Toasting A Silent Film Gala

This weekend is a special one in Los Angeles, because on Sunday night the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra is holding its annual Silent Film Gala at UCLA’s glorious Royce Hall.

Chaplin, Edna Purviance, and friend in A Dog’s Life.

This year’s offering is a Charlie Chaplin double-bill: Shoulder Arms and A Dog’s Life, with silent-film score specialist Timothy Brock conducting. The curtain-raiser will be Walt Disney’s Oswald the Lucky Rabbit Cartoon Trolley Troubles, with a score by Alex Rannie. For ticket information, click HERE.

I look forward to the LACO’s annual program not only because it’s wonderful to see great silent films with a live orchestra, but because many people bring their children along. Hearing peals of laughter from kids watching Chaplin—or Keaton or Lloyd, depending on the year—is truly heartening, and gives me hope for the future. (When our daughter was younger, we used to take her and sometimes a friend would tag along; one time a young pal of hers expressed genuine astonishment that he could enjoy a silent movie so much.)

This year marks the 22nd event for LACO, an extraordinary orchestra that was founded in 1968 to give our city’s hard-working studio musicians an—

—outlet to play classical music. At the Silent Film Gala, their talented musical director, Jeffrey Kahane, graciously hands the baton to a specialist like Timothy Brock or Carl Davis, who often conduct scores they have composed for the films. (This year, Brock is using Chaplin’s original music.)

At the 2005 Gala showing of The Circus, I got to meet Chaplin’s granddaughter Carmen and her mother Patricia, who’s married to Michael Chaplin. Carmen certainly has her grandfather’s signature smile.

The driving force behind this successful fund-raiser is a remarkable woman named Hanna Kennedy, who initiated the idea for it in 1989. After enjoying success with a UCLA audience the LACO opened it to the public and the rest is local history. Nothing can stop it: when Royce Hall underwent a lengthy post-earthquake restoration, the program moved to the Alex Theater in Glendale. After recruiting contemporary figures like Tom Hanks to introduce City Lights, Hanna persuaded Dustin Hoffman to become the event’s permanent honorary chairman. And in 1992 she recruited Roger L. Mayer, then the President of Turner Entertainment—and since then, the recipient of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award—to join her as co-chair. Anyone who knows Roger and his dedication to film would automatically realize how much his involvement has meant to the series’ ongoing success. (I know my wife and I pay for our tickets every year, even when I’m called upon to serve as host.) Roger always starts off the evening with a speech about the state of film preservation, which has gotten more optimistic with each passing year.

Another memorable gathering: Dustin Hoffman, Barbara Talmadge (the widow of James Talmadge, Buster’s eldest son), Oliver Koechli and his wife Keaton Koechli, who was formerly known as Keaton Talmadge. She’s Buster’s great-granddaughter.

As an extra treat, Hanna always invites members of the silent film star’s family to join the audience. Sue Lloyd, Harold’s granddaughter and keeper of the flame, is a frequent presence, and we’ve met relatives of Keaton and Chaplin as well.

Tickets aren’t inexpensive, but this is a fund-raiser, after all, and the LACO always produces a memorable evening in one of Los Angeles’ most beautiful concert halls. Having access to silent films on DVD is great, but there is nothing like seeing them projected on a big screen, with a simpatico audience and a great orchestra.

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July 2024