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Getting the High Sign

One of the great things about living in NYC is that by taking walks, rather than getting everywhere by car, you run into people you haven’t seen in a long time. A teacher from film school told me once that he got more work walking home from work in mid-town to his Upper West Side apartment, or vice versa, than anything else.

On Monday, something I’d only experienced at in-person shows in recent months occurred while walking down Broadway taking a ”constitutional” to get away from the grind of ”office work” at my apt.

Heading downtown, a couple who I’m guessing were my age or a bit older were walking uptown on the same sidewalk. In a brief, wordless moment, our eyes met. Then, their faces lit up a little and they both waved to me gently with one hand. I instantly connected with them – although on another level. A smile bloomed a little on my face and I returned the one-handed wave. We enjoyed this little moment, and kept walking in our respective directions, in a knowing way that we’d connected over something we shared.

I didn’t recognize these two people right away, although it occurred to me a minute or so later that perhaps I knew their faces from silent film shows pre-COVID; perhaps they had attended shows of The Silent Clowns Film Series, or possibly shows I’d played at MoMA over the years.

If you’ve been a viewer and fan of The Silent Comedy Watch Party, the live-streamed silent film program that I launched on March 20, 2020, you already know what happened here. At the beginning of every episode, in my welcome greeting I wave to our viewers. When I bring co-host Steve Massa on, he does the same. Over the past 2+ years, fans wrote in to us that they were waving back at their screens. It was a way of connecting with one another during a time when we were stuck in our homes.

As things looked like they were opening back up over the past several months, I would tell viewers that if they came to any of the in-person shows I was doing that they should wave at me the way Steve Massa and I’d done every week on the show. When I’ve taken my bow before a screening at MoMA, the Kansas Silent Film Festival, et al, I’d look out and see some of the audience doing that one-handed-wave ”high sign”, and I’d know who the SCWP fans in the house were.

What happened yesterday was the first time I’d been ”recognized” on the street by SCWP viewers, and there was something special about this. The tacit ”hey there, good to see ya!” recognition between the three of us that happened organically and spontaneously, and having a wordless moment in-person that mirrored the interaction we’d had for months waving to each other over the ether of the internet, meant so much.

I’d started this “secret handshake” between me and Steve and our viewers as a way of connecting with our audience on a one-to-one basis, knowing that even though we had an audience that was a very large group of people we were also communicating with them via what Ernie Kovacs referred to as ”an intimate vacuum”. This was the first time the one-to-one connection of that virtual “secret-handshake”wave came full circle. I look forward to this happening again, and again, over the coming months.

The Silent Comedy Watch Party will continue live-streaming new episodes, once a month, and the live-streams I’d been doing monthly with the Cinema Arts Centre will continue on a bi-monthly basis; the in-person monthly shows at the CAC resumed in April. The Silent Clowns Film Series resumes in-person shows on July 16.

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