The Tybee Post Theater will transform into a 1920s movie palace on June 17.
With a grant from the Georgia Council for the Arts, the theater is bringing back the Silent Cinema Concerts program with a screening of Buster Keaton's "The General," considered one of the best silent film comedies ever made. Two short film comedies also will be presented.
The screening marks the 100th anniversary of Keaton's first comedy.
"It is so much more than a screening of a really great Buster Keaton comedy," theater director Melissa Turner says. "We've got a Savannah Philharmonic chamber ensemble of unbelievable musicians, along with Rodney Sauer from Colorado on our Steinway, playing the score.
"He has his own silent film ensemble, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, and has been creating and performing silent film scores around the country using historic music libraries," she says.
The chamber ensemble musicians are Leslie Johnson, Sinisa Ciric, Peter Berquist and Robin Beauchamp.
The program will open with two comedy shorts. Sauer will also serve as host for the screenings.
"The first one is a very early cartoon movie, 'Gertie the Dinosaur,'" Sauer says. "It's kind of a tour de force by a cartoonist with interesting ideas about how to make cartoons move.
"He saw a dinosaur skeleton and wondered if it was a cartoon, how would it move? He wrote it as a multimedia piece.
"He would be onstage as a dinosaur trainer," Sauer says. "The dinosaur misbehaves and he tells her to roll over and she just goes to sleep."
Now more than 100 years old, Gertie was the first popular cartoon star.
The second film, "The Cook," stars Buster Keaton and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.
"It's sort of a lost film," Sauer says. "We knew the movie had been made, but no known prints were known to survive. It happened to show up in a collection of films in Denmark.
"It's about two comedians who are running a restaurant," he says. "These films were not planned much in advance, so this is two guys goofing off and having fun."
The main feature, "The General," is the story of a railroad engineer who is rejected by the Confederate Army and by his sweetheart, Annabelle. Northern spies kidnap both Annabelle and the engineer's train engine, which is called The General, and comedy chaos ensues.
"The General" is in a class of its own.
"It was made later and is much more polished than 'The Cook,'" Sauer says. "It had a much larger budget.
"They brought in the National Guard to play the Union and Confederate troops. It is very loosely based on an incident in Georgia where an engine belonging to the Confederacy was stolen by the Union.
"After it crossed the line, the Southerners caught up and drove the engine back," he says. "Buster Keaton invented one guy on the Confederate side who is the hero, Johnny Gray."
The role allowed Keaton to employ his famous physical comedy.
"The number of tricks he was able to play with the engine was amazing," Sauer says. "He was often called the Great Stone Face because he never smiled. It's hard to get away with a comedy set in wartime.
"We're going to accompany them with live music the way it was done in the 1920s. It will be an authentic recreation of what movie-going was like back then. We will show three incredibly entertaining movies.
"The feature film, 'The General,' still shows up on lists of the 100 funniest films of all times," he says. "This is a great example of how well it can be done."
After the screenings, Sauer will host a talk-back program. The series commemorates the 100th anniversary of the beginning of Keaton's acting career.
Sauer's interest in silent film scores goes back to his interest in music.
"A long time ago, I had a small orchestra that played small dances," he says. "As I was researching music, I came across a huge collection that belonged to a theater director who played for silent films.
"Every theater back then had musicians who provided the score for films. I said we could do a movie.
"I put one together and it went over so well, we've scored over 127 films and also tour as a group," Sauer says. "We go from New York City to San Francisco."
Folks at the Tybee Post Theater are in for a night of fun, he adds.
"People are going to be laughing," Sauer says. "The movie is one large chase with a battle at the end. It's like playing a football game with no brakes.
"It's going to be a great show. It would be great if the Tybee Post would do this a couple of times a year.
"What's fun about silent movies is that it's also a concert," he says. "This particular performance never happens the same way twice."
IF YOU GO
What: Silent Cinema Concert "The General"
When: 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. June 17
Where: Tybee Post Theater, 10 Van Horne Ave.
Cost: $15 adults, $7 children
Info: 912-472-4790, tybeeposttheater.org