Strange? Maybe not. Ben Model, silent film curator and accompanist and the evening’s host, says the earliest movie theaters were converted storefronts like the wonderfully preserved turn-of-the-last-century Farmacy. Wednesday night was the last in the Farmacy’s 2012 soda-fountain film festival, and by the time the show was about to begin, the place was packed with people in their 20s, begging one another for their tables’ empty chairs, sitting on the step where the almighty pharmacist used to hold court, leaning against the soda fountain, and slurping down their famous chocolate egg creams and hot chocolate.
The show Model assembled consisted of four comedy shorts, each 20 minutes in length (or 2 reels long), each converted from flammable acetate to 16 millimeter film (which, he explained, once were mailed to private homes, shown in parlors, then returned—a service much like Netflix). Then decades later each was converted from 16 millimeters to DVDs like the kind sent out by Netflix, and exactly what we would be watching. Before the movies started the Farmacy’s Gia Giasullo warned everyone that fountain service would be suspended during the movies, and then the lights went down.
Charlie Chaplin’s silent short Behind the Screen kicked off the festival. The print, crisp and clear, shows the hero’s antics as an assistant at a movie production company, with typical Chaplin slapstick. The next, Buster Keaton—the Human Medicine Ball, Model labeled him—was up with The Goat, featuring a mistaken identity and police chases galore. Then it was Good Cheer, a sentimental Hal Roach comedy featuring The Gang (sort of a prototype of Our Gang), an archetypical bunch of tenement-dwelling kids who wonder if Santa Claus really exists. This print was poor, but it was a lesson in film preservation, and how acetate film stock decays when the original is not copied to a more permanent material. A huge percentage of silent films have been lost, mostly because there’s no profit motive. (By the way, according to Good Cheer, Santa’s the real deal.) The last on the bill was arguably the most hilarious: Big Business, a rare Laurel and Hardy silent two-reeler (most of their movies were talkies), and a portrayal of Reciprocal Destruction: The pair’s attempt to sell a Christmas tree starts with an irate would-be customer clipping the tree’s top and ends with his house and their car reduced to rubble.
After the show Model took a couple of questions from the audience, and said that like most accompanists back in the day, he doesn’t play by a score. Fascinating stuff for the film buff, and a cheap date for the twentysomethings: the night at the movies was free. If you’re lucky, you can get to go next year.
Executive Editor Phil Scott often writes about travel and aviation.