A silly man in a top hat, hopelessly attempts to climb upstairs after a long night on the town. Each move is punctuated with improvised ragtime piano accentuating every misstep, every spin around a lazy-susan-style table, every slide down a banister, even rolling up in the carpeting that previously covered the steps.
In the cool August evening air, popcorn bags rustle as 2-year-olds to teens to seniors giggle at the antics on the screen, enjoying a pastime from yester-century.
Oak Park’s Pleasant Home is showing Silent Movies on the Porch for the fifth summer. Each August, Friday evenings are reserved for a form of entertainment that is hard to find elsewhere. Typically, 100 chairs are put out, an old-fashioned popcorn machine set up, and a baby grand moved out to the porch of this 1897 landmark building, once a private home, now owned by the Park District of Oak Park and home to the Pleasant Home Foundation, which provides programming such as this.
This year’s films range from a magical 1898 Georges Méliés short to Charlie Chaplin’s film, “City Lights,” from 1931. Other films include cinematic greats Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Fatty Arbuckle, and Laurel and Hardy. And there’s a Felix the Cat animation as a bonus.
Pleasant Home Program Director Sarah Najera screens many silent films and selects them to represent a variety of talent and styles from that long-gone era. She believes the offering fits well with the house.
“John Farson built his home to open it up for entertainment,” she said. “The second owners, the Mills family, stipulated that it be part of the community when it was sold to the park district in 1939. Showing these films is also relevant to the era of the house when it was used as a home.”
The Kennedy family from Chicago, including Kendra, Chris, and daughters, Augusta, 21, Cray, 19 (also a Pleasant Home intern for five years), and Francis, 17, block out their calendar in June and have rarely missed a movie night since the program began in 2013.
“When you see this at a historical home, it comes alive,” Kendra said. “It’s been educational. We’ve learned about the different artists. And it’s a family tradition.”
Adding to the ambiance and overall enjoyment of the films, is the live piano accompaniment performed by Tom Holmes, actuary by day from Chicago, who has been playing at the event since its inception.
When silent films were originally shown, keyboardists used scripted music, which were applied to all chase sequences, villain appearances, and love scenes, and they would improvise the rest. Holmes, who started playing piano in second grade, and improvising as soon as he was given music to practice that he didn’t like, composes and improvises almost all the music for the films shown at Pleasant Home.
“I watch and decide if it is character- or scene-based and write based on that,” Holmes said. “It’s incredibly rewarding to take inspiration straight from the film. I have a plan and then react to the audience and improvise. If they are still laughing, I will still play funny music. I just run with it.”
Laughing along are some of the youngest members of the audience. Four-year-old Alexandra Mendiola is attending for her second year with her dad Eliazar. Tagging along this year are 2-year-old Alexis and mom Melissa Vonhatten. The family splits their time between LaGrange Park and Bloomingdale.
A self-described film buff, Mendiola looked for a venue showing silent movies to attend with Alexandra last summer and finally found a fit in Oak Park.
“It’s great sharing this with her,” he said. “It’s amazing to have the piano accompaniment. She loved it and was laughing and laughing.”
People come from all over to join in the fun — as far as away as California in one instance. The 100 seats often sell out. But locals fill the seats, too. One Oak Park resident surprised Najera after some Chaplin movies were shown from his Mutual Studio days.
“A man came up to me and said he just watched three films he never saw,” she said. “He teaches film at Roosevelt University and has written a book about Charlie Chaplin.”
Now Larry Howe introduces the Charlie Chaplin films whenever he’s available. Although not available on the first Friday this month, Chaplin did make an appearance — as the carouser trying to climb his own stairs at 1 a.m.