In March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut movie theaters, silent film pianist Ben Model turned his New York City apartment into a global screening room.
For the past year, on Sunday afternoons, Model, in remote collaboration with film historian Steve Massa, has hosted The Silent Comedy Watch Party, a free live program on YouTube celebrating movies from the pre-sound era.
Providing live accompaniment and commentary, the program has reintroduced audiences to such silent stars as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, as well as lesser-known players like Alice Howell, Marcel Perez, a young Carole Lombard, and actress Gloria DeHaven’s parents, billed as Mr. and Mrs. Carter DeHaven. The bill has also included shorts from Our Gang’s (aka The Little Rascals) silent period, which lasted from 1922 to 1929.
This Sunday, March 21, the show will celebrate its one-year anniversary with its 50th episode. The 90-minute program will include An Eye for Figures (1920) starring The Three Stooges’ frequent foil Vernon Dent; The Fade-Away (1925), an early Max Fleischer (animator of the original on-screen Popeye) cartoon with Ko-ko the clown; and Queen of Aces (1925) starring Wanda Wiley, a now rarely seen comedic actress.
Model and Massa report that each live episode draws 400 to 600 people, with an additional 1,500 to 3,000 worldwide watching an archived version in the days that follow.
“We didn’t set out to do this for a defined period of time,” Model said. “We continued based on viewer feedback and how much being able to laugh has meant to people. We might shift to a bi-weekly or monthly schedule, as I hope to resume in-theater bookings – and leave my living room.”
“But we definitely plan to continue The Silent Comedy Watch Party for people of all ages around the globe who don’t live near art-house cinemas where they can watch silent films as they should be experienced — with live music.”
As Model told The Savvy Screener last October, each episode is quite the undertaking, requiring a tech crew consisting of his wife Mana Allen and Massa’s wife Susan Selig. You can read that interview at Q&A: Silents Streaming.
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