, they get to the lot and find they need to construct the house themselves, with the house parts sitting in boxes on the lot. Buster’s inventiveness is on big display here, especially the sequence where a wind storm revolves the house like a merry go round. Twenty minutes long and containing a laugh in almost all of them, “One Week” gave me more laughs than anything else I’ve seen at the theater all year.

“College” is one of Buster’s weaker features. It came right after his classic Civil War adventure “The General” (1926) and no doubt Buster was exhausted after its making and disappointed at its lackluster reception. “College” is not as inventive as some of his other films, and is more episodic, but there’s much to enjoy.

Brainy Buster goes to college and tries to impress Mary (Anne Cornwall) with his athletic prowess. Too bad he doesn’t have any, as he proves during a baseball game (Buster acts as if he’s never even seen a baseball game, and has no idea what to do) and trying his hand at track and field events.

He also gets a job at a soda jerk with disastrous results. The usually dexterous Buster has no skill juggling ice cream containers.

There were a few audible sighs of discomfort when a scene is introduced with a sign outside a restaurant saying “Colored waiter wanted.” Yep, its Buster in blackface. I think a lot of people in the theater were relieved when that sequence was over.

Part of the fun of watching Buster Keaton movies is his ability to seemingly defy the laws of gravity. The Great Stone Face is usually able to overcome all obstacles. Here he’s pretty earthbound, until Mary calls him to come rescue her from the guy who has bullied Buster since high school. Love turns Buster into Superman as he races across campus performing feat after amazing feat to get to Mary in time. The audience was cheering and applauding throughout this entire sequence, much like Fredric March’s preacher character seeing his first movie, a William S. Hart western, in “One Foot in Heaven” (1941).

The audience had its full share of older people and members of the Fox Valley chapter of the AGO (American Guild of Organists) and I’m sure they were leading the cheers, but the two young guys in their 20s in the row ahead of me were applauding just as loudly.

A marvelous night at the movies, indeed the stuff of movie magic. I hope the Tivoli shows more vintage movies. I need my big screen time travel fix.

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