Greenville, SC: PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925)

Announcements of upcoming theatrical silent film exhibitions.
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Greenville, SC: PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925)

Unread post by silentfilm » Sun Oct 05, 2008 2:56 pm ... 5/1056/ENT

A sonic experience for a silent film
Lon Chaney’s ‘Phantom’ gives acclaimed organist a reason to improvise
By Ann Hicks • ARTS WRITER • October 5, 2008

She’s some organist.

Dorothy Papadakos’ resume is several octaves long, peppered with high notes.
She’s the only woman to date to serve as music director/organist for New York’s preeminent Cathedral of St. John the Divine. She’s a member of the six-time Grammy-winning Paul Winter Consort, the producer/composer/writer of the Broadway musical “Bacchus,” and a much-sought-after international recording and touring artist.

Many of those tours satisfy her ardent devotion to early 20th century silent movies starring Hollywood legends Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Lon Chaney. To pay homage, Papadakos globe-trots to perform improvisational accompaniment to the greatest hits from this golden era.

Luckily, Greenville is her next destination. On Friday evening at 7, Papadakos will unleash the mighty pipes of the First Baptist Church’s Casavant organ to create a suck-in-your-breath sound palette to the 1929 “Phantom of the Opera,” starring Chaney.

It’s for a good cause: to raise money for the South Carolina Ballet Association’s community projects.

Greenville may not have heard much about Papadakos. But, ask organ professor Charles Tompkins at Furman University what the listening audience can expect, and you get an enthusiastic volley of superlatives both on the church’s organ and the artist.

“She’s is really something,” says Tompkins, who heard her perform in 1996. “As far as Dorothy goes, she’s one of the most versatile and multi-faceted organists in the profession.”

As for the Casavant, purchased in 1984, not only is it the largest organ in the state, but it’s also an instrument with enormous flexibility and color, says Tompkins. “It will provide fantastic listening as a theater organ.”

And the audience will be treated to a nearly lost art form.

How did Papadakos get into these gigs?

Purely by accident, she laughs.

During her time at St. John, from 1990-2003, master theater organist Lee Erwin would accompany a particular silent movie at the gothic cathedral every Halloween.

Around the mid 1990s, and a few days before he was to perform, the 90-year-old Erwin became ill. The church asked Papadakos to step in. She begged off saying she’d never accompanied a silent movie before. She was reassured she’d be fine, and the next thing she knew she was at the organ improvising the soundscape for “Phantom of the Opera.”

“It was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had,” she says. “I had been improvising for years in the classical repertoire, but to all of a sudden improvise with these actors on the screen was something else. It was freeing. I fell in love with doing it,” says the personable artist.

“Yes, at first, I was scared to death, but 10 minutes into the movie I just went with the actors on the screen and it was all over before I knew it. Ever since then, I’ve been doing these gigs all over the world.”

Papadakos says that although she knows the story of the film in advance, she never likes to watch the it before a performance. That way, it stays fresh for her, and at times even a surprise, because with a 90-minute movie, she says, “you can’t remember all the action to come.”

The way she builds the harmonic language is by writing “little melodies just like you would for a Hollywood movie.” Papadakos is a composer for theater, ballet, television and film.

As an example, there are themes for the lovers, the lead girl, the Phantom, the boyfriend and, whenever those characters appear, she improvises on that theme. It’s to help the audience remember who is who.

In between, she improvises for the action that is taking place, and in some spots, where she knows something crucial is about to happen, she starts building the suspense toward that moment.

Papadakos says her greatest joy comes as people experience silent film with organ accompaniment for the first time — Sespecially a film that in 2009 will be 80 years old.

“How cool is that to know that such a movie still has great emotional impact,” she says. “You know, he (Chaney) is very scary, but he also breaks your heart with many poignant moments.”

Her other favorites are Chaplin movies.

Papadakos says she recently arrived back at her home in Wilmington, N.C., from Finland where she accompanied three of the Little Tramp’s movies. She says improvising accompaniment for a comic film is much more difficult than a horror flick because the action never stops.

As for her performance at First Baptist, she says “Phantom” is the perfect choice for the ballet’s fundraiser because of the lovely ballet scenes at the Paris Opera — the place of the film’s classic action.


“Phantom” was filmed on Universal Studio’s Soundstage No. 28, which is said to be haunted by Chaney’s ghost.

Part of the Opera House set from 1925 still stands today and it is said that attempts to tear it down have resulted in fatal accidents attributed to Chaney’s ghost.

Chaney’s intentionally horrific, self-applied make-up was kept a studio secret until the film’s 1929 premier.

The famous unmasking scene is said to have made patrons scream and faint.

The film was No. 52 on Bravo’s “100 Scariest Movie Moments” and deemed “culturally significant” by the Library of Congress.

Source: Dorothy Papadakos


What: South Carolina Ballet presents the 1929 silent film “Phantom of the Opera,” with accompaniment by Grammy-winning organist Dorothy Papadakos

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Where: First Baptist Church

Tickets: $25 general seating; $75 preferred seating and meet-the-artist reception

Information: 467-3000

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Unread post by silentfilm » Wed Oct 08, 2008 8:43 pm ... ts0921.txt

Dorothy Papadakos scores, and scores with, 'Phantom of the Opera'

Lon Chaney as Erik, the phantom of the Paris Opera House, in disguise at a masked ball. (Wikipedia)

In the earliest days of movies, before there was a way to embed sound, silent films would play at local theaters, accompanied by a musician, usually at a piano, but in the grandest theaters, at the house organ, which sometimes rivalled that of the church or cathedral down the street.

Sometimes musical scores were supplied by the film distributors; sometimes they were actually followed. More often the accompaniment was improvised by the organist, whose impromptu score was polished by repeated viewings of the movie.

Dorothy Papadakos arrived at the First Flight High School auditorium accompanied by a digital organ, which sat on the floor between the audience and the stage. The cockpit, or console, where she sat, was about as large as a Volkswagen Beetle and resembled that of a giant church organ, bristling with buttons, stops, bass pedals and several keyboards. But replacing the giant pipes embedded in the walls of the theater were eight large speaker cabinets lining the front edge of the stage, pointed at the ceiling. Another cabinet was on the floor in front of the stage, aimed at the audience.

As the audience arrived for the first show in the Outer Banks Forum's 2008-9 series, pages from the printed program highlighting corporate sponsors were being projected on the back wall of the stage. "They're not ads," said Forum president John Tucker, referring to the nonprofit status of the Forum. "We're a 501c3; they're donations."

Papadakos, who made her bones, as it were, as organist of the world's largest gothic cathedral, St. John the Divine in New York, has collaborated with the likes of the Paul Winter Consort, Jessye Norman, Judy Collins, Max Roach, French high-wire artist Philippe Petit, Philip Glass and numerous others, especially world music and music theatre artists.

And she is a fan of early cinema, or as she might more engagingly put it, "old movies." She learned film-score improvisation at the feet of the master, Lee Erwin, and this evening she would work her magic on a 1929 edit of Carl Laemmle's Phantom of the Opera, starring the "Man of a Thousand Faces," Lon Chaney, who had just had a triumph as the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The house lights went down, and before the film began, in a pool of light at her organ, Papadakos played Johann Sebastian Bach's "Toccata in D minor," a piece of music that many would recognize from countless gothic and horror movies.

The organ thundered appropriately; its vibrations could be felt through the floor, and Papadakos' fluid reading brought out a sense of foreboding and menace that well served the evening. When the final note faded into the darkness, the film began.

To those who had only seen the occasional crusty old silent movie on television, the evening's experience was a revelation. To begin with, it had color! Not photographic color, but each black-and-white scene was tinted to heighten its mood - amber for interiors, blue for night scenes, green for mysterious moods, red for fire and sunshine (yellow) for daylight exteriors. A pivotal scene at a "Bal Masque" - a masked ball - was in an early two-color Technicolor process.

The sets (the Paris Opera House and its environs) were magnificent. There was a cast of hundreds, if not thousands, and the opera depicted in the movie (Gounoud's Faust) was a spectacle in itself. The acting was - broad; before directors got to know the medium of film, and the information that could be imparted by an actor's smallest expressions, players tended to use the large, sweeping mannerisms of stage actors, which were meant to be seen by audients in the cheapest seats.

Of special note was the star, Lon Chaney, an actor whose extreme self-applied makeup earned him the title "Man of a Thousand Faces" and made him an early superstar. His horrific skull-like visage as the title character caused some contemporary viewers to faint, and holds up today as pretty darn scary.

And Papadakos nailed the score. Her music effaced itself in service to the film; each cue was perfect, each mood was enhanced. The degree to which the music disappeared into the film could be summed up by John Tucker's description of an earlier performance Papadakos had done for the school's students: "You could hear a pin drop."

Peter Hummers writes THE Outer Banks 'blog at Outer Banks Onstage. ©2008 Peter Hummers

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