Some Words About Silents

Visitors to the Redford Theatre on the evening of April 21, 2012 looked forward to a special night of silent film enjoyment starring the famous Mary Pickford in the 1920 movie Suds. Much of that enjoyment would come from the musical accompaniment by Dave Calendine on the Barton Theatre Pipe Organ that was in the Redford when it opened in 1928.

The first half of the evening was spent with a collection of songs that Dave used to show off the different features of the Barton. He also took some time to talk about his background and how he decides what music to use to accompany a silent film.

“I’ve had the unique privilege of being able to play this organ for going on 20 years, but I’ve also had the unique privilege to also play the wonderful Wurlitzer organ at the Fox Theatre in downtown Detroit where I work and also at the Senate Theater in Detroit on Michigan Avenue for the Detroit Theater Organ Society. But I’ve also had the unique opportunity where for two years I actually got to play the organ for the Detroit Red Wings [clapping]. After doing this, my parents said ‘You’re never going to continue to do anything with this—why don’t you try to find a real vocation?’ [laughter] I think I’ve done pretty good so far. I’m pretty happy with that.

Barton Organ, Redford Theatre

Barton Organ, Redford Theatre

“I’m actually self-taught. I grew up with a player piano, like in a nickelodeon, so when I sat down at the age of 15 years old back in Akron, Ohio, I just fell in love with it, and I’ve been doing it ever since, and I’m happy to say that, from May first through the 12th I’m going to be out west on a country tour. I will be playing the theater organ, but I’ll also be playing the instrument that was before this instrument, and that was called a photoplayer.

“The word ‘movies’ really wasn’t a popular term. They called them moving pictures or photoplays, as the movies were called back then, because they were a play on moving photos. [The photoplayer is] just basically a piano, but you pull cords for the sound effects. You drag them out with different knobs, pulling them for different sound effects, buttons with your feet. There’s two boxes on either side of the piano that have the instrumentation with the pipes, the xylophones, whatever, where I could take one of those out on the road as well.

“Doing silent movies is a lot of work, because while you’re watching it, I’m up here nonstop playing because the word ‘silent movie’ is really not correct, because the movies were never meant to be silent, they were always meant to have something. The larger theaters, they actually had a whole orchestra playing. We’re lucky in the fact that the Fox Theatre still has a music library there that has the original orchestra music for when they had the house orchestra for the movies.

“The music is rather odd. Chase scenes…’Happy Go Lucky,’ ‘Gloomy,’ ‘Miscellaneous,’ A, B, C, D, E, F, G, AA, BB. For all the music for the various movies, the conductor would be watching the movie, and then he would just say ‘A,’ and then they would just play, and voilà, you would have that. It’s a lot easier with the organ because I don’t have to worry about any conductor telling me what to do, I can just go through.

“Originally when the movies were shipped out to the theater, they would have a cue sheet with them, so that the organists, the musicians would know roughly what was going on. Most of the cue sheets are gone. I’ve made my own. This particular movie is about 17 pages worth of cue sheets. If you’re counting, you can watch me flipping pages, you can see just how much further the movie is in. But that gives me an idea of what exactly is going on with the movie. With the sound effects that you just heard, and various other instruments, that is what would always be providing all the instrumentation with the silent movies.

“These wonderful theater organs, there’s just not many of them. We still have two of them left in their original homes here in Detroit, this one here and the Fox Theatre, and we are quite lucky to have them, so it enables us to do a 1920’s movie in a 1928 theater. This movie probably hasn’t seen the light of day around the country for quite a while, so it’s a very special movie which we’ll get into in the second half.”

Barton Organ, Redford Theatre

Barton Organ, Redford Theatre

Dave then took a break, and audience members roamed the Redford, buying snacks, raffle tickets, or t-shirts. They got their first look at the May-August 2012 schedule, which includes movies chosen in an audience survey in late 2011, like Casablanca, Wizard of Oz, Grease, and American Graffiti.

Starring Mary Pickford

After intermission, Dave talked about that evening’s film, which opened in Detroit on September 6, 1920.

Detroit Free Press, September 5, 1920

Detroit Free Press, September 5, 1920

“Mary Pickford was married to Douglas Fairbanks. Her, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith, and Charlie Chaplin formed a little company back then called the United Artists pictures. Those were the four that started that company. Now, the UA that is out there today is nothing near what it was. The United Artists actually folded as a company several years ago. The current UA is part of MGM pictures.

“But United Artists had some major star power. As a matter of fact, whenever Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks would go out traveling, it was almost like royalty today, and people would just gather around them. When they went overseas, they could barely walk anywhere because the crowds were just so jam-packed wherever that couple was, because they were just quite something. And Mary Pickford was very pleasant on the eyes, as well. She was a very nice-looking lady so she had that screen appeal.

“But back in 1920 moving pictures were still quite fascinating for people to see. Usually when people would go to a little storefront shop, there was what was called back then a nickelodeon. There would just be rows and rows of little boxes with viewfinders on the top of them, and that was a lot of the entertainment. They would drop in a penny or a nickel into a box with a device that would just rotate around, and that was a big thing.

“But then all of a sudden with the introduction of the movie projector, as we know today; essentially the movie projectors today really haven’t changed that much as far as a film projector from when it was first invented. But these people on the screen moving around, that was quite something back then. And especially this one, 1920 was still a fairly early time for a lot of these movies, for a feature length movie like this one. It is quite fascinating going back in time and looking at the different newspaper clippings from back then and just seeing the shock of some people.

“Believe it or not, some movie theaters actually had full-time nurses in the house, so that if people were overwhelmed, as they said back then [laughter] by the sensation of the people on the screen, it would get to them. The Fox Theatre had an infirmary [laughter] for those people. Case in point, for the ladies, whenever Douglas Fairbanks would come on stage and he didn’t have his shirt on [laughter]…it was quite the shocker…back then it was like ‘Oh my!’

“But seeing something like this back on the screen is special. This particular movie stars Mary Pickford, Albert Austin, and Harold Goodwin, and I can’t also forget the horse. It gets its due credit, Lavender the horse, and every time that it comes in the credits, it’s an ex-polo pony, so don’t forget that.

“So I’m going to sink back down into the pit, and you’re going to go back to 1920 with the beautiful Mary Pickford in the 1920 hit Suds. I want to thank you so much for coming out and taking your Saturday evening here in this beautiful, restored Redford Theatre. I can’t thank you enough for coming out. I actually love this place and to be able to be here and to have the privilege and pleasure to do stuff like this, it’s really exciting for me.

“I’ll be up here by the organ console after the movie if you want to talk or say ‘Hi’ or see what in the world all these crazy doodads and thingamajiggies and whatnot up here that I’m hitting with everything here to make this sound like it is. Come up and I’ll be here until the end.

“So again thank you so much. Now sit back and relax in the splendor of this vivid electric pleasure dome, as they were known back then, and enjoy, as the Motor City Theatre Organ Society proudly presents Mary Pickford in the 1920 hit, Suds!” [applause]

Dave Calendine talks with Redford visitors, April 21, 2012

Dave Calendine talks with Redford visitors, April 21, 2012

Detroit Movie Palaces Home Page

Copyright © 2012 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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