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Arts and Entertainment

A time traveler among us: Meet the local hero who preserves the lost art of silent films

Brenda Macon

Every great story begins with a hero. In this story, our hero wears a pocket watch, vest and bow tie. He plays ragtime piano until the strings ignite the very air above it. And his superpower? Keeping the magic of the bygone era of silent films not just preserved, but alive.

Meet Adam Swanson, Durango’s favorite ragtime pianist.

The first time I spoke with Swanson on the phone, I pegged him in his 90s. Remarkably polite, he informed me that he preferred to play prewar music, that he was fond of Buster Keaton and that he occasionally might arrive at the DAC in a 1935 Packard Limousine. Could we please hold a parking space for him out front? Of course, Mr. Swanson, I said.

Upon our first meeting, I was shocked – he was a young man in his 30s. Swanson may be a time traveler who just stepped off Dr. Who’s TARDIS and has no idea that he has landed in a future time. He made quite an entrance in that vintage limo that once belonged to the famous silent film star Harold Lloyd, who stars in the upcoming feature at the DAC on Feb. 26, “The Freshman.” This funny film is about a young man who goes to college to play football and also happens to fall in love.

In our recent interview, Swanson informed me that Lloyd was one of three most famous silent film stars of the era next to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. “Safety Last” has a gripping scene where Lloyd really hangs off a clock face of a building dozens of stories above street level. In silent films, the stunts were real and very dangerous. Keaton was once filming a scene where a high pressure water hose blasts down on top of his head and broke his neck. He finished the scene before being taken to the hospital.

When asked why he has assumed the mantle of being the cultural guard of this era, Swanson said, “Because I love it. The importance of silent films represent the genesis of Hollywood as we know it. Entertainment today wouldn’t be alive if everyone had not moved there in the 1920s. These movies are just as enjoyable, exciting and entertaining as they were when they were introduced. Even children love them – they don’t seem to notice that there’s no talking.”

It takes cleverness and creativity to visually communicate a story without using words. After silent films, there were “the talkies,” where a recorded audio track was introduced. Later came color film. But for this shining golden moment, actors and directors, producers and crew, all lived in a world where pure imagination and drive built a wonderland of believable fantasy. Once visually recorded, live music in every theater accompanied the films and the audience swooned in an immersive experience of live music and silent film.

Come to Silent Sundays with Swanson and you will see Swanson accompany movies on the grand piano with the same music they would have played 100 years ago. It’s a unique experience you will want to share, and it’s perfect for all ages.

“While I consider myself a concert pianist who loves the 1920s, these movies bring back to life that era in a way that the music alone cannot,” he said. Swanson plans to show up on Feb. 26 in that fabulous old limousine. If you miss this one, he will return to the DAC four more times this year: May 21, Aug. 13, Oct. 22 and Dec. 3.

For all shows, doors open at 1:30 p.m., show is at 2 p.m.. Vintage dress is encouraged. As they used to say, dress spiffy. You’ll be the bee’s knees!

  • Felony Ever After: A one-woman play by Mary Quinn. 7:30 p.m. Friday (Feb. 17) and Saturday. Tickets $10/$15.
  • A Night of Improv, with Cindy Laudadio-Hill and Mary Quinn: Hilarity will ensue! 7:30 p.m. Feb. 24.
  • Silent Sunday with Swanson: Vintage silent films accompanied by Adam Swanson on piano. All ages welcome. 2 p.m. Feb. 26. Tickets $10/$15.
  • Reefer Madness, The Musical: 7:30 p.m. March 17-18, 24-25 and 31-April 1. 5 p.m. March 19, 26 and April 2. A story about clean-cut kids who fall prey to marijuana, leading them on a hysterical downward spiral filled with evil jazz music, sex and violence.

Doors for all shows open half an hour before listed showtime.

Art classes and gallery events
  • Whimsical Wonderland, a community art exhibit featuring over 40 local artists. Free.
  • Shop the Artisan’s Market, Open noon-6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.
  • Mud Day Madness, begins March 27, 6:30-8:30 p.m. $325.
  • Figure Drawing with live model, begins March 28, 6-8 p.m., 10 classes, $225.
  • Art of Painting, begins March 29, 10 a.m.-noon, $250.
  • Magical Art & Happiness adult art classes begins April 6, 6-8 p.m., six weeks, $200.
  • Pots & Pints: Every Friday, 4:30-6 p.m., $30.
  • GOAL/BART: youth leadership intensives begin June 5/12, respectively. $275.

Questions? Email info@durangoarts.org

Donate, become a member for discounts and to be a patron of the arts, register for classes, buy tickets and keep in touch at durangoarts.org and find things fast at https://linktr.ee/durangoartscenter.

Brenda Macon has been executive director of Durango Arts Center since 2018. Her background includes executive leadership training, business and art instruction.