Music was in the air for Opening Day (June 9, 2007) of the Detroit Film Theatre’s inaugural Summer Festival of Film and Music. The rhythms and melodies of lively jazz came from the front lawn of the Scarab Club, as part of the annual Detroit Festival of the Arts.
I stepped my way through the crowds and food booths that lined John R, and was greeted by a very tall, green inflated replica of the Godzilla monster. This clever publicity stunt was a preview of the old science fiction movies that the DFT will show for the next seven Saturday afternoons.
Inside the theater, final preparations were made for a return performance of the theater’s Casavant organ, which hadn’t been played in many years. I had always been curious about this organ and its unique location (in a small balcony on the right side of the stage, in line with the first rows of the main floor).
Now, DFT patrons finally had a chance to hear it, with organist Steve Shlesing accompanying the 1926 German silent film The Adventures of Prince Achmed. I’d enjoyed Steve’s music at the Redford Theatre, which, like the Michigan Theater, has a Barton theater organ.
It was fun to make another connection between the DFT, Redford and Michigan, which have so many other great things in common. Those shared pleasures include silent movies, and The Adventures of Prince Achmed was one of the most unique films of that era.
Imagine a child who loves to make hand shadows or create interesting shapes with cutouts of construction paper. Such a child might have grown up to create The Adventures of Prince Achmed, an animated film of carefully shaped shadows, painted backgrounds, and mysterious motions that was directed by Lotte Reiniger.
I’d seen this movie on Turner Classic Movies, and found it hard to follow. But on the big screen, with live musical accompaniment, it was a fascinating treat. Its sorrowful but hopeful tale of romance built to a stirring climax that was as exciting as a big budget Hollywood movie.
Steve Shlesing’s musical accompaniment mixed some familiar melodies with the kind of delicately nuanced playing that can bring a silent film to life. The Casavant organ has a deeper, heavier sound than the more lively Barton organ. That serious church-like sound greatly enhanced the dramatic moments in the film, including the triumphant ending.
Elliot Wilhelm, curator of film at the Detroit Institute of Arts, was on hand to launch the DFT’s summer festival. The DFT will help visitors continue to visit the DIA, most of which is closed until November for the final stages of its major renovation project.
“We have another really good excuse for you to miss beautiful weather on a Saturday afternoon,” said Elliot. He was promoting the series of science fiction double features that will include American and Japanese classics like 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) and Son of Godzilla (1967).
The summer festival also will include more recent world cinema on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. The DFT auditorium turns into a concert hall on Friday nights, with music by such artists as guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist James Carter.
After the movie, I walked around the DIA, soaking in the energy and fun of the art festival and the beautiful June weather. I was very thankful for the DFT parking voucher that helped me park within reasonable walking distance of all this excitement.
On the front DIA lawn was a new miniature golf course, which was “Fore! Fun” for both children and adults. Music echoed between the DIA and the main library. Tempting food smells wafted on the summer breeze.
The casinos, riverfront, and sports arenas get most of the headlines, but the Cultural Center continues to be a vital, vibrant part of Detroit.
Copyright © 2007 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.