Accompanist to the Stars : At 29, CSUN graduate Dean Mora helps keep a tradition alive as organist of the Silent Movie Theater in Hollywood

Rip Rense writes regularly for The Times

Dean Mora ought to write "Anachronism" as his occupation on tax forms. His job has about as much relevance to today's world as bootleg whiskey or a Model T.

At 29, Mora is a silent-film accompanist.

Every Friday and Saturday night, Mora can be found swathed in the red glow of the Hammond organ of the Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax Avenue in Hollywood, creating musical backdrops for the likes of Louise Brooks, John Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks, Clara Bow, Harold Lloyd, Theda Bara, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton. . . .

There are other notable "young" silent-film accompanists, such as Robert Israel, who performs at various venues, and Chris Elliot, who tours the country. But Mora is, as far as anyone knows, the only guy in the world doing this as a gig, week in, week out, at a theater that screens only silent films.

As Laurence Austin, the manager of the Silent Movie Theater, put it: "Organists for silent movies are what we consider to be an endangered species. They're few and far between, like teeth for chicken."

Mora, who took the job a little more than a year ago, is studying with one of the original chicken teeth, the renowned organist Gaylord Carter. At a lively 87, Carter still practices the art he helped perfect in downtown L. A. movie palaces during the 1920s.

By teaching Mora, Elliot and others, Carter is passing this esoteric torch to a younger generation.

"I hope to carry along a lot of what Gaylord has done," said Mora, who graduated from Cal State Northridge in 1985 with a bachelor of music degree in piano performance. "Among many other things, Gaylord was Harold Lloyd's favorite accompanist. I'm kind of hoping I'll be able to bring down that torch of what Harold Lloyd told Gaylord--including such sage Lloyd advice as 'Play quietly when they laugh, and loudly when they don't.' "

Mora has taken to the job like pies took to faces in Laurel and Hardy's silent classic "Battle of the Century." So diligent and effective is his accompaniment that evenings at the theater often end in two rounds of applause--one for the films, one for Mora. There have even been standing ovations.

"In the time Dean has played for us," said Austin, "he's developed a remarkable talent for silent films. He works very hard at it, and is astute and dedicated. I think he has a great future ahead of him in playing for silent films, because we believe silent films will be around for a long time to come. When the older people, like Gaylord no longer can, unfortunately, play for them, Dean will be up there among the most renowned ones playing for films, and should earn quite a reputation."

Mora already had a bit of a reputation as a versatile, primarily jazz, musician with a penchant for historical projects. He had played with ragtime bands, rhythm and blues bands, Renaissance ensembles. He is now a member of the Magnetic Ragtime Orchestra as well as an authentic Civil War-era band for which he commissioned replicas of rare 1860s horns.

While giving ragtime concerts at El Segundo's Olde Towne Music Hall in 1987, he met co-owners W. C. Fields (no relation to the great comic) and Bill Coffman (also an organist), who were longtime friends of Austin. In 1991, Austin reopened the Silent Movie after a 10-year closure by the theater's founder, John Hampton, who died in 1990. Austin needed an accompanist, so he called Coffman, who recommended Mora.

"I said, 'Gosh, that would be great,' " said Mora, who primarily supports himself playing jazz piano and scoring films. "Bill Coffman said, 'You've done that sort of thing before, haven't you?' I said, 'Uhh . . . yeah!' I mean, I'd played some private showings, where someone had some old 8-millimeter family films, and I was involved for a while in the Melodrama Theater in Moorpark, playing along with the action. And then I also played for ballet studios. Then Larry Austin called and said, 'Have you played before?' and I said, 'Uhh . . . yeah!' and he said, 'OK, we'll test you on a couple of weeknights.'

"Well, when I first started they had a piano, and the very first film I did was 'Birth of a Nation.' Ha! Kind of a nice, easy primer film--only three hours long. By the end of three hours, I was sweating bullets, just trying to keep ahead of everything."

Still, Austin liked Mora's playing and the fact that younger members of the audience "appreciate someone in their age bracket being able to do this." Within a few months, Coffman had loaned the old Hammond to the Silent Movie--and Mora's latest career wrinkle was born.

"I never thought of it as being a career," he said from the tiny, cluttered living room/kitchen/music studio of his Studio City guest house. "I thought it was just going to be another one of my kooky historical-type projects that was a lot of fun to do on the side."

There have been some very special rewards. One night, Lina Vasquette, a veteran of several Cecil B. DeMille films, was in the audience. "She was 84, and I thought she was 25 years younger," Mora said. On another occasion, Mora played for a private screening of 1925's "The Plastic Age" for none other than the film's star, Gilbert Roland. "He's pretty frail," said Mora. " Sharp dresser. I had a very brief conversation with him. I was pretty much awe-struck, just caught up in the whole profundity of the moment."

To work out his programs, Mora previews the movies, consulting Austin on certain musical demands, such as a wedding scene or a Charleston dance sequence or something more specialized. All of the recognizable pop tunes he uses are of the silent era or earlier. "I won't be playing 'In the Mood' or 'Girl From Ipanema' or anything like that," he said. Sometimes he uses an original score, or most of one. For DeMille's "King of Kings," he changed the music in a few key scenes because the original score called for "Rock of Ages," which "to the ears of 1992, sounded pretty hokey."

From Carter, Mora is picking up vintage tunes, repertory suggestions, subtle harmonic changes to provide greater variety of expression--"so not to put the audience to sleep"--and music Carter relies upon for certain types of scenes. There is, for example, a Carter-designed bit of "chase music" that Mora has transcribed, and "Battle/Tumult/Blaze"--incidental movie music that is perhaps known today only because Carter kept it in his repertoire.

"I pretty much show Gaylord the schedule of what I'm doing," said Mora, "and ask questions about scenes, or how to treat it. He'll give me a rundown. He's pretty familiar with most of the films. It has been very helpful."

Carter returns the compliment.

"Dean is an intelligent musician," he said from his San Pedro home. "And he's interested in silent movies, and that's the first thing you have to be. He likes 'em, and we're working on scores that he'll probably be doing in the future. It's awfully nice that somebody that young is interested."

Mora has one other important influence, and it's a man whose work postdated the silent movie era: Carl Stalling, composer for the Warner Bros. cartoons. "I don't go to his extreme," said Mora, "where if somebody's walking up the stairs, you play from low to high or something like that, but I love the way he colored the action. Of course there are times, especially in the older films, like from the teens, where the action is just haywire. There's no way to catch onto anything, so you just play an entire song, a fast rag or something."

Mora's favorite films to accompany?

"Comedies," he said, "because I love to hear the crowd laugh, because then I know they're having a good time. Whereas when they're showing a dramatic film, where there's no laughter, I have no idea if anyone is enjoying themselves, or whether I'm putting them to sleep."

Spoken like a true anachronism.

Mora will accompany a new, restored print of the Buster Keaton classic "The Cameraman" in a weeklong run at the Silent Movie Theater at 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Call (213) 653-2389.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World