by Ann M. Colford
Halloween is less than a week away, so it's time to pull out all of the ghosts and goblins from our collective anxiety closets and put them on display. In recent years, Halloween has grown to become the second-spendiest holiday in America; pouring out billions of dollars to frighten ourselves is perhaps proof of our previous level of comfort and security as a society. Now that we're faced with true-life horrors on the nightly news, and being scared has suddenly become the new American way of life, it remains to be seen whether Halloween will retain its popularity. But if you're looking for a safe place to face the darkness this year, the Cathedral and The Arts organization may just have the answer. On Friday and Saturday nights, the classic silent film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, accompanied by Charles C. Bradley, Jr. on the organ, will be shown within the gothic confines of the Cathedral of St. John.
"Halloween seems to be a time when people like to come to the Cathedral for a gothic film," says Gertrude Harvey of the Cathedral and the Arts. The group looks for films that will fit the theme of the season while remaining respectful of the space, she says. "We're careful in the films we choose. These films have to do with the grotesque or with evil, but we try to make sure there's some redeeming feature."
From his home in western New York state, Bradley -- who was the organist and choir director at St. John's for 20 years -- echoes the sentiment. "The films we choose have an underlying theme of truth winning out over evil, and light overcoming darkness," he says, adding that the cathedral itself, as a sacred space, provides a safe space for exploring the dark side. "The gothic building emphasizes the light triumphing over darkness."
The Hunchback of Notre Dame, based on the book by Victor Hugo and originally released in 1923, stars the legendary Lon Chaney as Quasimodo, the deformed bell-ringer of Notre Dame Cathedral. Sitting inside one Gothic cathedral and listening to music while watching images of a story unfolding within another is sure to provide a few mirror-within-a-mirror moments for the audience, says Harvey. "The Gothic elements of the film are echoed in the arches and other architectural elements of the cathedral."
Bradley adds: "One thing that makes it so enchanting is that we do it with two 16-millimeter projectors in the back on the church, and sometimes the film skips and the light filters through and reflects off the arches and stonework."
Although many silent films originally had musical scores, most of those scores have been lost over the years, Bradley says. So rather than relying on someone else's idea of what kind of music should go along with the film, Bradley watches the film, does some research into culturally relevant pieces, and then improvises a unique accompaniment for each screening of the film.
"For Hunchback, it's Victor Hugo, and it's so French," he says. "The story runs the gauntlet of human emotion, so the music should, too. I use some French organ music, but it's mostly improvised." After watching the film initially, Bradley tries to come up with music that will become a part of the story. "I try to undergird what the movie is about, much like the recent epic movie scores by Max Steiner and John Williams. But the music will be different each night because I play to the audience and how they're reacting. I play to that moment."
Such a level of improvisation might be scary for other organists, but for Bradley it's a return to his early days as a musician. He both played and listened to jazz as a student at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore during the late '50s and early '60s, and he draws upon that experience now. "While doing these movies, you find yourself playing to the audience and reacting to them as you would in a jazz trio," he says. "You're really reacting to the humanity all around you. The process takes the accompanist down a different road each time. But you're so involved in the movie and what you're doing that what you play just flows from the movie."
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is at St. John's Cathedral,
Grand Blvd. at 12th Ave., on Oct. 26 and 27 at 8 pm. Tickets: $8;
$6, seniors; $5, youth 12 and younger. Call: 325-SEAT.