Saturday, October 27, 2018

Don Juan Triumphant

You think you know your town, but really, you only know what you do.

If I'd been asked what the most popular event at the Byrd Theatre is, I wouldn't have paused, I wouldn't have hesitated, I'd have announced with near certainty that it's the Christmas Eve screening of "It's a Wonderful Life." When I began attending the annual event, it had a decent crowd, but that was the mid-90s and since then, it's grown to become a capacity crowd, balcony included.

Such is my dedication to this particular holiday ritual that I've been known to schedule Christmas Eve dinner at a ridiculously early hour solely so I can be in line - a line which eventually stretches down Cary, and around the corner onto Sheppard St. - for "It's a Wonderful Life" over an hour before it even begins.

That said, it never occurred to me when Mr. Wright suggested we take in the Byrd's annual screening of "Phantom of the Opera," the 1925 silent version, natch, complete with live accompaniment on the mighty Wurlitzer, that I was walking into a similarly well-loved event.

As a result of my ignorance, we'd lingered over a leisurely dinner at Greek on Cary, beginning with a bottle of dry, crisp and utterly porch pound-worthy Troupis Moschofilero Rose and some pretty stellar hummus. We'd made sure to arrive early before the dinner rush, although we didn't hesitate to linger well into the evening when nearly every table was taken.

After enough visits to know, I can say I'm a big fan of their stacked, grilled and seasoned vegetables, mainly due to the fig glaze, although the wedge of good Feta doesn't hurt, either. Chicken souvlaki and a chicken gyro also kept us occupied as the rain continued to pour outside and we felt no urgency to move on.

Even walking down the street to the Byrd under cover of a giant umbrella, there was no massive line at the box office to tip us off. But once inside, it was another story, so Mr. Wright went off in search of popcorn while I headed off to find Mac and hopefully seats.

I was just about to my favorite section - not under the balcony overhang, but not in the front third, either - when I heard my name called and turned to see Mac on the left hand side. What are you doing in the old seats, I wanted to know. "There weren't three together," she claimed, but I'd already scoped out three smack dab in the center of a nearby row, even if we did have to climb over some nice people to get to them.

As it happened, those very people welcomed us in saying that they'd saved the seats for us, a kind gesture given that dripping wet people with umbrellas were scrambling over them.

Even better was James, the man seated on my right, who not only welcomed me but struck up a conversation. Seems the Williamsburg resident was there as part of a dual celebration, partly for his 80th birthday and partly for the 85th birthday of the man at the other end of the row, his daughter's father-in-law, which had also included dinner at the Daily.

Add to that that it was his first time at the Byrd and all of a sudden, it was an occasion.

Our conversation meandered all over the place, from how we'd both attended junior high school, not middle school, and how movie theaters used to be known as movie palaces. Pointing out the massive chandelier that is lowered by pulleys to be cleaned, he shared that his church has a similar chandelier, so he knew all about lowering. When I realized that he wasn't aware that the organ and organist were going to rise out of the bowels of the stage, I couldn't wait to see his reaction.

When I finally stopped talking to the birthday boy and looked around, I couldn't believe how full it had gotten, with more people arriving every minute. Then when manager Todd took a poll as to who had come for the annual screening of "Phantom of the Opera" before, it seemed like fully half the room raised their hand. No one needed to know that I'd never seen any version of the Phantom before.

But how had I missed out on such a time-honored tradition?

Although I've seen plenty of silent movies thanks to the Silent Music Revival, this was my first with an organist playing the originally-composed score that would have been played in 1925. The precision timing of the score left me in awe of the composer's ability to provide sound effects and mood music for even the smallest moments in the film.

In what I'm sure was not an intentionally funny choice, every time the ballet dancers scurried away from one scary shadow or figure or another, two of the dancers would run and do a last minute pirouette before rejoining her cowering fellow dancers. It was as if the actresses wanted everyone to appreciate their dance moves even while running scared.

A girl never knows when the right person might see her in action.

And while there were the expected heavy-handed moments given that the movie is almost 100 years old - say, when the Phantom sat down to play "Don Juan Triumphant" once he's captured the girl's interest - the old-fashioned nature of the story - after the Phantom is drowned by a mob, it ended with the lovers on their honeymoon - and the pitch-perfect soundtrack were a big part of its charm.

That's something that scores of people apparently already knew, even if I hadn't. The good news is, if I show up next year, it'll not only be earlier, but I'll be able to raise my hand as a regular.

Even better if my boy James is there celebrating his 81st. We've got a tradition going now.

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