Silent Film, Music Return To Vaudeville House

In an old vaudeville house in Westville, the screen will light up with Lon Chaney as Alonzo the Armless, a knife thrower with a secret; and with Joan Crawford in her first screen role, as an ingenue whom he falls in love with but can’t quite embrace, yet. Live music will fill accompany the progress of the carny couple’s creepy romance.

That’ll be the scene Saturday night for two screenings of the Todd Browning 1927 silent film The Unknown at 8 and 10 p.m. at Lyric Hall Antiques on Whalley at West Rock Avenue.

There, accidental impresario John Cavaliere, pictured with his new awnings and 1940s lamppost, is restoring another old art form: the projection of silent films complete with a live 10-person orchestra.

A full and original musical score will accompany the 55-minute long film by the director of Dracula and Freaks. Steve Asetta’s Lyric Hall Theater Orchestra will share the petite proscenium stage at the back of Cavaliere’s establishment. Cavaliere lovingly restored the place in the spirit of the West Rock Theater, which it was until 1925.

Allan Appel Photo“He’s calling it the Lyric Hall Theater Orchestra,” Cavaliere said with parental pride.

Saxaphonist and composer Steve Asetta who will conduct his original score for the film.

With Asetta will be pianist Will Iannuzzi and nine other local musicians.

Asetta called Cavaliere up and proposed the project several weeks ago. After he suggested the name for the orchestra, Cavaliere paused.

“The first words that came out of his mouth were ‘Lyric Hall Theater Orchestra,’” said Asetta during a rehearsal for this weekend’s show.

Click here for a previous story for how Cavaliere’s restored space has become a magnet for theater and other creative people looking for new venues.

Cavaliere said he takes special pleasure in the silent film revival because that was the old West Rock theater’s primary business between 1913 and 1925.

Around that time Italian immigrant Sylvester Z. Poli built megatheaters in downtown New Haven (as well as around the state), which put the little silent houses like West Rock out of business.

Shortly afterwards, the site became a truck repair shop.

Asetta said that to his knowledge no one else is mounting original musical scores to the silent films.

Five years ago, he indulged his love for the genre by doing a similar series at the Little Lincoln Theater.

Future films, with live orchestra accompaniment, in the series at Lyric Hall will include Buster Keaton in The Navigator on May 21 and Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Baghdad on as yet-undetermined June evening.

On Saturday, Asetta will conduct music with a little wand as half the musicians sit on one side of the stage, half on the other, with the screen and its fast flickering images between them.

Click on the play arrow to sample a circus theme, one of a dozen or so that Asetta has written to accompany the film.

He said no formal or accepted score to the movie exists. The live musicians in the old silent houses largely watched the screen and improvised.

“They used ‘hearts and flowers’ for romantic moments. People used standards,” he said.

Asetta, who will play the saxophone while conducting, said he fell in love with movie music as a kid hanging out with his grandfather, the chief stage hand at the Loew’s Poli theater in Waterbury.

“I had the run of the place,” he said.

He will again on Saturday night.

Other musicians in the Lyric Hall Theater Orchestra include: Ken Yarbrough on tuba; bassist Jaime Paul Laub; Nate Trier on baritone horn; Vance Provenzano, trumpet; violinist Sarah Perkins; Mike Paolucci, drums; Nathan Bontranger, cello, and Adam Matlock on the accordion.

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posted by: William Kurtz on April 6, 2011  1:01pm

Sounds like fun.  I would love to come; is there any information about how to get tickets?

posted by: Will on April 6, 2011  3:07pm

The 8pm show is sold out. However, tickets are available for the 10pm show at the door or call: (203) 209 - 5369. The film runs for 50 minutes.

posted by: anon on April 6, 2011  5:10pm

Allan, I liked the way you moved around the orchestra when videotaping them. Really nice. I say that as someone who appreciates the fact that you don’t have a “steadicam” and such. Couple good smooth swoops anyway, like swooping into the piano shot.

I liked that you tried this, rather than static front shot.

posted by: Allan Appel on April 6, 2011  7:03pm

Dear Anon:
Thank you so much for the nice comment about my video style. But, honestly, it’s the result of my just wanting not to trip over the furniture.

posted by: robn on April 6, 2011  11:14pm


John Cavaliere is a great American and Todd Browning is one of the few directors to artfully span silents and talkies.

Gabba Gabba Hey!

posted by: L. F. Chaney on April 7, 2011  3:17am

I’ll be there—in spirit.

Yours truly,

L. C.

posted by: Donald Sosin on April 7, 2011  2:37pm

Actually, there were many scores written for old films back in the day, though perhaps not for THE UNKNOWN. We have performed our original music for silent films for over two decades, with small ensembles, voice, piano, full orchestra, you name it. Among the titles in our repertoire: RICHARD III (1912), NOSFERATU (1922), THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1919), UPSTREAM (1928) dir. John Ford, THE KID BROTHER (1927) with Harold Lloyd, GRANDMA’S BOY (1922), NOW OR NEVER (1921), and many other Lloyd, Keaton and Chaplin films. We’ve performed at Yale, Harvard, MoMA, the Telluride Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, the two major Italian festivals devoted to silent film in Bologna and Pordenone, and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. We live in NW CT and would be very interested in coming to the Lyric Hall to share our work.

posted by: Steve Asetta on April 7, 2011  10:36pm

“Thief of Baghdad” June 25.

posted by: R Bush on April 9, 2011  1:43pm

... While a specially composed original score was the exception and not the rule, only the single musicians in the smallest bijous “improvised.” Most theaters had at least a small comobo for evening performances, the large metropolitan houses such as in New York had symphony-sized orchestras, with music libraries of up to 20,000 generic compositions.