An old faded tub of popcorn. A crushed tin of peanut brittle. Dusty chunks of an old film projector, a relic nowadays even if it were in pristine condition. Old, oranged newspaper clippings, complete with movie listings. The Riverside was showing the horror classic "Black Christmas"; the Modjeska and Paradise featured the just plain cruel double feature of "A Clockwork Orange" and "Deliverance."
All of these remnants, found in the highest lighting booth, hearken back to an era long gone for the Riverside, once one of the city’s major movie houses before having its projection booth removed around 1984 during renovations.
Three decades later, however, the Riverside’s distant past will become the present as the legendary theater plays host to two screenings of the beloved 1942 classic "Casablanca" Friday and Saturday night. And to complete the blast from the past vibe of the event, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will perform Max Steiner’s famous score alongside the movie.
"It really is an approachable classic film," said Andy Nelson, PR director for The Pabst/Riverside/Turner Hall. "It’s super enjoyable, with a lot of action and romance and incredible scenes and amazing music. I think that makes it an exciting choice."
The original idea for the event itself came not from the Riverside ("Our contribution is this building," Nelson noted) but actually from the MSO, looking for new ways to reach out to audiences and make symphonic music accessible.
"There’s not really a way to bridge people who want to go to pops concerts, wanting to listen to three to five minute songs, not a 90-minute symphony," said conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong. "But the way it comes together is: Will you sit through a 90-minute movie with real symphonic music underneath? Absolutely. These guys, this was like the heyday of composers. They weren’t film composers; they were just composers. These people were writing symphonies under these movies."
The end goal is to weave the movie and the live music together with ease, but the process behind the scenes is anything but simple – starting with the film itself. Skilled technicians have to scrub away the old film’s music while still carefully leaving as much of the dialogue in tact as possible. The difficult and tedious work is the reason why, according to Lecce-Chong, there are few options for these kinds of events.
When it comes to practicing and performing the score along with the movie, the process is no less intricate and complicated. Just offstage, a technician – with the help of special software – keeps the projected film synced up with the conductor and both of his monitors: one showing the movie and one showing a clock. The conductor then must keep an eye on both screens, catching up or slowing down according to where the film is, while also guiding the multiple moving parts of the orchestra.
"It was very daunting at first," Lecce-Chong said, "and it’s sometimes a little bit disappointing because I don’t get to communicate with the orchestra as much as I’d like to. I really just have to stick to my thing."
Still, Lecce-Chong has picked up enough experience with these types of film accompaniment performances to grow accustomed to the process. He’s previously worked on renditions of "West Side Story," "The Wizard of Oz" and the Christmas special "The Snowman" ("Home Alone" is on deck for this holiday season).
"’West Side Story’ is so difficult," Lecce-Chong admitted. "Not only does the conductor get a click track, but you give the entire orchestra a click track so they can hear, because there’s too many musicians, and you have to be right with the dances."
According to Lecce-Chong, Steiner’s Oscar-nominated score for "Casablanca" is not quite as hard or unwieldy as Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ Best Picture winning musical. For most of the film, the orchestra is simply supporting the dialogue, swimming around in the background. After conducting the film for the first time last year in Las Vegas, the conductor notes that he’s even found little ways to improve upon director Michael Curtiz’s old Hollywood masterpiece – as heretical as that may sound.
"I found ways to link up the score with certain words and things that happen even better than in the movie," Lecce-Chong said. "I’ll be like, ‘It’d be great if when the door closes, we’ll move that chord over one second.’"
Of course, even though conducting "Casablanca" is "a blast" for Lecce-Chong, the score still comes with its fair share of difficulties and surprises. In fact, some of the film’s most challenging sequences often come as a result of playing underneath its most famous tune: "As Time Goes By," iconically performed by Dooley Wilson’s Sam.
"Anytime somebody is singing or playing, I don’t get any leeway," Lecce-Chong noted. "Not to mention, well, they’re divas. That was one of the things I had to explain to the orchestra. I was like, ‘In this bar, it’s going to go twice as fast as the bar before … for no apparent reason. But we’re just going to do that.’ You just have to get used to that, but it is very difficult because my own musicality has to go out the door."
Even with those finicky segments and scenes, however, Lecce-Chong loves working with Steiner’s score, which he described as rich and colorful. He notes that a couple of market scenes where the composer picks up some notes of Moroccan dance music, in addition to the lush, romantic and sweeping swathes of orchestral music expected from a grand Hollywood tale. Even the tune of "As Time Goes By" makes several audio appearances, sliding into the score as a musical motif.
"The comment I’ve heard most when I’ve done this is people saying, ‘We had no idea there was this much music and the variety that was there,’" Lecce-Chong said. "What we’re doing is heightening it. There’s one chord that, when the two leads see each other, there’s this ‘VRUUM!’ with the whole orchestra. We haven’t played in five minutes, but you really wouldn’t know that by just watching the movie. It’s 20 times more dramatic because you’re seeing how the music is affected by and affects the movie."
It’s moments like those that make the experience of performing with a film – and, in a way, the actors inside the frame – so rewarding for Lecce-Chong.
"In a way, it’s like (the actors) are your soloists, like if you were doing a concerto in a concert – except it’s Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, and I’m like helping them be even more awesome than they otherwise would be," Lecce-Chong said. "It’s something you can all sit down and enjoy, whether you’ve seen the movie a million times so you focus more on the music or you’re experiencing something unfamiliar."
For Nelson, his goal with the event is to provide the kind of emotional group experience seemingly fading out of vogue thanks to things like DVR programming and multi-auditorium, multi-showing cineplexes. He recalls a Milwaukee Film members’ screening of "The Rocket" early last year, where the entire crowd gasped at an unexpectedly early dramatic moment, hundreds of people reacting as one.
"That was just such a special moment for me in my life, and those shared moments are so rare," Nelson said. "Those shared experiences are so special and rare, that we can bring people together around something like film and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. I think it’ll be a nostalgic night for some, but I hope there’s a lot of people who’ve never gotten to experience that before who get to experience that Friday or Saturday night."
And what better place to pass along a memory like that than in a building with its own film memories to share.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.