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UI Professor brings 'Living Nickelodeon' to Iowa City

BY ERIC HAWKINSON | NOVEMBER 16, 2010 7:20 AM

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With his "Living Nickelodeon" performances, University of Iowa cinema Professor Rick Altman is able to do what few have done before.

For instance, he was able to get a French audience to sing joyfully to the tune of popular American songs. Altman said the French are not known for singing in public, but he aimed to change that while playing at the Louvre.

"Well, I translated some of the chorus lyrics into French, and that got them going," he said. "And once they'd done it in French, they jumped into the English, and they sang just as happily as anybody."

Today, Altman will bring his passion for nickelodeons to the Bijou. The show, sponsored by the University Lecture Committee, will begin at 7 p.m.; admission is free.

"Essentially, the presentation is kind of about what cinema used to be," said Zakir Durumeric, a member of the University Lecture Committee. "This is supposed to give a sense of what movies were like a long time ago and what that used to be."

The "Living Nickelodeon" exhibits the illustrated slides Americans in the early 1900s would view as their main mode of entertainment. It was a time before motion pictures and a time Altman feels inspired to share with audiences around the world. He has played overseas in Italy, France, and Germany as well as in the United States, at the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and many universities.

The film professor has done much research to provide an environment similar to the experience a century ago. Dressed in early industrial American garb, he does his best to stay true to the time.

"There's a piano player, that's me. There's a singer, that's me. There's a lecturer, that's me. There's a guy that schmoozes in the audience, that's me," Altman said and laughed. "I have to play all of the roles, because part of the purpose is to demonstrate to people what it was like to be part of a cinema audience at the beginning of the 20th century."

Ultimately, he wants everyone to have a good time, and encourages audience members to make a lot of noise. Around 20 minutes are set aside for his lecture, and approximately a half hour is spent listening to popular American music from the time to accompany the slides. The extraordinary part of all this, he said, is in the handmade slides.

"Many of them as comic as they are beautiful," he said. "It's an exciting way for people to discover different ways that films were accompanied."

During the performances, Altman does his best to remain in character, and he tells anyone he's working with to do the same. He does this, he said, to make the event feel authentic. This is especially apparent when things go wrong.

"Every time there's been a problem, everybody thinks, 'God, that is so realistic. They really made it look as if they had a problem,' " he said with a smile. "It's one of the reasons this is such a fun thing."

Sometimes, the problems come in the form of issues between Altman and the projectionist. If slides aren't working correctly, the two often shout back and forth, or as he said, "Blessing each other out."

Though he's played all over the world, some of his favorite experiences with the nickelodeon have happened here. While playing at one of the local senior centers, he said, the performance was "bringing down the house."

"I sidled up to a woman who was 90 if she was a day," Altman said. "And I said, 'So sweetheart, do you live with your mother?' "

Altman said he's a "duffer" when it comes to the piano. He can sing all right, but he's bound to make mistakes throughout his performance. He's not perfect, and that's exactly how a nickelodeon would've been back in the day.

"If you're at all interested in American art, in American cinema, or in American culture, you will absorb plenty of all three while having a really good time," he said.


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