Player pianos with silent films

Everything related to researching, scoring and performing music with silent film.
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Player pianos with silent films

Unread post by Rodney » Thu May 23, 2013 9:56 am

I played a "four funny films" event at a Boulder library last night, and a woman introduced me to her 95-year-old father. Hank grew up in a small town outside of Boise Idaho. When he was young, he had the job of threading up piano rolls on the player piano in the town's movie theater, and running the piano to accompany films. He was a bit slow of speech and claimed to have foggy recollections, but based on the questions I asked, it was not a dual-roll Fotoplayer; just a regular foot-pump player piano. After each roll, he had to rewind it and put on another. In exchange, he could watch the movies for free. (Just like Cinecon!)

With no offense meant to Hank, I can't imagine that the player rolls were synced to the scenes in the film, especially given the background of the piano operator. It reinforces my impression that the quality and thoughtfulness of the musical program was not very high when there was only one theater in town.
Rodney Sauer
The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
"Let the Music do the Talking!"

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Re: Player pianos with silent films

Unread post by Brooksie » Thu May 23, 2013 11:48 am

It would have to be the least practical way to accompany a film ... a couple of minutes of music, followed by a minute of noisy rollrollrollroll CLATTER CLATTER CLATTER as the roll is rewound and unhooks itself from the spindle.

We had a player piano when I was a child, and the rewinding made such a racket that I enjoyed it almost as much as I enjoyed the music.

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Re: Player pianos with silent films

Unread post by gentlemanfarmer » Sat May 25, 2013 11:23 pm

Well, it may have been a very unsatisfying way of accompanying the film, but from the theater manager's point of view, what could be better - buy some rolls, let a kid run it, and away you go...I agree the clatter would have been distracting to say the least.

Rodney, I was given a scrap book from an 85 year old women that had been made of her sister-in-law's music career, at the beginning and toward the end she played for silent films. In later interviews from newspapers and news letters that were clipped in the 1970's & 80's she reported that she and the violinist never used cue-sheets or photoplay music, they simply used popular music since she played by ear and learned from the radio and phonograph records, also sing-along standbys and hymns. After sound came in she went on to actually learn to play from score and studied music at the collegiate level. I can't imagine playing for 2 hour melodramas and action adventure pictures using only popular tunes of the teens and twenties. Comedy's and some domestic dramas sure - that could work.

Outside of well managed theaters, even if the playing was done well, I think we'd find much of the music problematic at the least, or at least not very fitting.

One thing that strikes me about cue-sheets, and even some existing scores that I have from the 1915/16 Bluebird series - musical selections that they considered well suited to certain dramatic situations and moods - seem very much against type or cliched or not quite the thing - although time constraints and lack of having viewed the film may be part of that, but I think our understanding of music and drama have changed. I suspect we are "heavier" today than they were on their tastes (in some cases) and in some cases nuance has been lost on us.
Eric W. Cook
Director, Ivy Leaf Orchestra
Silent Film, Salon and Ragtime Orchestra
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