GREENFIELD — Before Annie belted out “Tomorrow” on Broadway and on screen, she was the star of a 1930s weekly radio adventure. Before she foiled bad guys on the radio, she and her dog, Sandy, were pen-and-ink drawings in the Sunday funny papers. And before she was a childhood comics favorite, she was the beloved hired girl in “Little Orphant Annie,” James Whitcomb Riley’s poem — and the star of a 1918 silent film.
“Little Orphant Annie,” directed by Colin Campbell and starring Colleen Moore, will show for the first time in Greenfield since 1919. The screening, at 4 p.m. April 29 at the H. J. Ricks Centre for the Arts, 122 W. Main St., will be accompanied by classical pianist Roger Lippincott as the soundtrack for the film.
The day’s events include a short presentation from film historian and preservationist Eric Grayson on his efforts to restore the film, a reading of James Whitcomb Riley’s “Little Orphant Annie” poem and a Little Orphant Annie costume contest open to all ages, male and female.
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Stacey Poe, newly hired coordinator for the James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home, learned about the film when she accompanied several members of the Riley Old Home Society board of directors to see the film at the Delphi Opera House northwest of Indianapolis. There she met Grayson, the cinephile credited with restoring “Little Orphant Annie.”
Grayson, sometimes known as Dr. Film, developed his interest in films and movies from watching Sammy Terry, host of television’s “Nightmare Theater,” as a child. From there, he started reading books about movies, and stumbled across references to movies he wanted to see but weren’t available on VHS (at the time) or DVD. He began collecting films in 16mm — the format used for home movies and schools — and the higher quality 35mm — the format used in movie theaters.
“There are so many films that nobody cares about,” Grayson said. “I’ve kind of made it my mission to help people see films they wouldn’t normally see.”
Although film is his passion, Grayson is making his way toward a Blu-ray version of “Little Orphant Annie.”
He managed to acquire a 35mm copy from a friend that was rotting.
“Rotting film smells like vinegar,” Grayson noted.
He also learned that the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., had two 16mm copies of “Little Orphant Annie.” Administrators there knew of Grayson’s reputation for film repair and told him that if Grayson could get the funding, they would loan him the film for restoration.
Grayson’s film restoration technique involves scanning each frame of the movie and then digitally reassembling the frames into a cohesive film. With three copies of the film, the process of restoring the 70,000 frames of “Little Orphant Annie” took more than six months, Grayson said.
Grayson’s version of the film includes actual footage of Greenfield’s poet laureate, James Whitcomb Riley. When Indiana celebrated its state centennial in 1916, a documentary was created to honor Indiana’s heritage, which included video of James Whitcomb Riley. Although the film has gone missing, Riley’s cameo appearance — introducing the movie and reading Indiana’s centennial story while surrounded by children — still exists. Added onto the opening of “Little Orphant Annie,” it appears as if Riley is reading the poem aloud to the children.
Sunday’s showing of the film promises to be a unique event, organizers said.
The silent movie features a live piano accompaniment from Roger Lippincott. Grayson discovered Lippincott at a holiday event at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and knew immediately he would be the perfect accompanist for silent films.
Grayson explained that it isn’t enough to be able to read sheet music; it takes a certain skillset to accompany silent film.
“What you want is an improvisational pianist,” Grayson said. “You have to watch the screen, catch the emotions and play along with that.”
Poe looks forward to the audience’s reaction to the film. She hopes that the older generation will bring the younger generation to see something they wouldn’t normally see.
“You can sit at home and watch a silent movie on TV,” Poe said, “but to sit in a theater and have a live accompanist and to see the film the way it was supposed to be presented is really amazing.”
The silent film “Little Orphant Annie” screens with a live accompanist at 4 p.m. Saturday at the H. J. Ricks Centre for the Arts, 122 W. Main St. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at the museum next door to the Riley Boyhood Home at 250 W. Main St. or at theater box office. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.