Pulling out all the stops for silent films

Silent movies weren’t necessarily silent. When heroines were tied to railroad tracks, when lovers embraced, when comedians took a pie in the face, narrative, emphasis and mood were frequently enhanced by a single musician seated at an organ.

With today’s increasing interest in film’s silent era, organists with the expertise to accompany screenings are in demand -- none more so than Clark Wilson, considered one of the country’s leading theater organists and organ conservators.

Wilson finds his dance card especially full this time of year, and after some pre-Halloween scary movie dates, he’ll be at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Tuesday night to add spooky ambience to the 1929 classic “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel.

(Pre-show entertainment with Charles Lustman and Bob Mitchell of the Silent Movie Theatre features Buster Keaton in “The Haunted House” and a Felix the Cat cartoon.)


It’s a return visit to Disney Hall for Ohio-based Wilson, who accompanied the Lon Chaney creepy classic “Phantom of the Opera” there last Halloween.

During the last three years, Wilson has spent more and more time accompanying silent pictures with organ scores he has developed, because few originals remain, he said.

Wilson doesn’t improvise. It’s too easy to get stuck in a musical rut that way, he says. Instead, he delves deeply into story, setting and characters for creative cues. His references for “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” for instance, include English music hall, light orchestral works -- and sound effects.

“You can really create mood and emotion on the pipe organ. When there’s something hair-raising on the screen,” he said, “you can come up with some pretty hair-raising sounds; when there’s an earthquake in the film, you can do an earthquake.”

The Disney Hall organ, which “speaks into that wonderful, fabulous acoustical room,” would be perfect for Wilson’s dream silent-film gig, he noted.

“It has a tremendous array of huge bass pipes on it -- 32-foot bass pipes and blazing reeds and mixtures and so on that give it a character all its own. I hope maybe someday to be able to play ‘Lost World’ on it,” he enthused, “where the volcanoes erupt and the dinosaurs charge, because this organ would be equal to the task, let me tell you.”

-- Lynne Heffley