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Bugs and Buster



Like many parents with young children, we spend an inordinate number of Saturday nights at home doing home things: watching movies, playing games, taking baths, making popcorn, listening to the radio, reading, noodling on the guitar, etc. Mundane, maybe, but still satisfying in a homey way.

Sometimes we think about all those shows in nightclubs, at CenterArts or in the movie theaters that we're missing. But hey, that's the deal you sign up for when you're raising children. Oh sure, there are those ambitious - and organized! - parents who plan out adult dates, contract with a babysitter, and drive away from their house for an expensive night of relative freedom. But not us: We stay home. Usually.

However, a recent event at the Arkley Center for the Arts motivated our family and another family with a young boy to venture out into the world outside our living room. During the Saturday night of the recent jazz festival the Arkley Center screened Buster Keaton's 1928 silent movie, "The Cameraman" with the added attraction of a live band and sound effects. It took a Herculean effort and pushing to get our family out of our house but eventually we piled in our car and headed to Eureka.

In the car, my 7-year-old son Jesse kept saying things like "Why are we going to this? Will it be funny? I don't want to go."

"But you don't know what it is."

"I don't care I don't want to go. It's going to be stupid." His resistance notwithstanding, we arrive in Eureka, park and stroll into the Arkley Center lobby along with a happy crowd of festival goers and curious movie fans.

We all look up at the frescoes, chandeliers, the new paint and are stunned by the improvements over the former Daly's Department Store. Immediately, the kids bolt up the carpeted stairs for the balcony. The crowd is buzzing, waiting for this 79-year-old movie to begin. I can't wait to hear how the band's music will mesh with the movie. Will it be professional? Will it add to the movie? Will we and the kids be bored by this "silent" movie?

After introductions of the band, the movie begins. It's classic Buster Keaton, the man with the most impassive face in all of cinema and one of the most inventive and funny physical comedians ever. I sneak a look at Jesse. His main media heroes are, in order, Sponge Bob, Bart Simpson and Bugs Bunny. He loves the slapstick of those old Warner Brothers cartoons.

At first, Jesse's squirming, he's ready to bail and I'm listening for shuffling feet and whining. Then Buster Keaton takes a fall and Jesse bellows. More falls and more laughing. Jesse's friend Ely is laughing and many adults are, too. The music plays sublime counterpoint and accompaniment to the cagey story. As the movie continues I find myself forgetting that a live band is playing, their music so completely integrated that it seems like a sound track that's always been part of the movie.

At one point, I look down the row and everybody, young and old, is riveted to the action on the screen. This ancient movie, made a year before the great crash of 1929, with no dialog, is being played in a theater that originally opened in 1920. I wonder if this old theater, in its original incarnation, actually showed this movie when it first came out. But, like this theater, the movie seems both new and old at the same time. You see street scenes of New York in the 1920s and it's thrilling to see the Model Ts and old brownstones, the people wearing hats and long coats bustling on the streets of Manhattan. Buster Keaton's charm and talent slowly but surely win over this 21st century audience and magic floats up to the balcony. While the theater smells of fresh paint and new carpet it still emanates old spirits and history. These talented musicians have enlivened this old movie to make it feel very new to young kids and parents alike.

Jesse says on the way home, "That was pretty funny. Kinda like Bugs Bunny but different."

Take it as a rave review.

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