Want to forget the 2020s and return to the 1920s? Earlier this month, the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in New Hampshire held five consecutive days of silent film screenings with live musical accompaniment.
The two-screen location, with about 200 seats in the main auditorium and 68 in the screening room, reopened in July with a combination of newer releases (Irresistible and Emma) and repertory titles (1776 and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World). With attendance not reaching the levels they’d hoped for, the cinema decided to double down on their hit Sunday silent film series, which usually runs about twice a month.
“Those are films you really need to experience in a theater with other people,” pianist and musical accompanist Jeff Rapsis explained in an interview. “It was my idea to do a whole week of them. We decided comedy was the way to go. The Douglas Fairbanks films we’d been running this year had been swashbuckling action adventures. But boy, do we need to laugh right now.”
From Monday, August 10 to Friday, August 14, the cinema showed 1926’s The General starring Buster Keaton, 1926’s Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, 1921’s The Kid starring Charlie Chaplin, 1922’s Grandma’s Boy, and 1928’s Steamboat Bill Jr.
According to numbers provided by owner and operator Dennis Markaverich, Steamboat proved the best-attended film—no doubt helped by its Friday night slot—while Tramp was the least-attended, which Markaverich blamed on that day’s heat wave. (It was the hottest day of the week in New Hampshire, with a high of 95 degrees.)
“I’m not just accompanying the film. I’m accompanying the audience, as well,” Rapsis explains. “If you start playing really loud and fast all at once, you step on the laughter that the audience makes. Sometimes the laughter grows and builds, but if the music is too loud, that doesn’t happen. You have to start quiet, almost like a nursery rhyme.”
Back in the 1920s, “There was no official score. They didn’t send around sheet music. So it was up to local musicians to create the right kind of music for that theater, that town, that area. It could differ widely, and people would choose to go to a theater because of the music,” Rapsis continues. “So I take pride in never really repeating myself. Each performance is a unique custom-made thing, like what a jazz musician might do.”
Admission was $10, with an additional optional donation jar in the middle of the lobby. Three people attending all five screenings. “I wanted to give them a toaster or something,” says Rapsis, who also chose the five films. “I have some favorites from that era too,” Markaverich laughs, “but I would probably make the wrong choice!”
Next weekend they’ll continue their silent film series with 1920’s The Mask of Zorro on Saturday, August 29 and 1925’s sequel Don Q, Son of Zorro on Sunday, August 30, both at 2 P.M. Admission is free, though a $10 donation is suggested.
Wilton Town Hall Theatre has been designated as a National Historic Landmark, and like all cinemas during the COVID-19 pandemic, this year hasn’t been their easiest financially. “Just in the past six months, I finally gave up doing newspaper ads,” Markaverich admits. “But I’ve been managing here for 47 years… and I intend to be here another 47 years.”