He's the sound of silents

Special to The Times

"Isn't it terrific to see this many people coming out to see silent movies?" asked Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, looking out at the packed house in downtown's beautifully restored Orpheum Theater not long ago. Hefner was sponsoring, as he has for the last several years, an evening of the Los Angeles Conservancy's "Last Remaining Seats" series, which highlights the almost-forgotten downtown L.A. movie palaces by bringing them to life once each year.

The night's event was a screening of German film pioneer F.W. Murnau's "Sunrise" (1927), a silent film. And for those who've made a habit of attending such screenings, a familiar-looking young gentleman in a black suit and bow tie picked up his baton to lead an 18-piece orchestra to accompany the film, as well as play the theater's massive -- and original -- Wurlitzer organ.

Robert Israel has been a fixture at L.A. silent-film screenings since the 1980s, following in the footsteps of such greats as Arthur Kleiner and Gaylord Carter, accompanists from the silent era who would occasionally display their talents at such venues as New York's Museum of Contemporary Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

"You really do need to experience silent films on a big screen to get the impact of what they were all about," says Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne, whose mother was a theater organist. And seeing such films with live musical accompaniment completes the package. "It's a different experience even from hearing a synchronized music track on the film. There's something about the presence of those live musicians," notes film historian Leonard Maltin.

"Silent films were never shown silent," he adds. "And anyone who does show them that way is doing them a tremendous disservice. They were always, to use a more modern term, a multimedia experience. And Robert is helping modern-day audiences appreciate the silent-film experience at its very best."

A Los Angeles native, the 41-year-old Israel started out wanting to be a filmmaker before being bitten by the classical music bug at age 15, teaching himself piano, and eventually earning a degree in music from Cal State Northridge. While still in his teens, he acquired an organ, an instrument he quickly mastered, performing professionally for the first time in 1981 on a ticket with Carter and other top organists.

"In the late 1980s, I actually worked as a church organ salesman," he recalls from his home in downtown L.A., a short walk to the Broadway movie palaces. "I've been to more churches and synagogues than you could possibly imagine in this city."

Israel quickly developed an interest in silent-film music, acquiring over time a library of original theater music from the period, including a 4,000-piece collection rescued by a collector from downtown theaters that were cleaning house in the 1960s. "It came in 61 huge boxes," he recalls.

Like the musical directors of the past, Israel typically compiles a score for a film, finding appropriate existing music to go with the action. "Studios rarely had scores written for their films," he explains. "The serious composer was either writing for Broadway or the concert hall, not for movies. Who would want to put all that work forth for a product that would have a finite shelf life?"

More often, studios had musical directors who would create "cue sheets," a practice that started in the early '20s, says Israel. "The cue sheet would have various themes suggested to accompany a film. They realized that not every theater had good music, so this made it easier for someone who didn't understand film to go to the store, get a collection of pieces, and at least be able to present a serviceable score."

Such sheets might read, for example, "Cue 12," upon the appearance of a particular title card on the screen: "A dramatic, mystical selection of a dread character. Snarling animals, such as cats, may be reproduced moderately." More ambitious cue sheets would suggest specific pieces of music, with as many as 60 or 70 cues per film.

First-run theaters in larger cities would provide an orchestra to accompany films, often with several shows a day. While the smallest theaters would simply have a piano, bigger theaters featured a Wurlitzer theater organ, adapted by the company to "voice" an incredible variety of orchestral sounds, if a true orchestra was not in the budget. It is just such an organ that Israel played at the Orpheum for "Sunrise" (actually bouncing back and forth between the keyboard and the conductor's podium).

For major pictures, such as D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation," studios would go all out, commissioning full-fledged scores. "When that picture opened in 1915, it opened with an 80- to 100-piece orchestra," explains director Peter Bogdanovich, a fan of Israel's work. "They had live music all the way through it. And they had people making sound effects behind the screen, such as gunshots and so on."

Israel is fairly adept at re-creating those original scores, if they exist, and, if not, making one, either by adapting music from other scores (in effect, creating his own compilation) or by composing his own music.

"He'll research and find the original music," says Ian Birnie, director of the L.A. County Museum of Art film department, where Israel can often be found playing for silent-film audiences. "Sometimes he'll bypass the original music if it was nothing significant or banal. He can create a more interesting new score. But often, he'll incorporate the original music, or what records remain of it, into scores that he's writing."

Israel is also a film historian, often assisting the museum not only by providing music but in locating prints of rare films for silent-film programs. "He'll know which is the best version, which is the longest version or most complete and where it can be found," says Birnie.

Creating a score for a film, silent or otherwise, is certainly an art, and Israel's skill is recognized by a host of fans. "Robert understands the correlation between the sound of music and the silence of film," says director Irvin Kershner ("The Empire Strikes Back"). "He accents the moments without simply sentimentalizing the moment. It's easy to have an emotional moment on film, and have the music doing exactly the same thing, and that doesn't quite work. He understands that."

Adds Bogdanovich, "He understands silent pictures. He doesn't overwhelm them." Israel has created and recorded scores for quite a large number of silent films, for release on DVD or for broadcast on such networks as Turner Classic Movies, often recording with the Czech Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra.

"There are films that aren't part of our library but that other people are restoring, and they will use film composers like Robert to score them," says Charlie Tabesh, TCM's senior vice president of programming. For Rick Schmidlin's acclaimed 1999 restoration of Erich von Stroheim's four-hour epic, "Greed," Israel composed three hours of original music and arranged an hour of existing music.

While he complains of being in an unfortunately small clan, Israel is not alone, thanks, in part, to programs such as TCM's Young Film Composers program, now in its fifth year. "We have these great silent films in our library, but we can't play them, because many of them don't have scores," says Tabesh. "This program is a way to keep these films alive by giving young composers a chance to score a silent film. And, no doubt, Robert's had an influence on them."

Adds Israel, "It gives them the biggest challenge they will ever have, trying to come up with 60 to 80 minutes of original music." As Maltin notes, "Silent films are not antiques. They're living works of art. Seeing these films with this kind of live accompaniment really is the way they were always meant to be presented and showcased. To see them in any diminished form is a compromise."

Silent films are the foundation of the motion picture medium, too, says Bogdanovich, by telling stories without dialogue. Seeing them, says Hefner, "It permits us, now, to make a connection with the pop culture of the past. And I think it's a very enriching experience."

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