Music to Watch Movies By
In film palaces across US, Dennis James strikes a chord with vintage entertainment. INTERVIEW: THEATER ORGANIST
COLUMBUS, OHIO — DENNIS JAMES finds silent films very moving - literally. As a theater organist, he creates melodies on the spot - in response to a villain's snarl or a heroine's sigh. Whether it is ``The Thief of Baghdad'' or the restored epic ``Napoleon,'' Mr. James's hands leap across the keys with daring dexterity, evoking tones from an organ as if it were a living, breathing character itself.
As resident organist at the Ohio Theatre here, James is part of a small fraternity of organists seeking to revive the art of theater organ playing as practiced during its heyday in the United States from about 1915 through the '20s.
For today's movies, sound tracks are pumped out of speakers mounted on theater walls. But for bygone silent films, whole orchestras, as well as organs, were the ``live link'' between the audience and screen stars, James says. Live musicians made film a ``performance medium.''
In recent years, this medium has been celebrated most conspicuously in the ongoing world tour of ``Napoleon,'' Abel Gance's 1927 classic, for which James is organist. In San Diego, the silent-film series performed by James and the San Diego Symphony is a hot ticket for the second summer.
``We're seeing a turning to the past, a search for things that were valid at one time and faded away,'' James says. ``Why did they fade away? Is it because of automation? Is there something real underneath that we've lost?''
Unlike their sister instruments of the classical mold, theater organs are virtual one-man orchestras bursting with sounds like bass and snare drum, cymbals, glockenspiels, castanets, and marimbas. Selected buttons trigger fire gongs, klaxon horns, door buzzers, or telephone bells - sounds that bring a film's action to life.
In the US, a revival of interest in this vintage entertainment has salvaged many of these ``artifacts'' from dusty theater basements. According to James, 185 organs are being used once again for public performance with paid admission. Some 800 are believed to be installed in private homes.
Today, theater organs don't have to accompany a silent film or theatrical event to be appreciated. In solo concerts, organists play nostalgic favorites, Broadway and Hollywood themes, symphonic music, and even Top 40 pop hits.
Something about hearing a theater organ in a movie palace strikes a chord in people, James says. ``There seems to be a huge segment of people seeking things that aren't fed to them,'' that is, seeking live, not ``reproduced,'' entertainment, he says.
At a recent organ concert by James in the Ohio Theatre, heads swayed to the fluid strains of ``Beautiful Ohio'' (1918), theme song of this opulent palace, a national landmark. Up from the orchestra pit rose the white- and gold-trimmed console of the Magnificent Morton Organ, its pedestal edged with footlights. Sitting with his back to the audience, James looked like he was riding the four-manual beast. His torso trotted up and down to the lively tune ``Give My Regards to Broadway,'' while his hands and legs bounced in opposite directions over keys and pedals.
``There isn't anything like this in modern-day culture,'' James says. Many of the old songs ``still cause an emotional response'' in people when shared in this live, ``communal'' setting.
Part of the joy of theater organs, says James, is appreciating the effort it takes to play one. ``What took me years of practicing, a computer chip can be programmed to do instantly,'' he says. But is that live performance? ``It's the process - that's the point.''
Same with silent film. ``It's the experience!'' When accompanying ``Robin Hood,'' for instance, ``I find myself to be a member of the audience, and I respond to the film - not with laughter or applause - but with music.
``If the audience is laughing a little too much, I can take control and do things musically to cause them to change their response.'' Sudden changes in tempo, volume, or harmony ``are secrets of the trade,'' that grab peoples' attention, James says.
As he listens to what the audience is doing, James still has to read the music, watch the screen, and play the organ. How does he do it?
``How do you drive a car, operate the gear shift, and the clutch at the same time?'' he asks. Eye movement is the key. ``I read the music and watch the movie peripherally, or I watch the movie and read the music peripherally.''
Theater organs are just one aspect of America's nostalgic past that James celebrates. His own home, nestled in the restored Victorian Village district of Columbus, is a virtual museum. Antique furniture and vintage artwork adorn the hallways and walls. A harpsichord, an old phonograph, and a theremin (a 1921 Russian electronic musical instrument) blend into the d'ecor.
James is also an enthusiast of the glass armonica, an 18th-century instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin. Glasses are cupped together on a spinning rod, and with wet fingers, James ``plays'' the rims, producing crystalline tones.
``We cannot reproduce the past, but we can celebrate the ongoing dialogue of modern times with the past,'' says James. He lives by that theme, he says.
Born in Philadelphia, James began playing organ at age 12. He learned the intricacies of theater organ style from Leonard (Melody Mac) MacClain, remembered nationally for his organ accompaniments to ``Inner Sanctum,'' the popular 1930s radio series.
At age 16, James made his professional debut when he stepped in for MacClain, taken seriously ill, to perform a major concert in Detroit. His triumphant playing immediately put him on the touring circuit.
This performance style is a striking contrast to popular music today, much of which ``is programmed ahead,'' says James. Electronic organs, for instance, are so sophisticated that one can play ``finished compositions with out ever touching a key.''
For James, the joy of musicmaking is the human process - ``the application of the mind to the musical problem. That's what audiences pick up on,'' he says with a smile.