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The Phantom of Shea's Buffalo


Was that fun or what, seeing the 1925 "The Phantom of the Opera" at Shea's Performing Arts Center on Sunday, accompanied by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra? Plus Dennis James, on the Mighty Wurlitzer. 

It was not like anything you could have dreamed up!

I am not normally a big silent movie nerd. But after interviewing Dennis James I had to go see this thing. I was just so fascinated by James' stories about traveling with the silent movie stars.

And I have to say, "The Phantom of the Opera" surprised me. The artistry of this movie was magnificent. It was not camp or funny or hokey. It was extremely well put together.

There are scenes that are beautiful to look at. One scene near the start has a bevy of about 30 ballerinas, all in white tutus, flying around the backstage of the opera house, wheeling like panicked birds. Sometimes you see the Phantom just as a brief shadow.

The music gave the movie an added dignity. Its Wagnerian sound reflected the era of the drama. It also stopped people from heckling the movie, making it into a joke. Interesting, speaking of music, that the opera being presented in the movie is Gounod's "Faust," and "Faust" is about a man who sells his soul to the devil. In this movie, the Phantom is more evil than the one in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Lon Chaney (an amazing performance) wanted you to see him as human, but he is definitely not anyone you would want to know. Also Christine is less innocent than in the musical. She sells herself to the Phantom in exchange for achieving her artistic dreams. You could say she learns her lesson.

I can't overstate the artistry that went into this production. Dennis James, on the organ, was incredibly in synch. The Phantom had -- I loved this touch -- an organ console in his penthouse down in the sewers. He would be playing and lose his temper and get up, sweeping his hand across the keys, and Dennis James caught that down to the millisecond.

Also -- another touch I loved -- the Phantom had this diabolical creepy kind of doorbell that told him when someone was intruding on his domain. You would see the bell ringing and I completely forgot that the sound came not from the film itself but from the Wurlitzer.

Anyway, the whole experience was arresting from the start -- when the Wurlitzer blasted into Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" and the crowd went crazy. I would love to see another silent movie at Shea's done up this same way. But I realize that is a very high hope. I am afraid this was a once-in-a-lifetime treat.

One more thing, watching the opening scenes, showing the grand, opulent opera house ...

... you could not help thinking -- gee, it looks like Shea's!

"Is there a Phantom of Shea's Buffalo?" a friend asked an usher at intermission, as I stood by and laughed.

The usher just smiled.

-- Mary Kunz Goldman



Film | Movies | Music
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