116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Seeing the Brinton Collection of the earliest-known silent films and their magic lantern slide predecessors always holds surprises, but “Brinton Surprise,” the third in a Red Cedar Chamber Music series, has even more surprises tucked into 100 minutes of century-old movie magic.
It’s been performed in outreach concerts mostly around Eastern Iowa since April 20, and will wrap up with two MainStage presentations May 13 at the Olympic South Side Theater in Cedar Rapids’s NewBo District, and May 15 at FilmScene in The Chauncey building in downtown Iowa City. It also has final run-out presentations May 7 at the Iowa Theatre in Winterset and May 8 at the Muscatine Art Center.
The original surprise came when Michael Zahs of Haskins, an unincorporated community near Ainsworth in Washington County, rescued the films from an estate sale in Washington, Iowa, in August 1981. This treasure trove of the world’s earliest known films had been stashed away in boxes marked “Brinton Crap.” In 2014, Zahs gave it to the University of Iowa Special Collections.
Red Cedar’s now retired co-founders, guitarist John Dowdall and flutist Jan Boland of Marion, collaborated with Zahs to create touring shows incorporating music with the films. “Brinton Silent Film Project” launched in 2015, followed the next year by “Music and Magic Lanterns,” which along the way led local filmmakers to create the 2017 documentary, “Saving Brinton.”
About that time, the collection was digitized and restored, offering audiences the chance to see the original colors in many of the frames, instead of just black-and-white images available for the first Brinton concert.
All of these presentations highlight the story of Frank and Indiana Brinton of Washington, who took their collection of magic lantern slides, lighting effects and films to opera houses and other venues from Texas to Minnesota in the 1890s and 1900s, creating two hours of entertainment that stunned their audiences.
What: Red Cedar Chamber Music presents “Brinton Surprise”
Cedar Rapids: 8 p.m. May 13, Olympic South Side Theater, 1202 Third St. SE
Iowa City: 3 p.m. May 15, FilmScene at The Chauncey, 404 E. College St.
Tickets: $30, redcedar.org/current-concert-series/
For the past five years, Red Cedar’s new team of Iowa City couple Carey Bostian, artistic director and cellist, and Miera Kim, executive director and violinist, have been working with Zahs and various composers to create this third Brinton presentation, sidelined by the pandemic.
But now it’s on a roll, featuring Bostian on cello and bits of commentary, Kim on violin, Dowdall on guitar, Claudia Anderson on flute, and Zahs adding colorful comments throughout the program.
Bostian noted that Boland elected to sit this one out when COVID numbers surged. He added that those involved are adhering to strict testing and masking protocols, to keep themselves and their audiences as safe as possible.
The program’s surprises begin with its title: “Brinton Surprise.”
Originally titled “Brinton Reprise,” the group worried that people would think it was a reprise of the shows they had already seen.
“So then we made it ‘Britain Surprise Reprise,’ and then we're like, that's stupid. And we put that in the brochure,” Bostian said incredulously, “and then we took off ‘Reprise’ and it was ‘Surprise.’ ”
Beyond that, other surprises lie not only in three newly commissioned works for the show, but the George Melies story, which Bostian described as “a story within the story,” being told through this film-and-music presentation.
Melies (1861-1938) was a French film pioneer who combined his love of magic and vaudeville into creating 520 moving pictures. As outlined in Zahs’ program notes, Melies built his own studio, costumes and scenery, and did the filming. He used special effects, acted in some of his films, created a script to be read with the screenings, added color and created other effects, like the split screen.
But out of frustration and depression, he destroyed most of his work in 1923. Only 214 works remain, mostly in fragments. The Brinton Collection contains a number of these films, some of which are fragments, but “The Triple Headed Lady,” 1902, and “Wonderful Rose Tree,” 1904, which audiences will see in this concert, are thought to be the only known copies existing beyond 1910. They brought international attention to the Brinton Collection, and audiences worldwide learned more about Melies through the 2011 film, “Hugo.”
On the road
During an April 27 showing at the Cedar Rapids Public Library, a child in the audience squealed with delight over the changing colors in “Annabelle’s Serpentine Dance.” This American film, dating back to 1896, dazzles as Annabelle snakes across the screen to Bela Bartok’s “Romanian Folk Dances,” arranged by Boland.
Bostian reported that even more children were captivated by the program when it came to Marion’s Lowe Park on April 30. One boy, who had participated in a Red Cedar residency at his middle school, was so distraught at having to leave before the final number, that Bostian followed his family into the lobby and soothed him by saying he could watch that piece on the concert’s livestream.
It’s a show that’s designed for all ages, knowing the ensemble would have a lot of kids in the audience at a concert planned inside the new Marion Public Library, but that building wasn’t finished in time to follow through.
“We were targeting a younger audience there,” he said. “Kind of a wild thing is that it’s really good, effective entertainment. It’s low-tech — it’s not modern.” And yet 21st century kids are loving these late 19th- and early 20th century gems.
Some are black and white, others incorporate color, and all tell the sometimes shocking, other times amusing tales of earlier times, like the comedy “At the Dentist,” from France, 1907, and “Foot Juggler,” an American film short from 1900.
“The Secret of Death Valley,” 1906, plays like am early Western, and lovely colors emerge in a suite of four flower films: “The Lady Peacock,” “The Butterfly Catchers,” “The Flower Fairy” and “Language of Flowers.”
Especially significant and surprising is “The Fairy of Springtime,” 1902, with not only its content and use of color, but also its world premiere of music Red Cedar commissioned from New York City-based composer and violinist Philip Wharton.
“I knew color film needed to be emphasized in this production,” Bostian said, “because we didn't have it in the first production. And, there's (another) ‘Brenton Surprise’ — the fairy is revealed. ... It's all black and white, then boom, the fairy’s suddenly in color. ...
“That's the piece the Library of Congress said was profoundly exceptional in terms of its use of color -- that it's one of the best uses of color in early film that they've ever seen. That’s kind of a shocking moment.”
Another highlight is the four-part “A Melies Voyage,” with the world premiere of commissioned music by Jean-Francois Charles, a French native and composer and professor at the University of Iowa, and collaborator Nicolas Sidoroff, a trumpeter, scholar and educator teaching in France.
Bostian met Charles at a party a couple of years ago, and when the conversation turned to the Brinton project and the Melies contributions, Charles was hooked. Bostian gave him four films to consider for compositions, and Charles chose all four: “The Wonderful Rose Tree,” 1904, “The Triple Headed Lady,” 1902, “The Hat with Many Surprises,” 1901, and “Wonderful Flames: Sequndo de Chomon,” 1907.
Bostian is especially pleased to showcase the depth of Brinton’s story with this programming, and calls the way Melies and Brinton are highlighted is “kind of brilliant.”
“In the first Brinton program, we really made it about the music,” he said. “We explored perception. We showed a film without the music and then showed it with the music so the audience could understand what the difference was.
“The second program, ‘Music and Magic Lanterns,’ was really about the different ways that the magic lantern slides and early entertainment could be combined with storytelling and with imagery.
“It was a beautiful program,” Bostian said, but it was really about exploring how words and music and art go together.
“And this program is about Frank Brinton’s story, and George Melies’ story and really, Michael Zahs’ story. We've structured the program to try and tell those stories.”
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