There are still great minds in the Land of the King who are more than willing to tell us the finer points of playing the Mighty Theatre Pipe Organ. I shall share with you below the wisdom I have greaned from them.
Bob Loesch on Silent Movie Accompaniment
Paul Kealy, fellow Walnut Hill Wall of Fame inductee asked these questions:
What did they DO on the organ when stuff happened on screens back then?
What about choo-choo trains or airplanes or pies in faces or people kissing or cat's meows or cows mooing or cuckoos cuckooing or laughter or ... well, you get my drift. I can understand traps for thunder or boat whistles or sirens and stuff, but what about general sounds?
What did the organist actually PLAY to give some kind of sonic interpretation to the scenes?
I have seen folks use two methods. First, and preferred in my opinion, is to select a theme for each major character, and use it whenever that character is the focus of a scene. Obviously, the themes can be played in many styles to fit the scene: bright for a happy scene, maudlin for a sad scene, minor for danger, etc. The second, better used for comedies and other lighter fare is to play music appropriate to the scene. Sound effects lose their
effectiveness if overdone. If the scene depicts a thunderstorm, DO NOT overwork the thunder pedal! Likewise, a bird call can be quite effective in a funny scene, or useful if a character is 'bonked on the bean', but don't use it constantly. Less IS more!
I have seen films scored by Gaylord Carter, Ann Leaf, George Wright, Lee Erwin, and many younger players, most notably Chris Eliot and John Fenstermaker. Of these, most used the first method. Most of them did quite an effective job. Gaylord Carter told his audiences that his job was to make the movie stand out so that you (the audience) would FORGET that someone was playing, and just watch the movie. One of the more interesting jobs I saw was a film accompanied by Ann Leaf (San Francisco Paramount, 1964), who's copy of her intended film didn't arrive, and who played a film she borrowed from a local film collector, and probably hadn't seen in 40 or so years, COLD. It arrived at the theatre in time to be loaded and run, and she did a masterful job, using the second method. George Wright was
not so effective. He was a fine soloist, and a masterful radio organist, but his accompaniment of a Ben Turpin comedy was less than inspiring.
This was done, by the way, back in 1958 or '59 at the San Francisco Fox Theatre, and I noted that he never did that again, at least not in the Bay area. Lee Erwin was perhaps the most interesting as he COMPOSED all of the music he played. No royalties that way, was his reason. The others mentioned always did their homework, and provided music well suited to the subject. John Fenstermaker's use of French music for the "Phantom of the Opera" was a wonderful musical education in itself!
A friend downloaded a free book called THEATRE ORGANIST'S SECRETS: A Collection of Successful Imitations, Tricks and Effects for Motion Picture Accompaniment on the Pipe Organ, compiled and published by C. Roy Carter. It is a great reference for the budding cinema organist as well as the seasoned pro. He has several books of this type, and there a great ideas in all of them.
More questions were asked by Paul.
Do most silent movie organists simply play tunes?
(1) Is there a way to use the organ for non-musical ambience or sound effects without awkward or klutzy disservice to the instrument?
(2) Is there a protocol for using classic themes to establish a sort of leitmotiv for cinema accompaniment?
(3) What sort of techniques are there to provide musical support and yet liberate the organ from the stereotypical soap opera sound?
I will answere these below:
(1) Playing WELL is the best service you can give to the organ. Playing POORLY leads to the "awkward" or the "klutzy". Less is more. A single well-timed effect can be the most effective of all.
(2) I wouldn't call it a protocol, but the use of themes, as discussed above, is a great way to go.
(3) Don't play in the "soap opera" style! If you listened to any of the old radio soaps, the organists did have a definite style. Since you probably won't be playing a Hammond, I wouldn't worry if I were you... ;-)