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The Alloy Orchestra Brings Harold Lloyd's Speedy Back to Brooklyn
Lloyd catches a ride in Speedy
Harold Lloyd catches a ride in Speedy
July 8, 2002 | If the art of making silent films has been all but lost over the years, then the art of watching them could easily have met a similar fate. Luckily, groups like the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Alloy Orchestra are around to keep it vital and alive. Alloy Orchestra is a three-man operation consisting of Roger C. Miller (synthesizer), Ken Winokur (junk percussion and clarinet), and Terry Donahue (junk percussion, accordion, saw, banjo). They'll be performing their unique blend of traditional silent film music and modern sounds with Harold Lloyd's rarely seen 1928 classic Speedy in Brooklyn's beautiful Prospect Park on Thursday, July 18 at 7:30pm as part of the annual outdoor concert and film series "Celebrate Brooklyn!"

Even though Alloy Orchestra has become one of the most sought-after silent film accompanist groups, they started out almost as a fluke. Winokur says he's "always been a film buff. We did a show in Boston [as part of the New Year's Eve program] 'First Night.' One of the local film programmers saw it and thought it would be perfect accompaniment to Metropolis. We did it without much expectations and it turned out to be a fun way to spend the weekend." The audience reaction was also extremely positive and now they've been doing shows for almost 12 years. "We're able to attract a diverse audience like nothing else we've ever done. We get people who went to silent movies as kids and are now in their 80's. Kids love it. It's a hip college thing. No spectrum of people is left out." And the possibility exists of reaching even more people: Alloy scores have been featured on the DVD releases of films as diverse as the silent dinosaur epic The Lost World (Image), the Russian experimental classic Man With a Movie Camera (Image), and Cecil B. DeMille's warning against debauchery Manslaughter (Kino).

Justin Lee Wicker, administrator for the Harold Lloyd Trust, which tends to the estate of the late comedian, feels that screenings like the Alloy Orchestra's are crucial to the continuing legacy of the early film pioneers. "Films can be greatly reinterpreted through their scores and... the Alloy score brings the viewer into a new and unique experience of the film. That is one of the 'lost' great pleasures of silent films: the ability to see them with live accompaniment, creating an experience much closer to theater where there is a real sense of the immediacy of the performance and the story."

The Alloy Orchestra
The Alloy Orchestra
From left: Winokur, Miller, Donahue

For Winokur, there's something special about playing Speedy in Brooklyn. "I've been dying to play it in New York for about a year and not had a chance." In fact, when "Celebrate Brooklyn!" contacted Alloy about the 2002 series they suggested The Lost World, but Winokur wouldn't hear of it. "I said, 'You've got to do Speedy in Brooklyn!' It's the film that people think has the most astounding footage of New York. There's wonderful Coney Island [footage], other stuff in Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan. It really presaged the way films are shot on location in the city." He also cites its "unbelievable chase scene. It's really beautifully shot. There's a horse drawn trolley racing to complete one circuit once every 24 hours. At one point they [try to] go under a bridge and slam directly into it, sending parts [of the trolley] flying, and Harold Lloyd falls out. It wasn't scripted; the stunt driver miscalculated and they got the whole thing on film. You watch it and think, 'Wow! That can't be fake!'"

He also cites a lengthy sequence with New York Yankee legend Babe Ruth as one of the pleasures of the film. "There's a great chase with him in back of Harold Lloyd's car freaking out." It's more than a cameo; it's an actual piece of history, pairing a man that Winokur calls the "uncontested, most popular comedian in the film world at the time," and one of the most famous athletes of all time, preserved on film.

Harold Lloyd's Speedy

Wicker agrees that the film's sharp historical perspective on New York is still important. "That is actually a very big part of why film preservation is so important," he points out. "Beyond the value of the entertainment, cinema stands as an important historical document of the times in which it was created. Speedy has amazing shots of New York as it was in the mid-20's and it stands as a virtual time capsule of the dress, the architecture, and the society in general of that incredibly vibrant time in American history. This is true of all of Harold Lloyd's films. Now scenes like those can be accomplished in a computer. All films contain vast information beyond their respective stories. They offer insights into our times and our collected humanity, which is, in a sense, timeless."

Perhaps because of an interest in America's past, silent films with live musical accompaniment have been gaining in popularity lately. Musicians like Philip Carli try to disappear into the background while allowing the music to help set the tone for the film. The Alloy Orchestra, however, takes a little more of the spotlight with their unique mix of vintage and modern sounds. "It's a little harder to ignore us," says Winokur. "We're physically larger and acoustically louder. We're more in your face [than other accompanists]. There is a giant groundswell of interest [in live film music]. We play some music that might have originally been there and we definitely play some stuff that's far from traditional. We just play the music that seems to work for us with the scenes."

An extra treat at the Speedy show will be the unveiling of a brand-new, pristine print of the nearly three-quarter-century-old film, taken from the original negative. "Harold Lloyd was a good businessman," says Winokur. "Unlike Chaplin and Keaton, he held the rights to his own films." That's why he has become less ubiquitous than his contemporaries over time, but also why his films and images haven't been exploited and degraded the same way. "People think of silent films as being dim, fuzzy images. This film will astound people," predicts Winokur.

The Celebrate Brooklyn! stage
The Celebrate Brooklyn! stage in Prospect Park

It seems that "Celebrate Brooklyn!" is as excited about the show as Winokur. "We are not particularly big Harold Lloyd fans," according to Tiffany Douglas of "Celebrate Brooklyn!," "but we are big fans of the Alloy Orchestra." In fact, Alloy Orchestra has been a featured attraction of "Celebrate Brooklyn!" for over five years. According to Winokur, "The Brooklyn crowds are spectacular. They're the largest audiences we play to. Brooklynites are very savvy and sophisticated. They know their silent films. There's no place like New York for that."

Harold Lloyd's Speedy will be shown with accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra at Celebrate Brooklyn! in Prospect Park on Thursday, July 18 at 7:30pm. Just take the F train to 7th Avenue in Brooklyn and walk to Prospect Park. It's an outdoor event and admission is a suggested donation of $3. Bring a picnic basket and a blanket!


Alloy Orchestra
Celebrate Brooklyn!
The Harold Lloyd Trust

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