There’s a new silent movie venue in town

"The 21st century is no place to watch early 20th-century movies."

That’s the claim of the Excelsior Moveable Movie Palace, which will have its first public screening in Berkeley this coming Sunday night. The idea is to recreate the experience of watching these films when they were new. "When you see the world through the eyes of say, 1913 (great year for a lot of things), you’re watching a new 1913 movie, hearing new 1913 songs, inhabiting the 1913 world as a familiar place, as your own time. At our shows it’s not D.W. Griffith WAS, or Mary Pickford WAS, or Rudolph Valentino WAS; Griffith IS, Pickford IS, Valentino IS."

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Of course, in 1913, Valentine IS a struggling unknown, but you get the point.

How will they recreate the time? Everything will be projected from film. The people working there will be appropriately dressed and, I assume, will be acting the parts. The creative force behind the project, Annie Lore, is a veteran of the Dickens and Renaissance Faires, and she understands that sort of living history immersive theater.

Which brings me to a disclaimer: I’m also a veteran of those fairs (or faires; it’s complicated). I’ve known Annie for a very long time. I also know accompanist Ellen Hoffman from those crazy days. Ellen is an excellent pianist, who recently accompanied Rita Moreno at a local concert.

This Sunday, they’ll be playing at the Art House Gallery in Berkeley. The year will be 1929, and they’ll show a selection of comedy shorts–mostly from the the Hal Roach studio. The stars include Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chase, and Harry Langdon.

Actually, several of the shorts would have been pretty old in ’29; the only one I’ve seen, It’s a Gift, was six years old by then. But it’s a very funny Snub Pollard vehicle and worth seeing.

Perhaps the strangest entry is The Sheik’s Physique from 1925, described as "Rudolph Valentino’s only comedy short."

Although the Art House Gallery will be their more-or-less permanent home, Excelsior is designed as a traveling show. "Excelsior comes to you, with your own film festival
for a few friends– or a few hundred, at your home or school, or library or church or museum or community center or rented hall or club, or you name it. This doesn’t mean that there are no public showings; we can be booked at events or performance venues like any act."

Kind of like vaudeville. And remember, the movies started in vaudeville.

Curtains

Few movie theaters have curtains these days, and the ones that do don’t know how to use them.

Curtains give a theater a certain flare, as if someone was actually putting on a show. Once upon a time, every movie theater that wasn’t a grindhouse or a drive-in once hid its screen behind one. Today’s multiplexes generally don’t bother with curtains, but many of the theaters I attend regularly have them, including the Castro, Cerrito, Shattuck (for some of its screens), and the Grand Lake.

But it seems that the people who run these theaters have forgotten how a movie curtain is supposed to work. Their standard operating procedure is to lower the house lights, open the curtain, then start the movie. This gives us a second or two to contemplate the blank screen. But the whole point of a curtain is that audience never has to look at the blank screen.

Here’s how a curtain should work: You lower the lights, start the movie, then open the curtain as the studio logo unspools. Now that’s a dramatic way to start a movie.

I don’t know why even the theaters that have curtains don’t do that anymore. Perhaps the studios insist that no curtain distract from their new, “improved,” computer-animated logos–they’ve done stupider things. Or maybe curtains are so rare these days that no one knows how to use them.

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