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80 years old and still terrifying

Embassy Theatre presents 1925 Phantom of the Opera with Dennis James accompanying

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2004-10-11


The advent of DVDs has acted as a kind of great equalizer as far as film goes. Every movie from Battleship Potemkin to Meatballs gets the reverential treatment, restored, refurbished, and packed with enough extras and commentary to constitute a mini-course on film. On one hand, we have instant access to some cinematic masterpieces. On the other, it has also robbed us of something. Watching a cinematic masterpiece at home with a bag of Cheetos can’t recreate what it was that first captured the imaginations of movie goers, or why the film is still considered important decades later.

Audiences will have a chance to experience one of the greats the way it was meant to be experienced when the Embassy Theater presents the 1925 silent movie Phantom of the Opera with Dennis James accompanying on organ.

The days when silent movies were thought of as the inferior cousins to the “talkies” are long gone. Film fans and historians are beginning to recognize that creating a silent film was an art in and of itself, almost an entirely different medium from movies with sound. Events like the Embassy Theatre’s presentation of Phantom of the Opera — in a movie palace, with a big screen and musical accompaniment written specifically for the film — let audiences experience silent movies like they never have before. “You get to see exactly what the film makers had in mind,” says Stephan Salmons, the artistic director of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. “It’s a mind-blowing experience. Today, we’re so caught up in the progress and technology we’re moving towards, that it’s great to be able to see what things were like then. What you find out right away is that they were very powerful, and real artistic achievements.”

Silent or not, The Phantom of the Opera is still a darn creepy and exciting movie. The word “classic” gets thrown around a lot these days. It seems any third-rate piece of celluloid gets tagged with the adjective if someone can remember the name of the flick five years after its release. But it’s easy to see why this 1925 production still stands as the definitive film version of Gaston Leroux’s story, and why it’s considered one of the first truly great horror movies. “There are a few names from the silent area that everyone recognizes, and Phantom of the Opera is one of them,” says Salmons. “Lon Chaney (who plays the Phantom) is one of the all-time great actors, and Phantom of the Opera is the movie that made him a star. “

Add Dennis James accompanying the movie on organ, and you’ve got a rare treat. James is an internationally recognized silent film accompanist who last performed in Fort Wayne as part of the Embassy’s 75th anniversary, playing the score to Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman. “James is amazing, not only because he’s a brilliant musician but he’s a musicologist, too,” says Salmons. “So, when you go see Dennis James perform, you not only hear great music, you’re hearing an authentic score from the period.”

Mahlon Houlihan, the Embassy Theatre’s business manager and part of the volunteer organ crew, compares the experience to traveling backwards in a time machine. “It’s just like you’re stepping back 76 years,” he says. “You’re walking back into an authentic vaudeville movie palace, you’re seeing a movie from that era the way it was intended to be presented accompanied by music that was written at the time for that movie. From the time you step into the movie, you’re in 1928.”

James will be playing the Embassy’s Grande Page Organ, made by the Page Organ Company of Lima, Ohio and installed in 1928 when the Embassy was built. “Just as they specified seats and projection equipment and so on, a theater organ was ordered, and this is the one,” says Houlihan. “It’s designed to replace an entire orchestra, plus it was meant to accompany silent movies, so you’ve got special effects like percussion, train whistles, bird calls…”

Houlihan acknowledges that audiences may have a lowered expectation of what they’re going to see, but nothing can really prepare them for the experience. “The Page Organ has over a thousand pipes, and here’s one man, with ten fingers and two feet, making all of this sound, and accompanying this film which normally would take an entire orchestra or banks of MIDI keyboards to accomplish,” he says. “It’s more than just going to a theater. This is the way it’s supposed to be done.”

The Phantom Of The Opera
Saturday, October 23 at 8:45 p.m.
Embassy Theatre
Tickets: $12 each. On sale now at the Embassy Box Office and all Ticketmaster outlets. (260) 424-6287

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