Chaplin’s Modern Times at the Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo

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Poster for Modern Times (public domain) - via Wikimedia Commons

Poster for Modern Times (public domain) – via Wikimedia Commons

I have often pondered the question “What is one film I would recommend to anyone?” The usual answer that would pop into my head was Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) for its timeless humor and social commentary.

If I had any doubts about this answer, they disappeared after I saw Modern Times Sunday afternoon at the Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo, California.

After spending the greater part of last year in New York City, it is wonderful to be back home for a couple of weeks to a place where the weather is how I like it. But even better is to discover a gem in the vicinity about which I had never known before.

At the beginning of Sunday’s program at the Old Town Music Hall, Bill Field, one of the men who reopened the theater in 1968, gave us some background about the theater, which originally opened in 1921, before sitting down at the Mighty Wurlitzer Theater Pipe Organ.

The lights dimmed, the curtains opened behind him, and there in front of us was an array of pipes and bells, outlined in electric lighting.

And then Field began to play, and I could hardly believe that all that music came from one man playing one instrument. The style was recognizable from silent movie soundtracks, but hearing it live – and seeing those brilliant pipes move – was something else in its entirety. After about a ten minute medley of tunes, the screen lowered, and slides prompted us with lyrics to sing along with the music, ending with “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”

Next, we were treated to a hilarious Laurel and Hardy short, That’s My Wife from 1929, still accompanied by Bill Field on that magnificent organ. A full three decades before Some Like It Hot in 1959, this short makes extensive use of a gag involving Stan Laurel dressed as a woman pretending to be Oliver Hardy’s wife.

From what I understood, the idea behind this presentation was the theater’s wish for us to get a taste of the Mighty Wurlitzer since Modern Times has its own soundtrack. But more than allow us to hear that gorgeous music, the program made me feel as though I had stepped back in time, back to when you could truly enjoy your time at the theater. The program allowed us to ease into the feature and set the appropriate tone for the afternoon.

Intermission time meant a quick trip to concessions to grab some popcorn. I never get popcorn when seeing a movie, but this just felt like going to see a movie properly, so popcorn only seemed natural.

I made my way back into the theater, and a few minutes later, and lights dimmed, and the wonder that is Modern Times began.

Before I continue, I must comment on the number of kids that were there. Kids with their parents, kids with their grandparents, kids of every age.

And in the audience sat a number of people still young at heart. For you should have heard how the entire room was laughing at the Tramp’s antics and misfortunes.

There was one woman in particular who had such a booming and infectious laugh that, mere minutes into the film, I anticipated hearing her laugh just as much as I anticipated the Tramp’s next comic misadventure.

Most poignant, right after the hilarious sequence involving the lunch feeding machine, as the screen momentarily faded to black, one of the kids sitting in front proclaimed audibly, “That was really funny.” And the audience burst into laughter again.

If the audience at the Old Town Music Hall is any indication, classic movies will continue to have long and healthy life for many years to come.

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