Back to the Twenties with Silent Movies

A few days ago I jumped again into the twenties of the last century. We have been to see some silent movies. Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel, Rodolfo Valentino, Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet, Theda Bara… just to remember some of the most famous actors of those times.

The event was held in the Trinity Presbyterian Church of San Diego. A little church and very particular. Perfect for small events. Here the Theater Organ Society of San Diego has one of the rare theater organs and gives members and non the possibility to see silent movies accompanied by great theater organists. I have known one of them, who I had the pleasure to listen to one evening in a private event at friends’ house. Something you will not forget easily.

This weekend we went to Trinity Church at 6 pm to see a movie with Buster Keaton – “The Scarecrow” from 1920 – and one with Laurel and Hardy – “Putting Pants on Philip” from 1927. I don’t know why but Keaton is always my favorite.

The movies where displayed with an intermission for a snack. Which was nice, perfect to walk a little bit and talk about the movie. But before and after the movies the excitement was all on the theater organist. He gave as a sneak peak of what he can do with this instrument that today, I believe, only few people know it exists.

When the movies came out, the cinema was born, the movies were still without any sound. It was already revolutionary to see moving pictures. Photography itself was not that long is use.

So, to give a sound and a better understanding for the action the movies had subtitles to see what the actors were talking about. But to give a feeling for the action sound was needed. And here comes the theater organ.

The theater organ was developed to give music and sound effects to the movies for three decades. The organ console has a horseshoe-shape of stop tabs arranged around the keyboard itself. One of the most famous ones were the Wurlitzer organs. Once there were more than 2.000 made only by this company.

It can play a complete orchestra with all instruments. Additionally there is a possibility for hundreds of sounds like train or boat whistles, a car horn, ocean sounds, sirens and much more. All perfect to accompany a silent movie and make it ‘feel-able’.

With a theater organ no orchestra was needed anymore and in many cinemas it was possible to see silent movies, even in small places.

They were first built in the United States by an Englishman and Wurlitzer, and only after WW I they ‘arrived’ on the European continent with some well known manufactures in Germany and the Netherlands.

The organ is connected to a pipe chamber. I had the possibility to see the room. It is mega amazingly impressive! Pipes of all (in)imaginable seizes. They need to have a certain temperature and not to be touched as though they could alter the sound.

I hope I will have the possibility to go to more silent movies from time to time. There should be events with theater organs also in Balboa Park in San Diego. Maybe when I am back in summer I can go. I really would like that. One of the organists said before playing: when the audience totally forget the organist then he is doing a good job. I confess: I forgot him completely and was only enjoying the movie with its music and effects. And it makes me think how important music is in a movie. Music is giving the real feeling for the story, feeling for anger, for excitement, for peace, for love, for sadness, any emotion that helps to feel what you see, what the actors try to give the audience. Without music and sounds it would be just moving pictures.

Trinity Prebyterian Church, Spring Valley, San Diego, California/USA:

For further information:
Trinity Presbyterian Church, Spring Valley, San Diego

Theater Organ Society of San Diego

The Scarecrow Silent Movie

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