Blues shouters, soul survivors, and fictional folkies were in the spotlight when the American Film Institute (AFI) opened its new Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, Md., over the las

Blues shouters, soul survivors, and fictional folkies were in the spotlight when the American Film Institute (AFI) opened its new Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, Md., over the last week.

On Friday, the first night the 400-seat, restored Art Moderne-era Silver Theatre and its adjoining two-screen center were open to the public, documentary director and Silver Spring native Robert Mugge's "Last of the Mississippi Jukes" had its big-screen debut in the center's 200-seat theater. That film delves inside the Jackson, Miss., Subway Lounge to capture a true house of blues, and efforts to preserve its hotel home from the wrecking ball -- a fate that nearly befell the Silver before AFI and city leaders banded together to save it. AFI is airing "Jukes" and two other Mugge blues documentaries -- "Hellhounds on My Trail," about Robert Johnson, and "Deep Blues" -- in rotation throughout the week.

Two days earlier, 200 invited guests got to see director Christopher Guest's latest lampoon/homage, "A Mighty Wind," in which such fictional folk-era acts as the Folksmen reunite for a tribute concert to their late manager. On April 5 and 6, guests saw "Only the Strong Survive," a documentary chronicle of Stax and Motown singers such as Sam Moore and Isaac Hayes, who have managed to sustain careers from their '50s-to-'70s heydays till today. Those films will be released nationally on Wednesday (April 16) and May 9, respectively. Mugge's "Jukes" documentary DVD and a separate soundtrack CD were released in March on the Sanctuary label.

Some of the onscreen faces also appeared in person. Saturday and Sunday, "Jukes" performers Vasti Jackson and Patrice Monsell enthralled audiences, the latter with a blues growl she discovered after years of operatic training. During a rendition of his song, "Members Only," Jackson ad-libbed an encouragement for people to become AFI members. It may become the theater center's first in-house promo.

On Wednesday, Guest, co-writer Eugene Levy, and cohort Michael McKean, all of whom also star in the script-free, all-improv "Wind" (along with Guest's retinue of regulars, including fellow Spinal Tapper Harry Shearer) discussed the project during a pre-show Q&A session. Remarking on the quality of the new facility, McKean said, "I grew up in long Island; we invented the 'Plex' there. We had a few that were this big, but eventually they got subdivided. This is just awesome."

AFI film programmer Mike Jeck said the apparently well-planned slate of music-based films was "happenstance" -- but a happy one. Keck said he couldn't stop himself from dancing by the end of "Survive," even though he realized Sam Moore was watching from just a few feet away.

For more information on the AFI and its new facility, visit the organization's Web site at afi.com.

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