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The sound of Halloween: Sheldon offers silent horror films on big screen

It's a toss-up: Who is the star of the Silent Film Horror Fest coming up Halloween Night at the Sheldon Theatre?

Lon Chaney, known as "the man with a thousand faces," starred in the 1925 silent film "The Phantom of the Opera," which will be shown on the big screen at 6 p.m.

John Barrymore, once called "the greatest living American tragedian" for his portrayal of Hamlet, starred in Paramount's 1920 silent version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," which will be shown at 9 p.m.

But if you ask Tom Erickson, the star of the show is the Sheldon's Kilgen theater organ, a rare and unique instrument which was installed in 1926.

Erickson will play the Kilgen to provide accompaniment to the silent films. That's what it was created to do.

"That organ is from a very narrow time, the 1920s," Erickson said. "It was the only time theater organs were built." The silent movie era ended late that decade with the advent of talking pictures.

He has been playing the Kilgen at the Sheldon for the past 30 years, ever since Murray Burfeind rebuilt it in 1988 when the Sheldon was restored to its original function as a live performing arts center.

Although the Kilgen has been maintained and tuned, Erickson said, "It now needs extensive repair. ... It needs to be restored or it won't be possible to go on much longer."

Anyone who has not had the experience of watching a silent film accompanied by the Kilgen should make a special effort to come to one or both of the silent films, he encouraged.

"It is absolutely not possible to duplicate that instrument," he said. "It's akin to other artistic treasures" that Red Wing values, including architectural masterpieces and beautiful stained glass windows.

"These are treasures that we value, that enhance our lives" as elements of an avid arts community. "We need to do something. It's not an emergency, but it is an opportunity."

Many times since the 1980s Erickson has accompanied silent horror films at Halloween. "Phantom" was a local tradition for years — he even acquired a cape and mask to complement the film — but this will be his first time playing for "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."

Accompanying a silent film is uniquely demanding, because there is no set music or score. The organist watches the movie while playing the organ to see what's going on. In the case of "Phantom," he is familiar enough to anticipate what's about to happen.

In addition, Erickson said, "I look at the scene in Paris, on the Seine River. I walked along the Seine last summer," and as he walked he was consumed with thoughts of what music would be most appropriate. He also toured the Paris Opera House and found Box No. 5, an important location in the movie.

"I can't keep from referring to some of the modern 'Phantom' music," he added, and invariably will play a bit of a major French organ work with the Notre Dame cathedral appears in a scene.

Preparing for "Dr. Jekyll" was more of a challenge. The 1920 version he watched was accompanied by a symphony orchestra, which "does not seem appropriate to me," Erickson said.

"There's no real music attached to that film that I know of," so he'll be paying close attention, anticipating and reacting, primarily with the organ's music function.

He described both classic films as "artistic endeavors (in which) everything was packed in visually."

Chaney, who is known for his use of makeup and techniques to create memorable characters, plays the Phantom. A deformed character, he haunts the Paris Opera House, causing murder and mayhem in his attempt to make the woman he "loves" a star.

Barrymore, who plays the split personalities Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, relied more on contortion to transform the idealist doctor of medicine into a hideously evil creature. He creates a potion to separate man's two natures, but his double life comes to a bad end.

Tickets to the Silent Film Horror Fest are $10. Visit the box office, call 651-388-8700 or go online to www.sheldontheatre.org.