After Robert Israel played the organ for five silent movie comedies at a UCLA film class this spring, a sophomore confided her initial surprise to him. "I was expecting an old man to be sitting there," she said. "I was shocked to see how young you are."
In a business that peaked in the 1920s and fell apart when sound pictures became dominant during the Depression, the 27-year-old Israel is an anomaly. He is one of a handful of people in his generation, one bred almost exclusively on recorded sound, to play live scores for silent movies.
And, ironically, recorded sound will soon bring Israel's silent-movie talents to a national audience. Israel will accompany a seven-minute silent film in Monday's hourlong episode of "21 Jump Street." In the show, an undercover unit thwarts an assassination attempt on a senator, and Officer Tom Hanson uses a silent movie to describe the slapstick rescue.
Israel developed the "Jump Street" score as he would any other, by watching the clip once or twice and creating the accompaniment in his head. This music will be heard by an audience thousands of times larger than his usual audience. More than 8.5 million people are expected to be watching Monday's show, according to a Fox spokesman.
Israel's interest in silent pictures began 20 years ago when his father took him to The Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax Avenue and other film venues. "I was fascinated by silent movies," he said. "The quality of life, the way they dressed, the landscaping. There was a simplicity in living back then that was reflected in ideals and behaviors of the films. It's an era gone by."
He started collecting films at 13 and began to notice that music was important to the picture. He first played the piano at 16, and by 17 he accompanied his first silent picture, today's stage rage, "The Phantom of the Opera," at a Caltech film festival.
In 1988, the Los Angeles native completed his music studies at Cal State Northridge. Although the school doesn't offer film accompaniment courses, Israel said what he learned there has helped his playing.
"It's a very intensive study in music, which helps you interpret the language of music and understand music," he said. "So the film accompaniment was better than I was previously able to do. The best film accompanists studied music. The ones in the '20s were classical pianists, not hack pianists."
William Toutant, associate dean of the CSUN School of the Arts, is a fan of Israel's accompaniments. "He points out certain dramatic and comedic points in the film with his harmonic imagination. What he does with the music really enhances the film, without drawing attention to the music."
That, Israel said, is the accompanist's goal. "The music shouldn't set the mood," he said. "The film provides the mood, and the music realizes the mood the film is intending."
Israel alluded to Bernard Herrmann's recorded score for Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 movie "Vertigo" to support his point. "It's one of the most perfect film scores. The compositions seem to supplement the film without getting in the way. But if you take away the music, you've taken away a lot of the film."
The pianist said live scores have a special touch that recorded scores lack. "The audience knows that there is something being created on the spot. It's a psychological effect. Musicians provide a link between the audience and what's on the screen."
Israel's accompaniment schedule is unpredictable. He'll play for six films some weeks and other times accompany only two films a month at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, UCLA's Melnitz Theatre and the Cultural Hall in North Hollywood.
He creates about four of every five scores himself, rather than playing the music that was developed for the film. Sometimes he must develop a score without previewing the movie. "Instinct, experience and repertoire help a lot," he said. "If it's a Russian picture, you think of Russian composers."
But in an anachronistic business that last thrived when Calvin Coolidge was president, accompanying a movie cold is the least of Israel's problems.
Octogenarian Gaylord Carter, who has played for silent movies since their heyday, said that it's tough to be a young silent-movie accompanist today. "When I started, every theater hired an organist. They had to have them. There's not a future out there for the average performer today. You have to be a star performer to make it a viable profession."
Despite his keyboard excellence, Israel faces another barrier: reverse ageism. "They imply that they think I'm just not experienced enough," he said about some who consider hiring him. "I'll ask, 'Why?' and they'll say that I'm too young."
Israel said the limited competition that exists in the accompaniment world seems fierce. "It's a combination of elements. Some people have egos to satisfy, some are trying to just grab the limelight and not to compose a serious score, and others are scrambling to get work."
On top of all that, the audience may not like his interpretation of a film. He has received hate mail for his film scores, such as "Nosferatu," the 1922 German film, for which Israel played Brahms, Beethoven, Wagner and others.
"I got a letter that said I 'should not play church chords' and that the music sounded like 'waltzes and polkas all night long,' " Israel said. "If you can find in any music book what 'church chords' are, please let me know. I don't know where his ears were placed during the evening."
So why does the young pianist persist? "My love of silent movies and my love of music," he said.
Israel alternates between using the piano and the organ for his accompaniments. "They're entirely different," he said of the two instruments.
"In terms of sheer power and volume, the organ has it over the piano. But the piano can be very effective." The choice of instrument has a bearing on the way he arranges a score, he added.
When he's not accompanying silent films, Israel sells pianos and organs for Church Organs Inc. in Pasadena and plays classical piano. "Classical music is the biggest passion I have, and it's not one that opens up a lot of jobs," he said.
One drawback of the "Jump Street" score, Israel noted, is that it may typecast him. But silent-film organist Stan Kann, who played the organ occasionally on "The Merv Griffin Show" and "The Mike Douglas Show," doesn't think Israel will have a problem getting classical piano recitals.
"He's a marvelous pianist with a fabulous memory. He can play a two-hour program completely without music," Kann said. "If I could play piano as well as he does, I wouldn't play the organ."