The Thundering Sound of Silent Movies Comes Back

Theater organist Dennis James is fond of quoting Mary Pickford's observation: "When sound came to silent films, it was a big step backwards." James is also quick to point out that the "silent" motion pictures from the first part of the 20th Century were anything but silent when shown in theaters.

In elegant movie palaces like downtown San Diego's Fox Theatre--now Symphony Hall--a pit orchestra and organist accompanied the films, while an emcee, vocal soloists and even vaudeville acts entertained the audience before the movie. It is this flavor of silent film presentation that James and the San Diego Symphony are reviving in Saturday evening's screening of the 1922 classic "Robin Hood," starring Douglas Fairbanks.

On this program, the first of the symphony's three Nickelodeon Concerts, silent film composer Victor Schertzinger's original "Robin Hood" score will be played by James and 36 orchestra members under the direction of Carl Daehler. James and Daehler, who is music director of the Ann Arbor (Mich.) Chamber Orchestra, travel the country reviving silent films with their original orchestral music. Thus far, the duo has 13 film scores in its repertory.

"Silent films are part of our cultural history," said James in a Symphony Hall press conference last week. Nattily attired and sporting a smile worthy of a matinee idol, James made a convincing salesman for an art form that talkies displaced with indecorous alacrity.

In addition to having presided since 1975 as resident organist for the Ohio Theatre in Columbus, the 37-year-old musician was selected by Carmine Coppola as organist for 1981 world tour of "Napoleon," Abel Gance's 1927 silent epic.

Although trained as a classical organist with a graduate degree from Indiana University, James seemed destined to preside at the once-familiar horseshoe-shaped theater organ console.

"My first organ teacher was a guy named Melody Mac," explained James. "He had first played for silent films in 1916, although he taught me the standard organ repertory. Then, when I was in college, just for the fun of it, one Halloween I accompanied 'Phantom of the Opera' for an audience of 2,000. By accident I had stumbled across a job that helped pay for my education."

To put on this Nickelodeon Concert, the symphony management has had to bring the massive four-keyboard console of the hall's Robert Morton organ out of storage. For the last two weeks, local organ builder Wendell Shoberg and his crew have been tuning pipes and splicing the cables that connect the console with the thousands of pipes nestled deep in the chambers at either side of the Symphony Hall stage.

"We'll have only half of the organ's 35 ranks playing for this first concert," said Shoberg. He explained that the Robert Morton organ was removed from the old Balboa Theater and installed in the Fox in 1929.

To begin Saturday's Nickelodeon program, the San Diego Historical Society will show a four-minute film of opening night at the Fox Theatre on Nov. 8, 1929. This rarely seen documentary footage shows some of the parade floats that passed in front of the new theater, a bevy of Hollywood celebrities imported for the event--including a decidedly rakish George Jessel--and a group of young chorines going through their acrobatic paces in the theater's lobby.

During the organ music played before "Robin Hood" and before tenor Thom Gall sings the picture's theme song, "Just an Old Love Song," audience members may visit the lobby for free popcorn.

The next offering in the Nickelodeon series will be "Flesh and the Devil," starring Greta Garbo and John Gilbert (March 26), followed by "The Circus" with Charlie Chaplin (April 23).

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