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Louis, a silent film, and the Oberlin Jazz Orchestra to play at grand reopening of the Apollo, Oberlin. Ohio
(Published: September 14, 2012)

The final phase of a three-year renovation to the historic Apollo Theatre in Oberlin, Ohio will culminate in a grand reopening this month. Part of a weekend of special events celebrating the transformation includes the re-defining cinematic experience of Louis, a silent film about Louis Armstrong as a young boy, presented by the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and Oberlin College's Cinema Studies Department. This free event will be open to the public on Sunday, September 23 at 7:00 p.m. in the Apollo's Burrows Theatre. The multimedia production features a modern black and white silent film with live music performed by the Oberlin Jazz Orchestra under the direction of Dennis Reynolds.

Louis was written and directed by first-time filmmaker Dan Pritzker and shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (Deliverance, The Deer Hunter, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind). The film's emotionally integral score, written by pre-eminent jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, also incorporates pieces by 19th-century American composer, Louis Moreau Gottschalk.

Starring Jackie Earle Haley, Shanti Lowry, and Anthony Coleman, the film pays homage to Louis Armstrong and the silent film era of Charlie Chaplin. Although not a literal biopic, the film is centered on Armstrong's early years in the Storyville district of New Orleans when he received his first trumpet.

Dean of the Conservatory David H. Stull explains the program's significance: "The opportunity to work in this recaptured medium is a fascinating project for the conservatory's jazz and classical students. This is a particularly unique and invaluable experience for Oberlin's jazz students to perform Marsalis's score in such a setting."

Pritzker's vision for the project was inspired by a Chicago Symphony Orchestra performance accompanying Charlie Chaplin's City Lights. Pritzker's background as a songwriter and recording artist as a member of the band Sonia Dada fueled his creative effort on this music-based film project.

"The impact of the music on the visual is huge," he says. Marsalis's original score is highly virtuosic and symphonic in scale and, Pritzker adds, "was manipulated and explicitly crafted" to impact the storyline.

The film premiered in 2010 with a five-performance domestic tour with Marsalis's band. A slightly smaller ensemble reprised the project for two shows at the 2011 London Jazz Festival. A private screening followed by the encore public event on September 23 in Oberlin will be the third time this film has been brought to a theater with live music.

This kind of project is what Oberlin College envisioned when College Properties of Oberlin, a wholly owned subsidiary of the college, purchased the Apollo from twin brothers William and Sandy Steel in 2009. The theater is now owned by Apollo Theater LLC and is managed by Cleveland Cinemas. Major upgrades to the theater have transformed it into a modern film and performance space on the first floor, and a Media Education Center with state-of-the-art postproduction facilities on the second floor.

Conservatory students are keenly aware of what it takes to bring this project to a new theater and new ensemble. Oberlin Jazz Orchestra saxophone player Johnny Cochran says, "Having the opportunity to perform a piece like this is one of greatest things I've ever experienced." Trumpet player Ashley Hale adds, "To be a part of a project of this magnitude is pretty amazing. The work that everyone is putting into this shows how Oberlin Conservatory continues to push the envelope of experiences they offer their students. I don't think this is an experience that any of us will forget anytime soon."

Scott Steiner, the film's music editor, recently spent time on campus with the students and Oberlin Jazz Orchestra director Dennis Reynolds. When Pritzker spoke about Oberlin's preparation for this event, he said Steiner is "happily surprised with the quality of their work." Steiner uses a backstage monitor to govern the technical aspects that link the performance to precise moments in the film. He communicates visual cues to monitors the musicians see.

"The students got the hang of this very quickly," Pritzker notes and adds, "I've spent so much time with this music; it will be fun to hear it with a new group."

Stull remarks, "Oberlin's investment in this newly renovated venue will result in many kinds of productions, joint projects, and curricular advancements that are extraordinary, launching student experiences in directions that are very exciting."

Louis is free and open to the public. Running time for the R-rated film (for sexual content and nudity) is 70 minutes. Tickets are required, as seating is limited, and will be available at the Apollo Theatre Box Office beginning at 5:00 p.m. on Sunday, September 23. There is a four-ticket limit per person. The show begins at 7:00 p.m.

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