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A 'reel' classic

May 21, 1998|By TERI JOHNSON

by Richard T. Meagher / staff photographer

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ProjectorA 'reel' classic

George Wagner and Jeff Weiler will play important roles in Saturday's presentation of "The Phantom of the Opera," but you probably won't even notice them.

Wagner, a veteran projectionist and Hagerstown resident, will show the silent film at 7:30 p.m. at The Maryland Theatre in Hagerstown.

Weiler, of Wichita, Kan., will accompany the movie on the theater's Wurlitzer organ.

The vintage film is from George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, N.Y., and is one of two copies in circulation, says Pat Wolford, president of the theater's board of directors.

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The 1925 Universal production sweeps audience members through the halls and dungeons of the Paris Opera House. It stars Lon Chaney as Erik (the Phantom) and Mary Philbin as Christine Daae, as well as a supporting cast of more than 500.

Weiler, 39, has performed music for "The Phantom of the Opera" all over the country for the past 15 years, and he says it's not his job to call attention to what he's doing.

"Everyone forgets I'm playing after the first few minutes, and they become absorbed in the experience," says Weiler, who has written scores for 32 feature films.

If the organist chooses music that is too recognizable, the audience stops thinking about the film, he says.

Wagner, 84, began his association with The Maryland Theatre in the early 1930s, when as a teenager he would climb the fire escape and talk to the projectionists. He worked as an apprentice for three years before becoming a projectionist.

The projectionist had to inspect the film, which would arrive in separate reels, and put it together. He would assemble a short subject or newsreel, a preview and the feature.

It took two projectors to show the film. Each reel ran for about 20 minutes, and when one was almost finished, the projectionist would follow the cues to start the other one.

The projectionist had to be on his toes, Wagner says.

"If you had to stop the show, you would have the manager there real quick," Wagner says.

At the time The Maryland was one of nine area theaters owned by Warner Brothers. Others included The Academy of Music on Washington Street and The Colonial Theatre on Potomac Street.

Wagner's other jobs have included being an inspector at Fairchild and Mack Trucks Inc., but he says he always has loved running a projector.

"Movies were my first love from way back," says Wagner, who has been a volunteer at The Maryland Theatre for about 20 years and is a member of its board of directors. The George A. Wagner Projection Room at the theater was named in his honor.

Wagner got his first moving picture machine when he was about 7 years old, as a reward for selling $3 worth of White Cloverine salve.

This will be the first silent film Wagner has shown. Sound was introduced to movies in 1927.

Wagner notes that "The Phantom of the Opera" was shown at The Colonial Theatre Feb. 22 to 24, 1926. A newspaper ad of the time described it as "a kaleidoscopic panorama of thrilling action, breathtaking suspense, mystery that grips and haunts you."

Weiler agrees.

"It's a fun movie," he says.

Weiler says you really don't miss the fact that people aren't speaking, and he calls it film theater.

"All these people in the audience are together, sharing their emotions," he says.

If you've watched "The Phantom of the Opera" on video, you haven't truly seen it, Weiler says.

To enjoy the experience totally, you need live accompaniment and to see an archival print projected the way it was intended, he says.

"If you take any element away, it's not the same," Weiler says.

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