Orchestral Chaplin: The sounds of the silents

Chamber orchestra plays music along with Charlie Chaplin film

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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Old met new on Sunday as Cinetopia's state-of-the art theater played Charlie Chaplin's silent film "The Gold Rush," complete with a live orchestra.

The 15-member Washington Chamber Orchestra, led by conductor Michael Kissinger, also had a challenge that not many musicians face today. They had to play nonstop for about 80 minutes, and in perfect time with the scenes of the film.

Before the show, Kissinger told the crowd that the orchestra might speed up or slow down to keep time with events in the movie.

"We have to keep up with the film, or we have to catch up to the film, as the case may be," Kissinger said. "There's no break. There's no rest."

In "The Gold Rush," Chaplin plays a down-and-out gold prospector in Alaska who falls for a woman named Georgia, who pretends to fancy him as a joke.

The 1925 film was written and directed by Chaplin, who also wrote the music for the movie. The silent movie was one of the first feature-length films (most silent films at the time were shorts), Kissinger told the crowd.

"This is a comedy, but it's also sad in a lot of ways," he said.

The audience, seated in a 415-seat theater at Cinetopia's Westfield Vancouver mall location, laughed as Charlie Chaplin's character first appeared on screen. In his first scene of the film, he bumbles along a snowy cliff and is unknowingly followed by a bear.

Later in the movie, audience members booed when a villain shot two unsuspecting gold prospectors and hit another one in the head with a shovel. They cheered when that same villain was swept away in an avalanche.

The orchestra rose to the challenge during the film, staying almost always in time. Some long notes were held as the film switched to a new scene. The orchestra received the score for the film about two weeks ago and spent a week rehearsing it together.

In the 1920s, the music to silent films was often played with just one organ, or with a band of about three musicians, Kissinger said before the show.

As the orchestra played Sunday, microphones set up around them pumped their music through the theater's many speakers, surrounding the audience in sound. The theater's projector displayed the remastered film on a 75-foot screen.

Chaplin's film deserves the star treatment, Kissinger said.

Chaplin was "a true renaissance man," he said. "No matter where he went in the world, everyone knew him."

Chaplin fans

It was clear on Sunday that Chaplin's appeal still resonates with many people in 2014.

When Akiko Dawkins, 43, was a teenager, she became fascinated with Chaplin, and now she collects Chaplin memorabilia, she said Sunday while standing in line for the show. The Battle Ground woman has a Chaplin plate, figurine, clock and purse, she said.

"I just like him," she said.

Others at the event could remember when Chaplin's movies first played in theaters.

"We're old enough that Charlie Chaplin is still back in our memories," Ken Ellertson, 87, of Vancouver said, standing alongside wife Marjorie before the show. "He's fun to watch."

Concert series

Sunday's event was part of the Bravo! Vancouver concert series, and it was the organization's fourth event at a Cinetopia.

The other events were readings of the popular children's books "Jumanji" and "Peter and the Wolf," both accompanied by music, performances of a compilation of Broadway musicals, and performances of music from famous Vienna composers.

Kissinger said the idea to perform the background music for a silent film came from a favorite pastime. He played in a silent-movie orchestra when he was a student in college. The orchestra encouraged the audience to yell and cheer during those films, Kissinger said.

"It was just so much fun," he said. "Today we don't watch silent films, so it's a completely different culture."