Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Stuart Oderman tribute at MoMA - Jan 29

This week MoMA is presented a program in tribute to Stuart Oderman, who this year celebrates his 50th year as a silent film accompanist. On Thursday, Jan 29 at 6pm, Stuart accompanied Broken Blossoms, which was the first film he accompanied way back when. The show was in T1, and the place was pretty full. Larry Kardish introduced Stuart, who recounted the infamous "I was a numbers runner for the mob, cutting high school and going to silent movies at MoMA" story in more detail than I'd heard before. It was a nice chance for people to see what a good storyteller Stuart is.

I've played for BB a couple times recently (and will again in March) but this was probably one of the only times I'd been able to sit and watch and really appreciate the great artistry of the Griffith/Bitzer/Gish/Barthelmess team in this picture.

Click here to read an article from TimeOut New York from this week about the event and about Stuart. Writer Joshua Rothkopf also interviewed me for the piece, and there's a nice little quote from me – and a mention of The Silent Clowns Film Series (thanks, Josh!) – in the article.

Stuart appeared on the Leonard Lopate show on Weds, Jan 28. Embedded below is the segment from the program (it's about 18 mins).

I first met Stuart in the fall of 1981, when I started accompanying silents during my sophomore year at NYU film school. To learn about how to play for films, I made a point of meeting everyone in the city I could who was playing. I met Bill Perry, spoke by phone with Donald Sosin, met and befrended Lee Erwin, and I also went to a screening at the New School where Stuart was playing. I chatted with him briefly before the screening – one of the infamous Bill Everson ones – and I remember when I asked him how he prepared for a film he told me that he had 5 or 6 pieces that get him through just about any silent film. This was probably one of his standard lines – like the anecdotes about meeting Lillian Gish or his current line about my playing him in the movie of his life's story – as he's definitely got more than 5 or 6 themes in his repertoire and I imagine if I'd pursued him a little more at another time I would've gotten more info and advice.

Stuart and I didn't really connect until much later, since even though I began playing at MoMA in 1984, I only got called to play when he wasn't available (summer and Xmas, when he and his wife Janet would travel to Greece). At the time, MoMA didn't hire an accompanist for the repeat screenings; it would be Stuart or Donald for the first showing, and then for the repeat the film would really be silent. This practice changed for the "MoMA 2000" museum-wide exhibitions, and From Automatic Vaudeville to the Seventh Art: Cinema's Silent Years, 1893-1928 found Stuart or me at the piano for both screenings of a film, and ever since then there's been accomp at both screenings of a silent at MoMA.

Click here to read an article about Stuart Oderman and me for TimeOutNY in January 2000, written by Bruce Bennett (a fellow NYU alum). The occasion was the "MoMA 2000" museum-wide exhibitions, which found Stuart and me playing for silents in both theaters -- often simultaneously -- for 5-6 months. Up till that time we had been, as Stuart put it, traveling in parallel circles. We hung out and kibbitzed a lot in the booth between shows and became friends. Once, when I was playing for The Adventures of Prince Achmed, I returned to the booth afterward to find a note from Stuart that read:
"Dear Rimsky,

Nice minor sevenths!

-- Korsakov"
...and we've referred to each other as Mr. Rimsky and Mr. Korsakov (like Gallagher and Shean) ever since.


Lon Chaney in "The Unknown"

Played a matinee of L'Inconnu – or The Unknown – at MoMA today. The print came from GEH and has French titles which looked like they were made in the '40s(?), white helvetica-ish against black. There is a print with the original release titles around (available from Turner/WB); I played to it at the Cinema Arts Center in October '07, and have played to it at MoMA a couple times over the years as well. My announcing to the audience that the print was in French gave me an opportunity to share with the audience the anecdote of how the 35mm print turned up some years ago in a French archive in a room full of unidentified films – the film had wound up in there because someone had read "inconnu" (or "unknown") on the cans and put them there.

Film played really well to the pretty full house we had, which was a mix of elderly regulars and museum guests. Used the Miditzer, since we were in Bartos (where there is no piano), and tried a lot of Lee Erwin-ish things...single ranks, obligato lines single notes, helds chords...real underplayed stuff to help support the great performance by Chaney and to undercut unintentional laughs over the Todd Browning stuff that today plays a little campy or stuff from an early Jon Waters film. Got a few nice comments afterward about the Miditzer and how great and it sounded. Now that we turn on the PA's subwoofers in there the 16' ranks sound fantastic.

Next up tomorrow at 1:30 is the Cecil B. DeMille Russian revolution schmaltz-fest The Volga Boatman. I will have to play the "Song of the Volga Boatman", even though it's one of those Warner Bros. cartoon-sounding references, because if I don't some nut will ask why I didn't. Lee Erwin used to say he'd play the infamous Bach Toccata and Fugue before a show of "Phantom", as the lights were going down, to get it out of the way. The audience expects it but using it will just come off corny. The scenes in Boatman where the boatmen are pulling a boat up the river and singing don't fit the "Song of the Volga Boatman", which a slow and heavy piece, and what the men seem to be singing is more of an energetic work song. The lyrics, shown onscreen at one point, (see scren grab at left) aren't from the song anyway.


Thursday, January 22, 2009

Silent but Deadly at MoMA - photo

Here's a photo of me at the Steinway in Titus I accompanying one of the slapstick silents during "Silent But Deadly", from the event's page on

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Don Q, Son of Zorro; changes at AMMI

Last night's showing of Don Q, Son of Zorro went quite well. We had a nice crowd, and a few kids too. Audience members enjoyed spotting Donald Crisp, the original/first Charlie Chan, Warner Oland, and Jean Hersholt (seen a couple months ago at the CAC in Greed). Miditzer sounded great, as always. Next up in Feb is a program of Chaplin Mutuals, from my collection (same program as I presented with Bruce at the Burns Film Center in December).

Got a call from the head of education programs at AMMI last week. Due to budget cuts or restraints they are temporarily suspending having live accompaniment at their Immigrant screenings for school groups. I will miss these gigs, usually 4-6 a month, but can at least be assured the film will be shown with a good they are currently running the film on DVD, and I'd instructed them to get the new BFI edition with the Carl Davis scores. Hopefully, things will improve and tightened belts will be reloosened soon and this practice will resume.

Next shows are next week at MoMA, three films for the Madalena series: The Unknown, The Volga Boatman, and The Mysterious Lady. Also, Monday is my Ernie Kovacs talk/show at the Toms River NJ library.

See you at the silents!


Silent cartoons @ Burns in the NY Times

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Blue Bird at Lincoln Center (w/audio)

It was fun getting to play for as a charming a picture as The Blue Bird is. Today's matinee was part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's "Dance on Camera" festival. The show was introduced by film critic and historian Elliott Stein. Elliott's a long-time supporter of the Silent Clowns series, and I hadn't seen him in a while so it was a nice chance to chat a little with him.

Seen at left is the green room area at the Walter Reade. My pre-show routine generally involves pacing around the lobby or the back of the theater, so I am usually in here to hang up my coat and, in today's case, grab a bite.

There were maybe 80-100 people at the show, and it was nice to see a number of people brought kids to the show. The Walter Reade has a nice Steinway concert grand; it's always positioned stage the sound goes toward the screen, but the acoustics in there are great so it doesn't really matter. I've heard Donald Sosin play there a number of times and the fact that the piano is positioned this way doesn't affect the sound.

Here's a couple minutes of the performance, starting around 24 minutes into the film:

The first thing to check, of course, was the running speed. I called up to the booth fromt he theater on the in-house phone:
ME: "What speed are you running the film at?"
PROJ: "18 fps"
ME: " this a print from Eastman House?"
PROJ: (checking...) "Yeah."
ME: "Ah, that explains it."

Generally a silent film from GEH is marked at 18fps. Which is a great speed for The Great Train Robbery and other delights. We ran some of the first reel and slowly brought the speed up a little until it looked right. The projectionists at the WR, like at MoMA, are amenable not only to running a silent faster than it's been set to by an archive but also to the speed requests of the accompanist. Which is really great. When a silent is run too slow, for the accompanist it can feel like you're pushing the piano up a hill...

Here are a couple screen grabs from the DVD of the final moments of the film, where the kids implore the audience to look for the bluebird of happiness.

Tomorrow's my last day of Doug, with the repeat showings of The Iron Mask and Down to Earth at MoMA. The following I'll be playing for Don Q, Son of Zorro at the CAC, so I'll still get a little Fairbanks fix before the month's out. Click on the image of Doug below to go to their website.

Thursday Bruce and I are doing a program of silent cartoons at the Jacob Burns Film Center. 16mm prints from our collections of Koko and Felix, and 16mm rental prints of Winsor McKay shorts from MoMA Circ.

See you at the silents!


Saturday, January 10, 2009

Thief of Bagdad, Robin Hood and a pair of comedies

Today was a "marathon" -- three shows in one day. Unlike running a marathon, though, I felt a little exhilarated instead of wiped out. Playing organ for two of the three shows was a factor, and so was playing for four Douglas Fairbanks pictures.

The day started at 12:30 with Robin Hood, which went over really well. It's the one Fairbanks costume picture where you don't see him make the transformation from who he is in the first reel to the hero he becomes in the rest of the film. Creating dramatic underscoring made me aware of this, I think, because all of his films have that "spinach" moment. The film has one my favorite silent Wallace Beery roles, too.

Had a minor technical snafu with the Miditzer, but it was one that had nothing to do with the program itself or the audio set-up. When I sat down at the organ and touched the laptop, I heard a little *snap* of static electricity (the MacBook Pro has a metal/chrome case) and as the house lights went down I noticed the Miditzer app had locked up. Our ace projectionist noticed something was wrong and brought the lights back up. I carried the piano bench over to the Steinway, figuring I'd just do the show on piano -- ad libbing a few jokes and apologizing for the techinical problems -- and the projectionist appeared in the theater to help me out, and encouraged me to just reboot since we weren't going to back up the next show.

I rebooted the laptop and "filled", giving a two-minute talk on the theatre organ and its use in silent film scoring. When the laptop was booted up I launched the Miditzer program, hit a few notes and all was fine, and the projectionist headed back to the booth. I thanked the audience for their patience and went to the Steinway to get the bench back, and after setting it in place at the Miditzer I looked at the piano and said "Till I need you again...!" (this is a reference to the end of The Mark of Zorro, which I explained to the audience), and we started the show. Whenever there's a technical problem or a film break I always try to keep the show going. Lee (Erwin) always continued to play when something like this would happen during a show, and I do this as well. Keeps the momentum going and keeps people entertained instead of grumbling about the breakdown.

We tried something a little different with The Thief of Bagdad at the 3:15 show. After the show of Thief that I'd played the other day I was talking with the projectionist about how draggy the film can be, and we were talking about how (for some reason) the film had been marked to run at 20 fps. In chatting over how long that would have made the picture feel and how much better it looked at 24 fps (which is how we ran it), he half-jokingly said maybe we should run it at 25 fps. That thought stayed with me for the last couple of days, and today we tried it. We wound up running the first reel and the last reel at 24 and the rest of the film at 25 fps, and it worked great. I've never felt the film flow as well as it did today, and – and this is my litmus test on this sort of this – there was much more audience reaction and applause during the film than I've ever heard before. One of the many things I appreciate in the team of projectionists at MoMA is that they've all got a really good sense of running speeds for silents.

Despite the lousy weather we had good crowds for these shows and even for the 8:00 show of The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (a new 35mm restoration from MoMA) and American Aristocracy (Blackhawk 16mm). Anita Loos is long overdue for a retrospective, if you ask me.

* * * * *

Tomorow it's Tourneur's The Blue Bird at the Walter Reade Theater which, after 5 days of Fairbanks, will be a nice chance of pace.

See you at the silents!


Friday, January 09, 2009

The Blue Bird at Lincoln Center

The Film Society of Lincoln Center's "Dance on Camera" fest includes Maurice Tourneur's The Blue Bird, with yours truly at the 88's. The show is listed in today's "Spare Times: For Children" section in the New York Times.

Click on the image below of the Walter Reade Theater's site page for The Blue Bird to buy tickets.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

In Again – Out Again

Here's the first four mins of my performance at tonight's show at MoMA of Douglas Fairbanks in "In Again – Out Again":

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

press for PopRally "Silent But Deadly"

Here are some online articles in the NY Times, Daily News, Village Voice, and that posted today (1/5/09) plugging tonight's PopRally "Silent But Deadly" event.