Flying a Musical Time Machine
Flying a Musical Time Machine
A Q&A with Rick Benjamin
Of Paragon Ragtime Orchestra
By Geoff Gehman
Rick Benjamin is in his 30th year of making the popular music of the silent-film era more popular and less silent. His vehicle is the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, which plays concerts and makes recordings from original theater scores he rescued from warehouse and library, attic and basement. He’s an archival conductor, a preservationist pianist, a time-machine pilot.
On Sept. 12 Benjamin and 11 Paragonians will accompany three funny photoplays at the Mauch Chunk Opera House, site of the ensemble’s 2006 silent-film gig. They’ll play the same music played during the original theatrical screenings of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Pawnshop” (1916), Harold Lloyd’s “Get Out and Under” (1920) and Buster Keaton’s “Cops” (1922), which Benjamin calls Keaton’s “epic to law and order.” They’ll make the setting more authentic by performing an antique overture and vintage tunes for changing reels.
The opera house is squarely in Benjamin’s wheelhouse. The former vaudeville hall was a regular pit stop for a very young Keaton’s acrobatic slapstick, which he performed in a family act. It was also a circuit connection for John Philip Sousa’s fabled band, which from 1892 to 1904 showcased a young virtuoso named Arthur Pryor, nicknamed “the Paganini of the trombone.” Pryor became a celebrated band leader and an influential conductor of band recordings for the Victor Talking Machine Company; one of his studio violinists was J. Edward Smith, Benjamin’s grandfather.
Pryor entered Benjamin’s life in 1985 when he was studying tuba at the Juilliard School of Music. Sidelined from playing because of a dental disaster, he began preparing a project on Pryor’s key role in the early recording industry. His research led him to save nearly 4,000 Victor orchestra scores owned by Pryor from a New Jersey warehouse destined for demolition. The collection was a holy grail of compositions by waltz king Victor Herbert, blues king W.C. Handy and ragtime king Scott Joplin.
That year Benjamin conducted a Juilliard concert featuring the Victor/Pryor scores, defying a dean who ordered him to stick to Mahler and Mozart. The sneaky show was rousingly successful, opening the door to a record deal with a prominent classical composer and closing the door on a classical tuba career.
Benjamin has carved quite a niche for himself as a curator/entrepreneur of foxtrots and cakewalks, two-steps and a 2/4 Brazilian tango called the maxixe. He owns nearly 20,000 theater and dance orchestra scores published in 1875-1925, a period when more than 21,000 theaters employed over 90,000 musicians. Dipping into his collection of nearly 1,000 silent-film scores, he’s conducted more than 600 silent-film concerts in every state but Hawaii and Idaho. His panoramic Paragon CDs for New World Records have resurrected the reputations of everyone from Louis A. Hirsch, who helped write the Broadway show that made Al Jolson a star, to Joe Jordan, who wrote the song that made Fanny Brice a Broadway queen.
“It’s an entire lost world of magical creativity,” said Benjamin from his home in Lewisburg, Pa. “People who performed back then gave me an almost mythical account of knights-in-armor days of making music. Playing this music is a pretty intoxicating experience; that’s why we’ve been doing it for 30 years. People need to know about it and they simply won’t know until we roll into town and put on a show.”
Q: On Jan. 7 you received a rare honor when your likeness appeared on the cover of The New Yorker, conducting musicians in an illustration by your friend Chris Ware, the cartoonist and graphic novelist. How do you know Chris and how did being on a New Yorker cover change your life?
A: Chris is a musicologist and a collector who is fervently interested in early popular music. More than 15 years ago I was guest conducting the Savannah Orchestra and I was in the lobby when this bespectacled gent asked me if he could listen to a rehearsal. I told him: “I not only do not mind, I’ll put a chair on stage for you.” At the time I didn’t know that Chris was highly respected in the ragtime field, that he had published the first volume of The Ragtime Ephemeralist [an occasional journal]. He vanished for a while but then resurfaced and we became good friends. Whenever we’re touring in the Midwest he comes to our concerts and I always get him a chair onstage for rehearsals.
Chris is quite an amazing character. He told me he had a present for me on my birthday, which is New Year’s Day, and it was that cover. There wasn’t too much fallout since my back is turned in the picture. Although I had one phone call from somebody who said: “I see you’re on the cover: it’s your back.”
Q: What was the first ragtime tune that really razzmatazzed you?
A: I was in seventh-grade music-appreciation class and the teacher put on an LP of Scott Joplin music and the first track was the “Maple Leaf Rag.” I think Dick Hyman was playing; we’ve worked with him; he’s one of my favorite pianists. It’s really an amazing piece of music. From an acoustic sense, an aural sense, it stood out like Everest [when it was first published in 1899]. Max Morath, an original ragtime revivalist in the late 1950s and ’60s, wrote in one of his books that it hit the public consciousness with the force of “a skyrocket fired from a roller coaster.” That’s what always strikes me when I play it: that it was so different from what was happening at the time.
Q: Why did you pick the name “Paragon” besides being the apex, the top of the top?
A: I liked the sort of Victorian ballyhoo feel of that word–the ultimate example of something; the unabashed, chest-out boosterism. It’s like [imperious impresario voice]: “We are here at the Paragon”—and everyone can sit back in awe.
The self-confidence that is the fiber of the era is appealing to me. It’s refreshing in today’s world, where anyone who wants to break their ass to succeed has to apologize because somehow they’re holding somebody back. I like that early 20th-century belief that “We’re going to build that steel bridge and we’re going to make it the longest one ever made.”
Q: Can you give me an example of the sort of music you’ll be performing along with the Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton films?
A: We play Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song” while Chaplin is spinning around in the front door of the pawnshop. A policeman is eyeing him, thinking he’s drunk, so Chaplin breaks into this little ballet dance. When he goes back inside we start on a bit of ragtime while he argues with the owner of the pawnshop.
We rattle along with 22 minutes of very fast changes of music and mood. It’s challenging stuff; that’s why in the early 1900s the best musicians in cities played for the photoplays. They had to be great sight readers and followers of conductors–quick on the uptake, as we say. It’s the same thing today; you really have to train people to do this work well. You don’t do this when you’re playing a Beethoven symphony; there you sit for 25 minutes and look up at the conductor, hopefully, every once in a while.
It’s a load of fun for performers and of course audiences love it. If you’re doing your job as a musician, listeners don’t know you’re there. You’re strapped into this time machine.
I got involved in silent-movie accompanying because the group of musicians was basically the same as the group of musicians who accompanied vaudeville shows. In 1992 I got a call from the chief of the music division for the Washington, D.C. public library. They were moving into a new building and in the process discovered 26 packing crates of silent-film music from the old Capitol Theater in D.C. He said: “We’ll donate the scores to you if you can promise you’ll develop programs with them.” Well, that was an offer I just couldn’t refuse. I got down there with the biggest U-Haul town truck they make, signed the papers, and hauled the stuff up here.
Q: Is there a theater orchestra conductor-pianist whose story you find revealing and riveting, someone with whom you identify, whose path you’re pursuing?
A: I’m writing about Erno Rapee, a Hungarian concert pianist who became one of first major silent-movie composers and movie-house conductors; he was the first house conductor of the symphony orchestra at Radio City Music Hall. What people like Rapee were doing was popular music of the day. What I’m doing is harder to categorize: historic old stuff that people don’t dance to anymore. It’s not current pop music, it’s not classical music. It’s not supported by any institution, either. This is an independent project, which flummoxes many people. They think we’re supported by universities who are writing the checks and keeping me in limousines.
Q: You’ve interviewed a fair number of theater-orchestra alums. Who was one of your best guides?
A: Boyd Barnard was a cornettist who played in and recorded with the Pryor band. I met him when I was 25 or something and he was 97. He had wild stories of playing for motion pictures, for vaudeville, recording for a company called Rex Records—that’s Rex with an R, not Wrecks with a W [laughs]. He studied with Herbert L. Clarke, a famous cornet soloist, and he played in Victor Herbert’s orchestra. Following Herbert’s beat was evidently quite a challenge. He had a wide rear end; musicians said he was best followed from the rear [laughs].
Boyd retired as a musician in the 1920s. He founded [the Philadelphia real-estate development firm] Jackson–Cross, a premier builder of skyscrapers. He became a multi-millionaire and a major donor to the Philadelphia Orchestra. He saw all the major conductors of the 20th century. He could imitate all of them, from Mahler to Muti. He kept me energized.
Q: You’ve resurrected the compositions and reputations of quite a few popular musicians. One of your Paragon recordings spotlights works by Joe Jordan, who played drums in a pioneer jazz band, wrote music for the Federal Theatre Project, conducted military bands in World War II and became a wealthy real-estate investor. Did you have a “Eureka!” moment when researching his music and life?
A: Joe Jordan is so multi-faceted and fascinating that there isn’t one thing that jumps out. His work at the Pekin Theatre in Chicago, the first theater operated and owned by blacks, was really ground breaking. He was putting out a complete musical comedy every two weeks, writing lyrics and orchestrating while the current show was going on. His ability was stunning. He was a great conductor and a fantastic drummer back nearly at the invention of the drum set, when the whole idea of having this one guy play all the [percussion] instruments was brand new. He had an amazing intellect and the fact that he had a 70-year career makes it more amazing.
Joe was an intriguing character. He was one of America’s first black millionaires; he said he made and lost several fortunes. In 1917 he was arrested on the streets of Chicago for having too much jewelry. The Chicago PD thought that no black man should have $100,000 worth of diamonds on him honestly. These days he would have become a millionaire by suing.
I will tell you something significant about Joe that we cut from the liner notes [for the Jordan CD] because we had to get in material about Fanny Brice [note: Jordan wrote Brice’s first hit song, “Lovie Joe,” for “Follies of 1910”]. You know that Sam, the singing pianist at Humphrey Bogart’s club in “Casablanca,” was played by Dooley Wilson, who actually didn’t play piano. Well, Dooley Wilson was one of Joe Jordan’s singers. In fact, the character of Sam is supposed to have been modeled after Joe, who spent a few years in Morocco playing piano in an ex-pat cafe.
Q: In 2004 you finally recorded “The Entertainer,” one of Scott Joplin’s calling-card rags, as well as the signature tune of the film “The Sting.” What took you so long?
A: Well, ragtime music has never been the essential focus. I’m interested in preserving all the different genres of pop music of that time. I never actually liked “The Entertainer” for many years, partly because it’s the only piece of ragtime or early pop music that Joe Six-Pack knew about. Many people, even concert presenters, would ask us to play it and I would bug me. I wanted to play what they hadn’t heard.
This went on for maybe 20 years and eventually I decided: Why not play it? I figured that what agents and promoters had been telling me probably made sense. And, after all, we had the original orchestration in our collection. The first time we performed “The Entertainer” was in 2001 at the Ravinia Festival, in the round, for 5,000. It went over really well, from the audience’s standpoint and ours.
Q: So, Rick, what’s on your short-term Bucket List?
A: There are some other beautiful African-American operas and operettas that I’d like to recreate, as we did with “Treemonisha” [note: In 2003 Paragon began performing Benjamin’s theatrical arrangement of Joplin’s opera]. There’s Will Marion Cook’s “In Dahomey,” a blockbuster hit in 1902 on Broadway [and the first Broadway musical totally performed and written by blacks]. It’s never been recorded; I have the score sitting here. I would also like to get around to recording all of Eubie Blake’s musical “Shuffle Along.” It’s a fascinating document. And I’m working on getting the rights to Irving Berlin’s first Broadway musical, “Watch Your Step.” The music is fine, the story is funny, and I have the materials.
It’s just a matter of funding. I shouldn’t say “just” because funding is the hardest part. Our touring activities have probably been halved because presenters don’t have the money. That’s why I’m happy to be working with New World Records, which is a not-for-profit and endowed. The  box set for “Treemonisha” is just an amazing product, a kind of oasis-in-the-desert act.
It’s harder and harder to find funding as the recording industry gets smaller and smaller. Back in the 1980s you would be getting royalty checks every six months. The money wouldn’t buy a car, but it was decent. It’s been years since I’ve seen a check from anything.
So my bucket list may consist of just hanging on.
Rick Benjamin: The Scoop
He was eight years old when he discovered a Victrola in his grandparents’ garage, which led him to discover the “sheer joy” of early American popular theater music.
His revivalist career was endorsed by the renowned composer Vincent Persichetti, then a teacher at the Juilliard School of Music, where Benjamin was studying tuba. “He told me: “This music is of such great quality and creativity. It represents American culture that’s not being represented. This must be your work; this must be what you do.”
His Paragon Ragtime Orchestra recording of Joe Jordan’s “The Whippoorwill Dance” was included on the soundtrack of the TV series “Boardwalk Empire.”
He’s conducted silent-film orchestras in seven countries, including Ireland and Iceland.
He collaborated with choreographer Paul Taylor on the 1999 dance-music piece “Oh, You Kid!”
He licensed Paragon recordings of nearly 20 tunes, including “The Winter Garden Rag” and “Grizzly Bear,” to the Main Street, U.S.A. section of Disney amusement parks. Two years ago he was visiting one of the parks with his kids when he proudly watched thousands of visitors moving in time to his band’s version of the 1918 hit “Smiles.” He felt less proud when a balloon vendor told him the antique music “sucks–I have to listen to it every day!”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. His favorite Scott Joplin tune is “Solace,” which he first heard in the film “The Sting.” He can be reached at email@example.com.