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Live music adds to Tampa Bay movie experience this season

A live orchestra and even dancers will enhance upcoming shows in the Tampa Bay area for “Encanto,” silent movies and “Dirty Dancing.”
Steven Ball, 42, is the resident artist at Tampa Theatre. On Aug. 28, as part of its Summer Classics series, he will play the Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Organ, a magnificent, 1,400-pipe instrument, to accompany silent movies.
Steven Ball, 42, is the resident artist at Tampa Theatre. On Aug. 28, as part of its Summer Classics series, he will play the Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Organ, a magnificent, 1,400-pipe instrument, to accompany silent movies. [ LAUREN WITTE | Times ]
Published Jul. 19

The spectacle of live performers accompanying movies is as old as the film industry itself. During the silent era, the technology to play recorded sound with the film did not exist, but music was still seen as an essential part of the viewing experience, with live bands and singers playing along.

There are several chances to go retro with beloved movies this season when Tampa Bay area venues present live music and even dancers that will accompany beloved films like Disney’s “Encanto” at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre and 1987′s “Dirty Dancing” at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.

And if you want to go really old school, Tampa Theatre’s artist-in-residence, Steven Ball, is preparing a score on the historic movie house’s Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Organ, a magnificent 1,400-pipe instrument originally installed to accompany silent films when the theater opened in 1926.

Related: Tampa Theatre brings back Summer Classics movie series

On Aug. 28, Ball will play alongside the 1920 comedy short “One Week and the classic silent Buster Keaton romantic comedy ”The Cameraman.” They will flicker across the screen as the theater’s gigantic pipe organ plays along just as it did after the movie house first opened.

In the 1920s and ‘30s, movie theaters often had an orchestra pit with more than a dozen musicians, Ball said.

“The whole entertainment experience was amplified because when you came to the theater you didn’t just come to see a movie,” Ball said. “There was a featured picture but there was also usually live vaudeville acts, a short comedy film and a newsreel. It would start at noon and go all day and tickets got more expensive at the dinner hour.”

Dancers and a live band will add to the experience of watching the 1987 classic "Dirty Dancing" when the show arrives at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa on Nov. 19.
Dancers and a live band will add to the experience of watching the 1987 classic "Dirty Dancing" when the show arrives at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa on Nov. 19. [ Zdenko Hanout ]

The organ evolved as a solution to replace a full orchestra. The organist would have been invisible down in the pit or concealed behind walls, Ball said. The idea was to create the illusion that sound was coming from the film.

Despite his position as a theater organist, Ball said he prefers the idea of making the musician invisible.

“In my mind it actually takes you away from the picture. When they are invisible, it’s working in concert with the picture,” Ball said. “By adding dancers and making the orchestra more visible it’s an entertainment experience and not just the film.

“I think that’s part of our evolving entertainment culture. It used to be that going to the symphony is enough. Or seeing a picture was enough. We are evolving into these amplified entertainment experiences where we engage multiple senses.”

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Part of the reason for the spike in live film spectacles was the popularity of the live concert version of the Oscar-winning film “La La Land.” The film toured as a live music and concert film, and it was a worldwide hit.

La La Land in Concert was “a bountiful feast for the eyes and ears, while never veering into sensory overload” said a review in Billboard when it debuted in 2017. “This was a 3D experience in every way.”

There’s also audience interaction. Singing will be encouraged when “Encanto: The Sing-Along Film Concert Tour” comes to Tampa on Aug. 6.

The event will screen the entire award-winning animated film while an on-stage band performs hit songs from the soundtrack, including the chart-topping “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” and Oscar-nominated “Dos Oruguitas.”

Another living, breathing presentation of a beloved film will be the Nov. 19 showing of Dirty Dancing in Concert. It will not only have a live band but dancers will act out some of the iconic scenes and dance moves, creating what producers call “a vivid, visceral and entirely new viewing experience.”

Steven Ball, 42, poses on stage at Tampa Theatre. He says the recent trend of live musicians playing with movies shows how entertainment has evolved into "amplified entertainment experiences where we engage multiple senses.”
Steven Ball, 42, poses on stage at Tampa Theatre. He says the recent trend of live musicians playing with movies shows how entertainment has evolved into "amplified entertainment experiences where we engage multiple senses.” [ LAUREN WITTE | Times ]

A complete screening of the digitally remastered film will play as a band and singers perform the songs live, in sync with the film. Afterward, there will be an encore party where guests can continue to sing and dance along with the band to their favorite songs.

Ball said this trend could also be in response to all that streaming and binge-watching we are doing these days, especially during the pandemic.

“Entertainment is becoming increasingly individualized,” Ball said. “Rather than buying a ticket to a theater to enjoy a film with 500 other people you are paying for a stream that you can download to your phone and have a personal experience. The entertainment industry is just following where the cash is.”

In the early days, the money was in the ticket sales. Now it is in streams and views. So by using iconic films combined with a live musical experience, the events manage to draw people out of their burrows, he said.

“By using the marketing horsepower of having something very familiar, the audience knows they will like the movie,” Ball said. “So they might not be willing to go to a concert, but this has at least one thing they know they will like.”

If you go

Encanto: The Sing-Along Concert: An on-stage band plays the hit songs while the Disney movie plays in full. 7:30 p.m. Aug. 6 at MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre, 4802 U.S. 301 N, Tampa. Tickets are $22-$59 at livenation.com.

Tampa Theatre: As part of its Summer Classics series, it will screen “One Week” (1920) and Buster Keaton’s “The Cameraman” (1928). The silent comedies will be accompanied by a live organ performance at 3 p.m. Aug. 28. $13 at 711 N Franklin St., Tampa. tampatheatre.org.

Dirty Dancing in Concert: A live band, dancers and singers will accompany the digitally remastered film. 8 p.m. Nov. 19 at Carol Morsani Hall at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. Tickets are $45-$85 at strazcenter.org.

"Encanto," the hit Disney animated musical, will be turned into a sing-along concert. An on-stage band plays the hit songs while the movie plays in full Aug. 6 at  MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre in Tampa.
"Encanto," the hit Disney animated musical, will be turned into a sing-along concert. An on-stage band plays the hit songs while the movie plays in full Aug. 6 at MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre in Tampa. [ Disney ]
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