Allow Orchestra brings Phantom to life

by Amy Kingsley

Back before picture houses went SDDS, DTS or THX – before mono, stereo and Dolby Surround – there were just musicians and the movie.

This was the dawn of film. Before talkies ruined the careers of countless Norma Desmonds, when silent films played to soundtracks provided by local ivory ticklers and in-house orchestras.

These days Hollywood concocts neat little sensory packages with a little auditory help from Foley artists and composers-for-hire. Even the old silent films have been married to prerecorded soundtracks for DVD release.

But that’s not supposed to be the way they are experienced.

“Tonight you are seeing a real movie classic in the form it was intended to be seen,” said Dale Pollock, a board member for the RiverRun Film Festival, “with the musical accompaniment it was meant to have.”

Cambridge, Massachusetts’ Alloy Orchestra is providing the accompaniment for a special screening of The Phantom of the Opera (1925) starring Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin. Two men slide behind a curtain of curved metal before the house lights dim. A third steps to a synthesizer onstage.

The Alloy Orchestra owns its own copy of Phantom, hand-dyed by specialists in France. It’s a little scratched up, but still in great shape. It’s the film that turned Universal into a horror house and made Lon Chaney a household name. Chaney, who played the tortured Erik, pulled his own eyeballs out of their sockets and permanently damaged his vision during filming. His ruined features made an indelible impression on early film audiences, who reportedly fainted in the aisles.

The film opens in the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera House, with a caped shadow expanding across the screen to a thumping, squealing soundtrack. Then the film cuts to the concert hall – a light, bustling space with its own festive music.

Four men upstairs close a business deal that will move the storied opera house from one partnership to another. On the way out the door, the departing owners mention the phantom, who proceeds to wreak havoc on a production of Faust.

The phantom drops a chandelier on the audience and abducts Marguerite’s understudy. The trio rumbles its percussion and works squeaky scraps of metal into a symphony for this descent into Erik’s madness.

Alloy Orchestra has performed this particular show dozens of times during the past three-and-a-half years. The trio, which has been performing live alongside silent films for 18 years, has 27 films in its repertoire and more than 1,000 performances under its collective belt.

The members – Ken Winokur, Terry Donahue and Roger Miller – came together for the first time for a New Year’s Eve performance without film. A friend who attended the concert invited them to play alongside an upcoming screening of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

“He asked us because the film looks like our drum set,” Winokur said. “It went over extremely well.”

The group’s clanging sound complemented Metropolis’ industrial underworld well enough to convince the orchestra that they had found their musical niche.

Winokur directs the orchestra and plays junk, percussion and clarinet. Roger Miller works the keyboards and Donahue alternates between junk, accordion and musical saw.

After the performance, he props the saw on his knee for a curious crowd.

“It’s actually a Stradivarius musical saw,” he says. “You bend it sort of like an S and then you find a spot, then you move your leg to get the vibrato.”

He draws a bow across a curve in the metal and elicits an otherworldly moan. It sounds like a warmer version of the Theremin.

“Some people have insisted it’s a Theremin even when I show them it’s a saw,” Donahue says.

He uses the same bow to get a screech out of a piece of metal shaped like an alligator jaw.

The group takes three months to compose and rehearse each new film. They recently added Underworld (1927) to their catalog and hope to return next year to perform it for RiverRun.

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