Potempa: Scary, iconic silent films with live organ music, from east to west this month – Chicago Tribune

Reader Dr. Christopher S. Ebert, choir director at Valparaiso First United Methodist Church, has a wonderful movie, time machine opportunity for October audiences.
Ebert tipped me off that organist extraordinaire Jim Crisman will play the pipe organ to provide the music to accompany a free screening of the 1925 black and white silent film classic “The Phantom of the Opera” at 7 p.m. Oct. 29 in the church sanctuary of First United Methodist Church, 103 Franklin Street in Valparaiso. The event is free, with freewill donations accepted and cider and donuts provided by Scout Troop 906. For details and further information, call 219-465-1661.
This early fright film is now infamous since silent film star Lon Chaney Sr. created this movie’s title role in every way. From his incredible acting and movements to dreaming up, designing and applying his own make-up to create the Phantom’s now famous signature skull-face look, Chaney succeeded. Chaney and studio kept the look of the Phantom top secret during the filming of the tale. Chaney’s earlier horror film role for Universal Pictures was “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in 1923.
Chaney based the character’s look on the lone color illustration created by illustrator Andre Castaigne for Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel “Le Fantôme de l’Opéra.” Amazingly, Chaney never wore a mask in the role, instead using make-up, pencil shading and shadows on his face, paired with putty, skullcap and greasepaint. He also endured pain and discomfort for his craft, since he used small wires to contour the nostrils of his nose, and even glued his ears to his head, to devise his skull-like appearance which shocked early theater audiences.
Despite being treated as the original of all of the Universal Studios “classic movie monsters,” Universal Pictures failed to renew the licensing for the film in 1953, and so today, the movie has fallen into public domain.
In Whiting, one of my favorite of the last of the lofty and grand movie palaces of Northwest Indiana is also giving audiences the silent treatment this month.
At 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 17, Hoosier Theatre, 1335 119th St. in Whiting is doing one exclusive screening of the 1927 silent film “Metropolis” hosted in conjunction with the Silent Film Society of Chicago with live organ music accompaniment by organist Jay Warren. Admission is $10 or $8 for the society members and their guests with further information at www.hoosiertheatre.com or 219-659-0567.
“This theatre was originally designed as a space with sound acoustics specific for having an organ to accompany the film,” said Hoosier Theatre owner John Katris.
Built in 1924, the one-screen, 600-seat Hoosier Theatre ranked as one of the most opulent of the movie houses in Northwest Indiana. It’s also the same stage where W.C. Fields, Amos and Andy and the Three Stooges made live appearances and actor Jimmy Cagney came to sell war bonds in the early 1940s. The Hoosier was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987, and soon after, was purchased by Katris and his brother Chris in 1991 when the duo teamed to restore the space and reopen it in 1994.
The original grand opening of the Hoosier Theatre was Feb. 15, 1924, with residents of Whiting marveling at the three-story brick building with an ornate terra cotta façade.
Since reopening the movie space the Katris Brothers had always dreamed of having a working organ adjacent to the stage so Chicago-based organist Warren wouldn’t be required to bring his portable digital organ. Organist Stan Zimmerman of Whiting, who now lives in one of the rental apartments above the theater building, fulfilled the brothers’ dream when he arranged to have his $65,000 1987 Allen digital organ moved to the Hoosier Theatre, where it now stands center stage in the orchestra area.
“Metropolis” is hailed as the first full-length science fiction feature film. The German film directed by Fritz Lang is a drama set in the future about the fate of society after a scientist creates a female robot threatening to destroy industrial civilization. The film is based on Thea von Harbou 1925 novel of the same name.
Philip Potempa is a journalist, published author and the director of marketing at Theatre at the Center. He can be reached at pmpotempa@comhs.org.
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