Several decades after the metamorphic transition from silent to sound, a 1981 article in the New York Times observed that “a live musician is rarely seen at a movie except as a member of the audience.”
That’s not untrue with regards to one Dennis Scott, who can often be found sitting in the first few rows of the main room at the historic Music Box Theatre. But unlike other audience members, he’s enjoying the movie after playing in between showtimes on the majestic theater organ affixed to the left of the screen, a sonic behemoth that for many is now an essential fixture of the experience.
The aforementioned Times article was about the dearth of live silent film accompaniment, a tradition lost to its heyday but which has since enjoyed periods of revival in limited exhibition venues. Scott has been the Music Box Theatre’s house organist since 1992; in 2011 he started a monthly silent cinema series that continues to this day.
“It was the music,” he says of his deep affection for the pastime. “I always just loved the music, and I loved the sound of a theater organ.”
Scott is one of several musicians in and around Chicago for whom live silent film accompaniment is a regular gig. Another in this cadre is Dave Drazin, who accompanies on the piano and has done so at the Gene Siskel Film Center for nearly 40 years, a job he landed quite fortuitously.
“They were showing something—I don’t know what—but I just walked in, and there was a piano on the side. I asked the house manager if it would be alright if I played the piano for the movie, and he said he would ask the director. He came back and said OK. So I just played, and then the director said, ‘We need a guy like you.’”
A longtime hot jazz aficionado who studied music in college, Drazin has often utilized his predilection for extemporization, improvising scores on the spot. Jay Warren, president and cofounder of the Silent Film Society of Chicago, takes another tack, the traditional photoplay organist instead referring to his accompaniment as a “compiled score.”
Warren relies on themes for different parts of the film, a tactic imparted by his “unofficial mentor” Gaylord Carter, a renowned organist, film accompanist, and composer who is credited with having helped revive public interest in silent cinema, leading to its initial renaissance.
“One thing we [learned] is not to overplay the film,” says Warren. “You want to be the background. You want to embrace the film; we don’t want to be the star of the show. You should forget about us.”
For Scott, who for many years worked in advertising and PR and thus knows how to captivate an audience, authenticity is key. He prides both himself and the theater on maintaining high standards of exhibition that honor the nuances of silent cinema.
“In this part of the country, [we do] the most authentic presentation of silent films, because we can do 35-millimeter. We can also do variable-speed 35-millimeter, which very, very few places can do. If a film is shot at 20 frames per second, we can show it at that speed.”
He’s especially proud of the organ itself, which he and his husband spent three and a half years restoring. Soundwise it’s digital, with all the effects viewers would have heard back in the 1920s; the console, however, is from 1929, like the Music Box itself.
Scott, Drazin, and Warren are the most prolific working accompanists in Chicago, whose names you expect to see connected with a silent film screening; however, they aren’t the only ones.
For example, Chicago-based musician Maxx McGathey has recently composed and performed original live scores for Robert Wiene’s 1924 film The Hands of Orlac and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1927).
A few weekends ago, internationally celebrated musicians Min Xiao-Fen and Rez Abbasi accompanied the 1934 Chinese silent feature The Goddess for an event copresented by the Silent Film Society of Chicago at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts.
Comfort Film, a program of Logan Square’s Comfort Station, offers a yearly Silent Film and Loud Music series. Past pairings include Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), with music from Kassi Cork, Vince McAley, and Anthony Forgrase; F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926), with music performed by Mexican rock band Los Black Dogs; and Oscar Micheaux’s 1920 film Within Our Gates, accompanied by Paul Giallorenzo and Ben LaMar Gay.
“[It’s] a way to expose our younger audience to these classic films.” says Comfort Film programmer Raul Benitez. The limitations are none; participants are given free rein both in selecting the film and devising their accompaniment. “Every screening is a surprise,” he says. “We even had a band edit a film.”
Keyboardist Kassi Cork doesn’t consider herself especially well versed in silent cinema, but she was nevertheless drawn to the prospect. “There is a history of music performance, primarily organ and piano, for silent film accompaniment that has always intrigued me as a pianist,” she says. “I grew up in a town that still had an organist play before movie showings, and there has always been something magical about that.”
Though new to it, Cork’s process in imagining an accompaniment is similar to that of seasoned practitioners. “While watching the film I create an outline of the overall plot, including mood and ideas it might give me.”
As far and wide as silent film accompaniment reaches in Chicago, spanning melodies from the silent era to music not yet even conceived during that time, there’s one thing these musicians have in common: the film is the thing, the guiding force behind what they do.
“People ask me if I look at the screen,” remarks Scott. “I say, I always look at the screen, that’s more or less my sheet music.”