An old pro tells what it was like to play for the silents
It was 1923. America was singing “Yes! We Have No Bananas,” “Barney Google,” “That Old Gang of Mine,” “Who’s Sorry Now?” On Broadway, Little Miss Bluebeard, The Nervous Wreck, Cyrano de Bergerac , and George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan were packing them in.
And on the silver screen the hit movies—silent, of course —included The Covered Wagon with Ernest Torrence; The Green Goddess with George Arliss; The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Lon Chancy; and Safety Last with Harold Lloyd.
That was the year I started my career as a silent-movie pianist at the Eagle Theater, a small, sour-smelling establishment at Sixteenth Avenue and Forty-second Street in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, New York. I was a senior at Manual Training High School, but on Saturday and Sunday afternoons and school holidays I did three-hour stints at the keyboard. I was relieved by the full-time pro, a thin, dour, erratic pianist in his thirties. He hated playing the piano, he hated the movies, and he hated the audiences, especially the kirls I loved all of them. And I loved accompanying such greats as Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, William S. Hart, Richard Barthelmess, John Gilbert. …
The Eagle Theater was a compact, boxlike affair seating a few hundred patrons. Up front, right under the apron of the small stage, not more than fifteen feet from the screen, 1 sat at the upright piano. Its guts and strings and hammers were exposed. When played, it emitted the characteristically tinny, tinkly, nickelodeon sound.
When I wasn’t playing, the house filled with the ghostly whir of the projector. Running like a leitmotif through every performance was the incessant cracking of Indian nuts (the popcorn of its day) between the teeth of myriad Indian-nut addicts during the picture—and underfoot as the audiences left the theater.
There was nothing passive about the silent movie audiences—especially the children. To heighten the dramatic effect of tender love scenes or to provide live sound for Western or battle scenes, the older ones would fire off their then popular Kilgore repeating cap pistols. The younger ones, identifying with the hero as he was being stalked, would blurt hysterical warnings: “Look out! He’s behind the door!” There were always children reading aloud to their immigrant parents or grandparents the florid, polysyllabic subtitles. And when necessary (which was pretty often), they supplied simultaneous translations into Italian, Yiddish, or German.
At critical points the film almost invariably split. This set off an orgy of applause, howling, whistling, banging, and floor kicking. The audiences seemed to enjoy these breaks more than the picture. Periodically a man (usually the owner of the theater) would walk up and down the aisles with a Flit gun, spraying a sickeningly sweet deodorant over the audience; the ventilation in the Eagle Theater and most other similar emporiums left much to be desired. At about five o’clock in the afternoon, parents began wandering through the theater, anxiously calling in the darkness for Sam, Charlie, Harry, who had seen two performances and were on their third show.
During a typical afternoon I supplied the music for a cartoon, a serial (the traditional cliff-hanger), a comedy, a newsreel, and a feature film. Like most of the neighborhood movie pianists, I never previewed any of the pictures I played for. Some motion-picture producers provided cue sheets for each picture. These contained the music to be played for each scene. But I rarely got to see them. They were usually lost in transit or mislaid by the management. So I was thrown on my own musical resources. I became perforce an instant composer. As each scene flashed on the screen, I had to decide on the spot what music to play for what was probably about to happen and for what actually did happen (which frequently wasn’t exactly what I had anticipated would happen). Fortunately the subtitles and the acting telegraphed enough clues to me so that I could hazard a reasonable guess about the kind of music that would back up the mood and the action on the screen.
I had a number of things going for me in this game of match-the-music-to-thepicture. First, 1 enjoyed playina for thpsp nirtnres- they grabbed me as they grabbed the audiences. Second, my piano teacher, an old martinet, had given me an excellent grounding in the traditional classics and piano techniques. My musical memory was pretty good; I had a fairly broad and varied popular and classical repertoire; and I played easily, naturally, and quite accurately by ear. 1 could, in addition, improvise and compose, on the instant, the music I thought would fit the shifting moods and scenes. So 1 improvised and composed my way through fires; terrestrial upheavals of all kinds —volcanic eruptions, rain- and snowstorms, typhoons, hurricanes; confrontations between the forces of good and evil; love scenes; pursuits; rescues; et cetera.
Then came The Jazz Singer . Starring the great Al Jolson, it appeared on October 6, 1927, and marked the real beginning of the talkies. By 1929 practically every movie, large and small, had been wired for sound. In today’s parlance, I joined the ranks of the “technologically unemployed.” I became a part of America’s past.
Writing in Harper’s Bazaar in 1946, Kurt Weill said, “The silent movie needed music as a dry cereal needs cream.…” I supplied that cream for six delicious years.