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FILM : A Step Back in Cinematic Time : The Old West meets vintage Hollywood during open-air showings of silent movies at Paramount Ranch.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s nightfall in the frontier town and you’re strolling the plank sidewalks on your way to one of those newfangled moving picture shows.

As you amble past the gunsmith shop and the saddlery, you can almost hear the clip-clop of hoofbeats rising in the dust with the song of crickets.

This is Silents Under the Stars, the summer mini-festival at historic Paramount Ranch.

Located in a cozy valley in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, the ranch has been an Old West movie set since 1927 and is now the setting for CBS’s “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.” Here, the historic preservation organization Hollywood Heritage screens old movies in an authentic ambience of make-believe.

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“It’s kind of like traveling through time,” said Sandra Lee, 28, of Echo Park, an avid fan of the film fest. “You’re walking through an old Western town and then you sit down and watch a silent movie just like it’s 70 years ago. It’s really a magical thing.”

Lee’s description is quite pleasing to Randy Haberkamp, a CBS network executive and a director of Hollywood Heritage, which stages the shows with the cooperation of the National Park Service.

“We are bringing back kind of a lost art,” Haberkamp said. “When you get a good print [of a silent classic] and the proper projection speed, and you see it with an audience, you begin to understand why these films . . . had such a huge effect on the world.”

He added: “We’ve created a Hollywood Bowl-type atmosphere.” Guests are invited to bring dinner and dine at picnic tables in the open-air pavilion or on the adjoining lawn. “It’s a unique experience, with live music and the historic setting,” Haberkamp said.

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The live music is improvised by composer Michael D. Mortilla. Accompanist for Silents Under the Stars since 1988, he has become prominent in silent-movie circles and recently scored music in a laser-disc reissue of 12 Charlie Chaplin films under the title “Chaplin Mutuals” by Film Preservation Associates, Image Entertainment.

A member of the faculty in the Dramatic Art and Dance Department at UC Santa Barbara, Mortilla accompanied dance classes for several years before he took a job playing at a silent film screening.

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“It was amazingly like dance,” he said. “There are no verbal cues. . . . You need to be a sensitive musician with split-second timing and good hand-eye coordination.”

Playing outdoors at night also requires a steely determination to ignore insect bites, he said.

Mortilla uses a synthesizer that makes piano or organ music. It can also be programmed with sound effects--handy, for example, when he needed the crack of a whip for a silent version of “Zorro.”

The pre-talkie fest this year will salute the romantic actor Rudolph Valentino and comedian Buster Keaton, both born 100 years ago. It will also spotlight Corinne Griffith, a comedienne not as well remembered but just as successful in her day as the great screen lover.

Valentino’s 1925 United Artists production “The Eagle” will be shown Sunday, along with an “Our Gang” short. One of Valentino’s last films, “The Eagle” is set in 18th-Century Russia, with the legendary Casanova as a Robin Hood-style bandit disguised as a royal guardsman in the court of Catherine the Great, played by Louise Dresser. The film was made the year before Valentino’s death at age 31 of acute peritonitis.

Griffith enjoyed a happier fate, according to “The Film Encyclopedia” by Ephraim Katz. (HarperPerennial, 1994). A woman of breathtaking beauty, she was immensely popular, but critics contended that she did little acting. Although she retired soon after the advent of talkies, she became a successful writer. (The comedian Jackie Gleason starred in “Papa’s Delicate Condition,” a movie based on one of the books she wrote.)

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Her 1928 hit, “The Garden of Eden,” will be on the Aug. 20 program along with a Keaton short. Griffith’s rags-to-riches comedy, also starring Dresser, is about a young woman who starts out as a pretzel maker in Vienna.

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WHERE AND WHEN

What: Silents Under the Stars.

Location: Paramount Ranch, 3 1/4 miles south of the Ventura Freeway on Cornell Road. Take the Kanan Road exit off the freeway, then turn left onto Cornell.

Hours: 8 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Aug 20. Lighting is limited, so bring a flashlight.

Price: $6 ($5 for members of Hollywood Heritage and Friends of the Hollywood Studio Museum). Tickets available at the gate

Call: (818) 597-9192.

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