There’s an old movie house on South Street n Philadelphia that, while still in a state of elegant decay, comes back to life tonight and tomorrow night with a world premiere multimedia performance featuring a tune by violinist-composer Todd Reynolds, filmmaker Bill Morrison and projection designer Laurie Olinder.
Their work will fill the Royal Theater, entertaining audiences in temporary seating in what is an empty shell of a building.
The Royal was dubbed “America’s Finest Colored Photoplay House” when it opened in 1920, and was the first black-run theater in the City of Brotherly Love. The 1,200-seat Royal presented live acts, including Fats Waller and Bessie Smith, as well as movies.
Todd calls his composition Sounds for a New Royality. Network for New Music, one of Philadelphia’s leading advocates of contemporary composition, will perform Todd’s score live while Bill’s film and Laurie’s projections provide a ghostly presence on the theater’s walls.
Todd’s composition was deeply informed by his visit to the site and his conversations with people who remembered the theater in its heyday.
Says Todd: “As we walked into The Royal last year for the first time, I felt immediately the vast, resounding emptiness of a building which used to be filled with image, with sound, with people. Yes, there was and is the decay we see around us which holds its own indescribable beauty as well. There are many tales here as well, history here, even in the punch cards which still litter the office.
“I wrote a cinematic soundtrack, not for a film, but for an environment invoked by the rich media of Bill and Laurie. The music is made for a theater which, though decaying on the inside, is still strong and structurally sound, and which for these two days of this particular year, welcomes a community once again into its arms.
“My research for this piece included interviews with two local residents, Barney and Junior. They are part of the lifeblood of this area, and spending time with them recalling their own experiences, listening to Junior’s deep voice and Barney’s citations of ‘history, history, history,’ provided a rich context within which I could write some sound. If you stand just in front of the theater, Junior’s barbershop is just down the street to the right, and Barney lives just across the street to the left, that’s how close they are. Our conversations were invaluable to me in garnering a feeling for what life might have been like back then and in imagining a new ‘Royality.'”
Todd gave me a preview clip of the piece. And, while it will obviously sound different played in the cavernous space played live, I think the clip offers a good sense of what the audience will be hearing. The driving, rhythmic piece is deeply influenced by his background in minimalism. But is also clearly informed by his research. While not obvious, there are hints of urban life in the score, and I would swear I hear suggestions of theater organ at times.
Adds Bill: “We are interested in this notion of a ‘ghost theater’, a palace of dreams where time has in a way stood still. … [W]e are opening its doors again, winding up its projectors, and referencing the images that may have once graced its screen. We imagine finding a lost reel in its projection booth, threading it up and letting it spin its tale. The images still haunt us. But the context has changed, and so must the story and its soundtrack.”
Here’s Todd’s introduction to his part of the work, and a video clip, with a bit of his composition playing in the background:
Upon viewing, I realize that this is MUCH too serious. It might have been better with me in a smoking jacket with a pipe instead of my two companion basil plants… The point, however, is clear. Come on down to The Royal Theatre in South Philly for a mulitmedia event which will leave your ears and eyes humming.
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Performances are today and tomorrow at 8 p.m. at The Royal, 1524 South Street, Philadelphia, Pa. Tonight’s show is sold out, but seats remain available for tomorrow’s performance. Visit HiddenCity Philadelphia’s web site for tickets. $20.