The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra will be at the 1891 King Opera House in Van Buren Sept. 16 to play the music that accompanies three silent films -- plus the intro, intermission and outro of an evening in the early 20th century. It will be a unique -- possibly once in a lifetime -- experience.
But it might be nearly as fascinating if Paragon founder Rick Benjamin spent the evening talking about how he got from playing classical tuba at Juilliard to conducting music from the golden age of W.C. Handy, Irving Berlin and Scott Joplin.
"One of our missions is to bring this historic music into historic theaters," he says. "So the King Opera House is a perfect venue. And our 38th season of doing this starts [about the same time]."
The story begins with Benjamin growing up in a family of classical musicians. His trajectory was set -- until he was 9 or 10 years old and found his grandmother's old wind-up Victrola turntable in her garage.
"I see it's a machine to play records and there are records in the cabinet underneath, so I started listening -- and it was a whole 'nother world," he says.
Ragtime soon had his heart, but classical had his commitment, and he was dutifully studying tuba at Juilliard when his jaw was broken in an accident.
"During my convalescence, I decided to invent a project and write about the early days of the Victor Talking Machine Company, so I went down this rabbit hole," he remembers. Along the way, he met a senior citizen who told him original scores from that time period were been thrown out by the dumpster full at an old warehouse in the city.
"Usually when someone says there's this large collection ... it's a vacant lot," he laughs. "But this time it was true."
He pulled a piece of Scott Joplin music out of the dumpster, "managed to get around the chain link fence" into the building and spent the next couple of days hauling stacks of sheet music out -- until a supervisor in a hard hat stopped him. But he ended up rescuing almost 4,000 compositions -- "weird and rare stuff no one had ever seen."
He took it back to Juilliard, got some friends to form a little orchestra to play it, and "the moment the cello went down, and the clarinet went up, and it was this exciting, beautiful thing, I knew this wasn't just ephemeral junk, this was American musical literature," he remembers. And his mission to play it took hold.
Too bad the administration of Juilliard wasn't on board. When Benjamin pitched it to the dean, he put his nose in the air and say, "We play Bach. We perform Beethoven. We do not play W.C. Handy."
Benjamin went around the corner to the departmental office and booked his junior recital -- despite the fact he still couldn't blow a note on the tuba. And on recital day, he and his friends played ragtime, with the concert hall doors open. Soon the hallway was full of students -- and then instructors. One of them was composer Vincent Persichetti, "who had the deepest scowl I had ever seen on a human face," Benjamin remembers. "It was really quite chilling. I saw my educational career coming to an abrupt end."
Instead, Persichetti came back stage, shook Benjamin's hand, explained that his expression was deep thought, not distaste, and told Benjamin he had found his calling.
That's just the beginning. A couple of weeks later, Benjamin answered the phone and it was Thomas Frost from CBS Masterworks, wanting to record Benjamin's little orchestra. Later, it was the Washington, D.C., public library calling, wanting to give Benjamin a collection of 26 packing crates filled with orchestra music intended to accompany silent films.
Since then, the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra has played 760 live performances with silent films. That's not counting the one at the King Opera House, which will feature three films: Buster Keaton in "The Haunted House" (1921); Charlie Chaplin in "The Immigrant" (1917); and Harold Lloyd in "Get Out and Get Under" (1920). It's all part of a gala supporting the Alma Education and Arts Foundation, which will take place at the adjacent Arts on Main.
Paragon Ragtime Orchestra
WHEN -- 4 & 7:30 p.m. Sept. 16
WHERE -- King Opera House in Van Buren
COST -- $37-$48
INFO -- skokospac.org
FYI -- Tickets for the gala start at $40. Call 632-2129 for reservations.