20,000 Leagues in the 21st Century

The films showing at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre next month have no dialogue and are nearly 100 years old—but the emotions they evoke are timeless.

The theater’s Silent Classic Film Series continues next Sunday, May 9, with a showing of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” a 1916 release based on the epic 1872 Jules Verne sci-fi ad-venture story.

Jeff Rapsis will provide musical accompaniment for the 105-minute film he said pioneered un-derwater photography.

The filmmaker, who shot some of the film in the Bahamas, used a camera above the water line that was hooked to a periscope and mirrors reflected the image into the lens.

“It took two years to make,” he said. “It was the first (film) to take the audience on a journey to a magical world beneath the surface of the waves, and it told a great story. It was the ‘Avatar’ of its time.”

Composer and performer Rapsis specializes in creating live musical scores for silent film screenings.

He has traveled for about 20 years to performances (primarily in New England) with a digital keyboard that serves as his one-man orchestra for an average of 110 shows a year. This Sep-tember, he’ll head to Kansas to perform during the Buster Keaton film celebration.

“A hundred years ago it was pop culture,” he said of silent film musical accompaniment. “Tens of thousands of musicians made a living this way. Today there are a few of us keeping this tradition alive.”

Silent film score composers can create music in a style they see fit. He writes his own music, most of it on the fly.

“There’s no official score—it’s different in every theater,” he said. “It’s about creating original mu-sic that helps films grab an audience 100 years later.”

He does use a traditional orchestral palette in his silent film scoring.

“The film itself is what it’s all about,” he said. “The music should support the movie. The biggest compliment I get from audiences is that they forgot I was performing the music live. It casts a spell so the experience seeing the film is absorbing in a way the music contributes to it.”

Rapsis creates all the programming at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre and will take recommenda-tions of possible films into consideration.

“I choose what I feel would work well, get people into the theater and do justice to the art form,” he said. He also chooses films that are still in good condition.

The most recent silent film showing (for which he provided musical accompaniment) was a 1929 murder mystery, “The Last Warning,” that attracted about 60 patrons.

The Jules Verne novel-based film and the showing on May 23, the 1926 release, “Old Ironsides,” are both films that aren’t often shown.

“This is the chance to see them the way the filmmakers intended,” he said, “on a big screen in a theater with live music. A large crowd would react; it makes a difference in that environment as opposed to watching at home.”

Audiences can celebrate Memorial Day weekend with the story of the early years of the U.S.S. Constitution, when it set sail from the U.S. to battle pirates of the Barbary Coast.

“It’s a chestnut from the days of innocent patriotism when the nation was much more unified in its sense of purpose,” said Rapsis.

While the gadgets, clothing and cars may look different today than they did during the silent film era, Rapsis feels these films have retained great value.

“There are still people with basic emotions these films speak to,” he said. “Even 100 years later there’s a lot to look at.”

Rapsis will introduce the films and be on-hand to answer questions and chat with the audience afterward. The summer series will feature silent film westerns.

Films run on the last Sunday of every month at 2 p.m. unless announced otherwise.

Screenings are free and open to all; a $10 donation per person is suggested (but not required) to help defray expenses.

Visit wiltontownhallhtheatre.com for more information.