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‘Movie palace magic:’ Paragon Ragtime Orchestra to accompany silent films at Galesburg Orpheum

Paragon Ragtime Orchestra performs at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 16 at Galesburg's Orpheum Theatre.
Brett Hosterman
Paragon Ragtime Orchestra performs at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 16 at Galesburg's Orpheum Theatre.

Excerpts of three silent films will play on the big screen at Galesburg’s Orpheum Theatre this weekend.

And they’ll be accompanied by the nostalgic sounds of a live orchestra that specializes in re-creating the music of a bygone era.

Rick Benjamin, founder and director of Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, said his ensemble accompanying century-old silent films in a century-old theater is what they call “movie palace magic.”

“Really there is no other way to experience this art form, because it becomes more than the sum of its parts when all these things are put together,” Benjamin said. “It’s a very exciting way of experiencing what the movies were like for people a century ago. The great news about that is, it was super fun and exciting, especially in a beautiful historic cinema.”

PRO will present “The Clown Princes: Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd” at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 16 at the Orpheum Theatre, 57 S. Kellogg St. Tickets are available online or by calling (309)342-2299.

The orchestra will perform music from the original scores of the 1917 film “Easy Street” starring Charlie Chaplain and two 1920 films – “Get Out and Get Under” starring Harold Lloyd and “One Week” starring Buster Keaton.

Benjamin said the kid-friendly show is a re-enactment of an actual evening of cinema that one could have experienced in the late 1910s and early 1920s, when the Jewel of Galesburg had just opened its doors.

“The production will be quite similar in fact to the way things were done in those days,” Benjamin said.

As was done in those days, there will be an overture before the curtain goes up. There will also be orchestral music between films and what used to be called “reel-change” music, re-creating the time projectionists spend changing reels between acts.

In addition, there will be a re-creation of the serenade after intermission, where the orchestra would start playing music to get the audience back from the lobby for the final act.

“When that’s all finished, to assist in that difficult transition between the magic of the silver screen and everyday life, it was incumbent upon the musical staff to play exit music,” Benjamin said.

Rescued scores

Now in its 38th year, PRO is the only year-round professional ensemble that specializes in recreating the sounds of early American theater, silent film, and vintage dance – from scores that were rescued by Benjamin.

He’s a classical musician from a family of classical musicians. The roots of his orchestra date back to the mid-1980s, when he went to the Juilliard School of Music on a brass scholarship.

In his second year there, he broke his jaw and was unable to play. So he started working on a research project instead. He had long been interested in the Victor Talking Machine Company, a phonograph manufacturer and recording company incorporated in 1901.

“At this point, there were still folks alive, extremely elderly, but from the early 20th century who you could talk to about it,” Benjamin said. “I found elderly gentleman who said, I think the scores they used for many of those records still exist. It’s in a warehouse and you should go see if you can find that stuff.”

Benjamin, then 19, went to that warehouse. There he found a plywood chute coming out of a second-floor window – and people heaving armfuls of paper into a dumpster.

“I climbed up on one of the rungs of this thing and it was full of orchestra music. Actual sheet music for orchestra instruments. And I pulled out something random and here was a second violin part, Peacherine Two-Step, Scott Joplin,” Benjamin said.

Benjamin saved reams of scores – around 4,000 pieces of music by 700 composers – and founded PRO shortly thereafter.

PRO has been heard on the soundtracks of several feature films and television programs, including productions for PBS, HBO, the FX Channel, and Turner Classic Movies.

The orchestra’s discography includes 19 albums and 2 DVD sets of historic Hollywood films with authentic scores.

Its recordings have made the Billboard charts and have won awards including Gramophone’s Editor’s Choice, BBC Music’s Opera of the Month, and Stereophile’s Record of the Month.

This isn’t the first time PRO has been to Galesburg. They also came to town in 2017 for the Orpheum’s centennial anniversary and performed music from 1916 and 1917.

 At the end of Saturday’s performance, the audience will be asked to vote on whether Chaplin, Keaton, or Lloyd should be named the Clown Prince of Galesburg.

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Jane Carlson is TSPR's regional reporter.