Sunday, November 6, 2011

Lurking with Lon Chaney at Trinity Cathedral

By Bratzilla

While a church is an unseemly place for a horror film screening, this didn’t scare Trinity Cathedral. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that they are home to a spooky burial ground with plots dating back to 1797, but, whatever the reason, they have obviously embraced the inherent creepiness of their historic worship space, and created one of the coolest fundraisers ever: silent movies with live organ accompaniment (and kettle corn).

Held annually on the Friday before Halloween, this year’s event featured, we were assured by nationally-renowned organist Michael Britt, an original print of Phantom of the Opera with the indomitable Lon Chaney circa 1925. Needless to say, the turnout was great—with a good majority of the endearingly uncomfortable mahogany pews being filled with a motley congregation that even included a witch and—despite the 14-foot steel, glass and aluminum cross suspended above the altar—a vampire eating fun size candy bars and sipping on cider.

After a brief introduction by a member of the church, sadly alerting us to the fact that the late night burial ground tour was cancelled due to an unexpected case of docent pneumonia (at least it wasn’t the Red Death), Britt came out to set up the film, cautioning us that the original phantom composer was a mad and purely evil soul—unlike more modern adaptations that make the character more sympathetic. Then, after making a joke about the villain’s role in giving organists like him a bad rep, he sat down and began to play music both melancholy and dark.

A short time later, a cloaked and virtually nose-less Lon Chaney appeared on the altar, as the movie screen cast a glow in soft shades of black and white around his gruesome face. All the while, the organ played on, racing along with the action, no matter how terrible or benign, without a moment's pause. Monstrous shadows appearing on the walls as attendees got up to move around, perhaps giving their posteriors a much-needed rest from the tortuous wooden seats, added an extra dose of eeriness to the 1872 structure with its old and austere marble, stone and stained glass.

When the performance ended, we weren’t quite ready for the evening to end, so we extended our cathedral stay by lurking around the burial ground, which, by this time, was bathed in moonlight. Nestled in a courtyard beneath the church’s looming 200-foot spire, the graveyard and its odd assortment of memorials spanning the centuries immediately met all of our macabre expectations. And, while the darkness prevented us from reading the markers, and the chill kept us from lingering, the ground—originally used by Native Americans, the French at Fort Duquesne and the English at Fort Pitt—clearly revealed itself to be a remarkable site you just don’t go whistling past every day.

Luckily, neither we, nor you, need wait until next Halloween to do so, because the burial ground is open for tours any time of year on Sundays after the 10:30 a.m. service, or by appointment (email office@trinitycathedralpgh.org or call 412-232-6404). And, afterwards, because this gothic dream just keeps getting better, you can even time it so you can descend into the basement for a bite at Franktuary—which has one of the greatest selections of gourmet franks in da ‘Burgh. Mmmm … old graves and hot dogs: Now that’s a hauntingly good combination.

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