Silent movie organ player center stage

Sixty years ago, organist Dennis James would have been a sideshow performer. Silent film reigned in those days. And though organs, pianos, and sometimes full orchestras gave them their sound, audiences swooned to the images of Greta Garbo and Rudolf Valentino, rather than to the musicians who accompanied them.

Today, however, it is the silent movie that has taken the back seat and accompanist James who has gained the spotlight. By his count, he is one of only four full-time organ accompanists of silent film.

So far, this young musician has given concerts all over the United States, traveled overseas to several classical music festivals, and recorded seven classical records.

Of his 40 annual performances, half of them are silent-movie accompaniments. Currently, he is touring the country with the rediscovered silent film "Napoleon ," which grabbed national headlines earlier this year because of its popular success in New York.

"I think I'm reviving an art form," Mr. James says. "I'm translating into musical terms what my feelings are toward the movie."

Although he laboriously writes out a musical score -- a process he likens to "sitting down and writing an opera" -- a lot of his accompaniment is improvisation.

"It preserves that sense of immediacy," he says. "The ideal is when the music supports the drama. If you're not sure whether the hero is thinking about the villain or the girl, I can imply it [with the music]."

Since 1975, James has been musically portraying heroes and villains, comedians and cowboys, on his tours and as a full-time resident organist at the Ohio Theater in Columbus, Ohio. But his beginnings as movie accompanist are rooted in Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., where he went to college.

For the past 10 years he has entertained Bloomington audiences with his annual Halloween show.

The featured movie of last year's show, for example, was "The Monster," starring Lon Chaney Sr. It is not a great silent film -- the effects are primitive and the action tame by today's standards. But that night it captivated its audience. The crowd shivered and cheered on cue, partly because of what it saw, but mostly because of James's music.

To be sure, he hams up the performances. That year, he entered the darkened auditorium dressed in a black cape and gestured menacingly as he made his way toward an organ outfitted with candles. The year before, he had himself carried on stage inside a casket.

"I'm probably one of the most natural performers," he says. "The bigger the crowd, the better."

Dennis James has performed in Radio City Music Hall; on the largest organ in the world, in Philadelphia; and overseas for the Manchester, England, International Organ Festival.

Even the Hollywood circuit has opened up for him. He has worked with such luminaries as Bob Hope, Vincent Price, Ginger Rogers, Olivia De Havilland, and Charles (Buddy) Rogers. Most recently, he made a series of appearances with Lillian Gish, accompanying several of her silent-film classics on the organ.

The story of James's climb from Cherry Hill, N.J., to successful performer begins, however, in B-movie fashion.

He was a teen-ager at the time, a halfhearted musician who was bored by organs. A Sunday afternoon concert changed his mind. Instead of falling asleep , he was awed by the performance of virtuoso Virgil Fox, especially the last piece, which Fox played using only the foot pedals.

"It was incredible," he recalls. "I went out after that recital and I bought the sheet music." Within a week, he was playing the "pedals only" piece himself. "I would come home after school and sack out on the couch with a can of potato chips and listen to Virgil's recordings of Bach. I wore those records out. My whole mind was taken over by this."

By age 16, he had begun his professional career -- substituting for his ailing teacher at a concert in Detroit.

The successful concert not only prompted him to begin touring professionally, it introduced him to a theather pipe organ -- the significance of which was lost on him at the time.

Although he played popular music for fun, his training was strictly classical. "My teachers always said I knew the pop stuff well enough. 'what you need,' they said, 'is classical.'" And classical it was.

It was only a few years later, as a freshman at Indiana University, that he started putting together film and music. He fell into the job by accident while watching a series of silent movies that were being shown for a film course.

"I looked at them and I could tell right away they needed music," he recalls. "I went up to the professor, right up to him, and asked: 'Can I play the piano for you?' Of course, I had never [improvised for a movie] before." But young James got the go-ahead for next week's film. "The Great Train Robbery."

Since no one gave him a chance to preview it, he came that next week unprepared. "I sat down and I didn't know what I was going to play," he remembers.

He started playing ragtime. "It worked for a few moments, but then I realized it didn't fit. [The villains were pictured.] So I played the classic villain theme and people laughed.

"I didn't want them to laugh, so I started improvising."

He started accompanying more short films until he attended a Philadelpia performance where an organist accompanied a feature-length movie.

Deciding to try it on campus, he found he needed a score and a lot more preparation for the long film. With the help of a professional organist, a score was readied by Halloween and he set out to accompany the silent classic, "Phantom of the Opera."

"We had printed 400 tickets and just sold 40 tickets by the night of the show ," he recalls.

But the day of the performance, the college newspaper ran a front page story on his concert. By show time, 4,000 people were lining up to see it -- so many that the ticket-sellers had to collect the tickets and sell them again.

"We sold those 400 tickets over and over again. That was my first performance where I came out on stage and got a standing ovation. It was a big, rousing success."

Since then, his career has blossomed. "There is very little outside support for what you do. There are no agents for this sort of thing, no established circuit. It's all self-created," he says. "I'm self-made and very proud of it."

Mr. James insists on being his own arranger, film scorer, and agent. He even runs his own record company -- personally editing, making the master tape, and writing the jacket notes for his seven records. For the first six records, he even photographed the record covers.

"A lot of things are called problems in this profession -- playing a different organ every single place you play," he says. "You can look at that as a problem, and for many it is insurmountable. But in another sense, you can regard that as a challenge. You do choose your pursuits, iths the only way to be."

With all his recipes for success, however, James has also found that show biz doesn't always glitter.

After years of wishing to perform in Radio City Music Hall, he finally got the chance in 1977. But his performance was scheduled to begin at 2 a.m. and he was only allowed two hours to practice beforehand.

"It was maddening," he recalls. "They didn't even let me change the pistons, " which determine the organ's sound combinations, and were aready set for the organist following him.

To top it off, no one gave him a place to change his clothes. "I had to change in a Rockette's dressing room," he recalls.

It was another in a long series of Dennis James's improvisations.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.