The vintage films are silent no more.
Red Cedar Chamber Music is giving voice to India elephants playfully cavorting in the water in 1900; an 1897 Egyptian camel market featuring a grinning young boy; slapstick antics on a Pullman car in 1900; an Elks national convention parade in New Jersey in 1904; Coney Island revelers in 1904; the beginnings of modern dance in 1895; and a giant sow and her piglets in 1901.
All of these moving images - and many more - have been captured in a world-class collection of silent films, some of which haven't seen the light of day - or dark of theater - in 100 years.
The entire program of rare movies set to live music will be featured April 25 when Red Cedar Chamber Music brings The Brinton Silent Film Project to the CSPS Hall, 1130 Third St. SE in Cedar Rapids.
The multimedia event also is featured in Red Cedar's rural outreach programs slated around Eastern Iowa through May 6, then will travel to Washington, D.C., for an Aug. 14 concert during the National Flute Association's convention. Harvey Sollberger of Strawberry Point, an internationally known flute player, composer, conductor and educator who wrote several songs for the film project, will receive a lifetime achievement award during that convention.
The Red Cedar project is a group effort two years in the making, involving film collection owner Michael Zahs of Ainsworth (historian and narrator) and musicians Jan Boland (flute) and John Dowdall (guitar) of Marion and Carey Bostian (cello) of Iowa City.
Zahs, 67, a retired science teacher, has worked with Boland and Dowdall many times over the years, and says the couple were aware he had these films, rescued from an estate sale in 1981.
"Two years ago we made the decision, 'Let's see if we can set some of the movies to music," Zahs says.
The program features 20 films lasting from 10 seconds to 10 minutes, covering comedy, drama, special effects, foreign cultures and magic by Georges Melies, whose story captured audiences' imaginations in the 2011 feature film, "Hugo." All are accompanied by new music commissioned from Sollberger, new arrangements by Boland and Dowdall, and previously commissioned works by Jerry Owen, Peter Bloesch, Michael Gilbertson, Luc Gullickson and Michael Kimber.
The collection's history is as fascinating as the scenes preserved for posterity.
It's named for original owner Frank Brinton, an entrepreneur, inventor and world traveler who was born in 1857 and settled with his wife, Indiana, in Washington, Iowa, in the later 1800s. A man ahead of his times, Brinton experimented with flying machines in 1893 - 10 years before the Wright Brothers defied gravity at Kitty Hawk, N.C. - and built a flat roof for airships to land on his solar-heated house - in essence creating the world's first airport in the 1890s in Washington, Iowa, Zahs says.
"He was just an extremely intelligent person (who) was far beyond his period of time," Zahs says, adding that Brinton and his father held a number of patents.
The Brinton family had purchased land inexpensively in Washington County "very early," Zahs says, and wisely invested the family money line, which stretched back to Colonial America.
However, Frank's father didn't fancy paying taxes, so he left for the Holy Land and invested his money there. Frank took his mother there many times to try to get the patriarch to return to the United States, but he didn't budge, and eventually disappeared.
Zahs says Frank Brinton spent the equivalent of four years in the Holy Land "all told," learning the culture, language and music.
One source says he took photographs there, which he transferred to "magic lantern slides," a precursor to movies, shown on projectors in a style that predates the Civil War. Zahs isn't sure whether Brinton actually took the photos or simply acquired them, as he later did, buying the now-vintage films. "And I suppose we'll never know," Zahs says.
Back in the United States, Brinton began lecturing on the Holy Land in churches around 1878 or '79, then joined the Chautauqua circuit, traveling throughout the middle United States. With the advent of silent films in the 1890s, his focus shifted to collecting those, and as manager of Washington's Graham Opera House, he began showing his films to eager audiences there in 1895.
Now the State Theatre, "it's the one location in the world that has shown movies longer than any other, and it's in Iowa," Zahs says.
Brinton married Indiana (Ina) Putnam in 1898, and she joined him in his film endeavors, which included screenings at the Ainsworth Opera House.
"She was 20 years his junior, and I say that she was an original 'trophy wife,' in that she was an attractive woman from a poor family," Zahs says. "She was a one-room schoolteacher when they married, and he lavished everything on her."
Unlike her husband, she didn't dress up in costumes or do any entertaining. Those who attended the shows told Zahs that Indiana was "'just there and looked purty,' but she did a lot of the business in the background."
Frank died in 1919, and Ina lived in their Washington home until her death in 1955. The films and other goods went into storage at the estate executor's basement. Zahs says "by pure chance," he ran into the executor's son in Washington in 1981, who was going to sell the items at auction. Instead, he sold Zahs three truckloads of goods, including boxes marked "Brinton crap."
Light-years from that less-than-glowing description, the collection of 150 movies made before 1908 are now considered "priceless" treasures that drew capacity crowds in their day, reeling in as much as $140 a night for the Brintons.
"Around 1900, they were the highest-paid people in Iowa," Zahs says, and they were doing 250 to 300 programs per year.
Longtime Red Cedar supporter and sneak preview co-host John Hegarty is dressing as Brinton for the programs.
"I'm bringing Frank Brinton down from Heaven for a day," he says. " ... I'm the projectionist and novelty item. It's a wonderful ride for me."
Red Cedar has been a wonderful ride for Boland and Dowdall, too, but that ride is winding down. They are slowly phasing out and turning over the Red Cedar reins to Carey Bostian and his wife, violinist Miera Kim, during the 2015-16 season.
Boland and Dowdall performed together as a duo for 18 years before creating Red Cedar Chamber Music in 1997. Experts in 19th century music played on period instruments, they also have commissioned nearly 40 new works from emerging and established artists. Their seasons have grown to include at least two main stage concerts, as well as more than 100 outreach concerts in libraries, churches, schools and senior centers around the region.
Bostian was named to the Red Cedar Trio in 2013 and he and Kim, professional musicians, educators and clinicians, are well-known to Red Cedar and Orchestra Iowa audiences. Bostian also conducts orchestras in Iowa City and Ottumwa.
"We are thrilled to have such talented musicians who not only understand the philosophy and unique qualities of Red Cedar Chamber Music but who also represent Red Cedar's next generation," Dowdall says. "This was our dream when we founded the organization nearly 20 years ago - that Red Cedar Chamber Music would continue to serve the community for decades to come, spreading the joy of this very special, intimate music to audiences all around Eastern Iowa. Miera and Carey share that joy and are just the musicians to do it."
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
WHAT: Red Cedar Chamber Music: Brinton Silent Film Project
WHEN: 8 p.m. April 25
WHERE: CSPS Hall, 1103 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids
TICKETS: $15 advance, $18 door, student rush $5; CSPS Box Office, (319) 364-1580 or (319) 364-1580
Central City: 7 p.m. Wednesday (4/22), J.C. Clegg Public Library, free
Marion: Noon April 23, Marion City Hall; free
Vinton: 7 p.m. April 23, Palace Theatre; $10 door or (319) 472-9958
Cedar Rapids: 1 p.m. April 24, The Meth-Wick Community, free; 11 a.m. April 28, Ballantyne Auditorium, Kirkwood Community College, free; 2 p.m. April 28, Calvary Baptist Church, free
Tipton: 7 p.m. April 24, St. Mary's Church; suggested offering $10 to benefit Hardacre Theatre, (563) 886-2325
Springville: 1 p.m. April 25, Springville Library; free
Iowa City: 5:30 p.m. May 6, Shambaugh Auditorium, University of Iowa, free