By John Beifuss
The Orpheum's popular Summer Movie Series returns Friday with a twist and a bit of a mission.
Instead of the usual grab bag of classic and recent hit movies, the theater has scheduled 18 features that will take viewers on a chronological tour of eight decades of film history, from "The Cameraman" (1928), with Buster Keaton, which screens Friday night, to "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" (2001) on Aug. 9.
The timely approach is in recognition of the 85th anniversary of the opulent theater's phoenixlike opening in 1928 on the corner of South Main and Beale, on a site previously occupied by the Grand Opera House, which had burned down five years earlier.
In this year's summer movie schedule, "We get to see the evolution of film, week to week, from black and white to sound to modern special effects," said Orpheum press relations manager Christina Torres.
What doesn't change through the decades is that "the stories are so great," she said. "The movies resonate, whether they were high- tech or low-tech, because of the stories." Most weeks, two movies will be shown, on Thursday and Friday nights.
To help audiences appreciate even such familiar films as "Casablanca" and "The Big Lebowski," Indie Memphis has teamed with the Orpheum to organize a series of speakers to introduce many of the movies with brief and (one hopes) entertaining lectures and presentations.
Indie Memphis executive director Erik Jambor will introduce "The Cameraman," and demonstrate the importance of musical accompaniment to silent cinema with the help of Memphis musician Tony Thomas, who also will play the Orpheum's "Mighty Wurlitzer" organ during the movie.
"From our point of view, what we're excited about doing is giving some background and history and fresh perspective to movies that people likely have seen before," Jambor said. For example, people who have read about the chaotic production of the upcoming zombie blockbuster "World War Z" may not know that "Gone with the Wind" faced similar chaos due to its immensity of scale and budget.
Torres said the "collective experience" of watching old movies with a crowd and the impact of the Orpheum's 30-by-60-foot screen enable even young people to appreciate classics they might overlook in favor of something newer and flashier while channel-surfing.
"I'd seen 'Gone with the Wind' before, but when I saw it at the Orpheum for the first time last year, suddenly it all made sense," Torres said. "Before, it was just another movie that had won Best Picture, but when I saw it on the big screen and I saw it in this space, I suddenly realized what the audience must have experienced back in 1939, and why it felt so epic."
The series also helps recognize the Orpheum's roots: Before the classic theater was restored to its original opulence and rebranded in 1984 as primarily a performing arts venue, it operated as the Malco home-office movie theater from 1940 to 1976. Despite the emphasis on live performance, the Orpheum has hosted a movie series of some sort almost every year since the Malco era.
Although the 1925 version of "The Phantom of the Opera" has been screened twice at the Orpheum in the past three decades, silent movies usually are overlooked for the summer series, making "The Cameraman" the most unusual film on the schedule a truly rare treat for aficionados and neophytes alike.
"The Cameraman" stars Buster Keaton -- "the greatest of all the silent clowns," according to Roger Ebert as a New York sidewalk portrait photographer who tries to get a job as a cameraman at MGM to impress a girl. Thomas who has performed with U2 and the Temptations, among others has created a theme for the movie, but said he mostly will improvise on the Wurlitzer, in an attempt to enhance the action on-screen without overpowering it.
"I'll be happy if people are laughing with the movie and enjoying it, and are almost unaware that I'm there," he said.
At least one Orpheum favorite won't be back this year, however: "The Wizard of Oz" with Judy Garland was unavailable because the film is being reissued as an IMAX 3D presentation in September.
Orpheum Summer Movie series
1920s: "The Cameraman," with Buster Keaton, 7 p.m. Friday.
1930s: "Gone with the Wind," 7 p.m. June 14.
1940s: "The Philadelphia Story," with Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart, 7 p.m. June 20. "Casablanca," with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, 7 p.m. June 21.
1950s: "Pillow Talk," with Doris Day and Rock Hudson, 7 p.m. June 27. "The Searchers," with John Wayne, 7 p.m. June 28.
1960s: "Breakfast at Tiffany's," with Audrey Hepburn, 7 p.m. July 11. "The Sound of Music" (singalong, with on-screen lyrics), 7 p.m., July 12.
1970s: "Grease" (singalong, with on-screen lyrics), 7 p.m. July 18. "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," 8 p.m., July 19.
1980s: "Dirty Dancing," 7 p.m. July 25. Haunting double feature: "Ghostbusters" and "Poltergeist," 7 p.m., July 26.
1990s: "Pretty Woman," with Julia Roberts, 7 p.m. Aug. 1. "The Big Lebowski," 7 p.m. Aug. 2.
2000s: "Mean Girls," with Lindsay Lohan and Tina Fey, 7 p.m. Aug. 8. "Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone," 7 p.m. Aug. 9.
Plus these matinees: Disney's "The Parent Trap" (1961), with Hayley Mills, 1:30 p.m. June 28; and the animated "Anastasia" (1997), 1:30 p.m. Aug. 2.
Tickets: $7 for adults; $5 for kids 12 and under; $5 for Indie Memphis members. Available via orpheum-memphis.com; at the Orpheum box office and at The Booksellers at Laurelwood; call the Orpheum at 901-525-3000 or Ticketmaster at 901-743-ARTS.
Originally published by John Beifuss firstname.lastname@example.org 901-529-2394 .
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