Live music will accompany Philly silent films from a golden era

This weekend the Cinedelphia Film Festival continues, with local musician performing live scores to Philadelphia grand cinematic past.

In 1912, Betzwood was one of the largest movie productions facilities in the world. If you ever travel along the Schuylkill River Trail, into Valley Forge, you may have seen a historical marker for Betzwood. It was one piece of an early film monopoly that included a distribution arm and a string of theaters, all controlled by an ophthalmologist who immigrated from Germany in 1876.

Seigmund Lubin started out grinding eyeglass lenses and became one of the first movie moguls who knew how to exploit mass marketing to make movies popular with the working classes, sometimes using quasi-legal means like piracy, and a vertical business model that monopolized production, distribution, and exhibition.

Thousands of silent films were cranked out at Betzwood, from romantic comedies to westerns to war dramas. They were short on artistry, long on spectacle.

“One of the wonderful things about the really old films is you see Philadelphia through a time machine,” said Joseph Eckhardt, author of “King of the Movies: Film Pioneer Siegmund Lubin.”

“They made the films in the street. Nobody asked permission or made arrangements – they just showed up on a corner and started making movies.”

Every spring for several years ongoing, Eckhardt has presented an annual festival of Lubin’s films at Montgomery County Community College, where he is a retired history professor. The presentation weekend at the Mausoleum for Contemporary Art in North Philadelphia, for the Cinedelphia Film Festival, will feature local musicians performing original scores for the films.

They include electronic noise purveyor Jesse Kudler, violinist Monique Canniere, and singer-songwriter Birdie Busch with Carl Cheeseman.

Busch has just released a new CD, “Birdie Busch and the Greatest Night,” with 11 new songs performed with a full band. The two silent film scores she and Cheeseman prepared will likely not be similar to that material.

“Some of my favorite artistic moments are when films and music come together in perfect unison,” said Busch in a phone interview from her West Philadelphia home. “From very pop statement like Elliot Smith and Good WIll Hunting, Paul Simon and The Graduate, Cat Steven in Harold and Maude; to less concise things. I consider this less concise, more meandering.”

The Lubin film empire was assembled over decades, and was quick to crumble. With the onset of World War I, the European market disappeared, the company faced a federal anti-trust lawsuit, and a devastating fire destroyed most of Lubin’s negatives. He died, impoverished and nearly forgotten, in 1923. Most of his films did not survive.

Eckhardt has been able to track down a few hundred films, re-struck from prints that were in distribution over a century ago. Many show their age.

“Very very old footage,” said Busch, whose music reacts to the films surface damage as much as their narratives. “Some of them have really deteriorated, where you get these almost sea-anemone imperfections from top to bottom, that almost feel psychedelic.”

The Seigmund Lubin Birthday Celebration (161 years young!) will be at PhillyMOCA (531 N. 12th Street) on Sunday at 7PM.

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