Charles Hofmann – MoMA Film Accompanist, Briefly

When I began accompanying silent films in college, there was very little in the way of resources. I was, however, loaned a copy of a small monograph on the subject written by Charles Hofmann, who had been one of the Museum of Modern Art’s film pianists. Hofmann seems to be something of a blip on the radar in the lineage of post-silent-era accompanists, and was only at MoMA for around a year.

The small, purple hardbound book had been published in 1970, and contained a good deal of history on film accompaniment from he silent era. The book also contained, if my memories going back that far are to be trusted, a small flexi-disc of Hofmann playing selections for films.

I’d been loaned the book by Charles Silver from MoMA’s Department of Film. I accompanied films for a class he was teaching at the University of Bridgeport, traveling with him to and from Bridgeport from Manhattan, where I was in my 2nd year of NYU film school.

Sounds For Silents Charles Hofmann
Charles Hofmann’s monograph about film accompaniment, “Sounds for Silents” (Drama Book Specialists, 1970) – this title seems to have been beaten to death throughout the ‘70s. Image lifted from an eBay listing found through a Google Images search.

I’ve been a silent film accompanist at MoMA for 35 years now, and over the years I’ve grown interested in the history and practice of film accompaniment at MoMA itself. I’ve learned about Arthur Kleiner, MoMA’s first film pianist and who was there from 1939 until his retirement in 1967. It was a salaried position and Kleiner even had an office at the museum. He recorded two independently produced and released LPs of silent film music during his final year at MoMA.

I knew of William Perry, as I’d grown up listening to his wonderful scores on the PBS series “The Silent Years”, produced by Paul Killiam (1971, 1975), and had heard him play at MoMA a number of times at MoMA. When I began playing for films, I made a point of meeting him and asking him for advice. We’re still in touch. Perry was MoMA’s main film pianist from 1969 through the early 1980s.

Hofmann’s stint at MoMA, however, was sandwiched in between Kleiner’s and Perry’s tenures. I’ve been able to find out almost nothing about his work before and after his playing at MoMA, both in online searches and from speaking with people at MoMA who were around at the time or who had begun working in the department in the 1970s. 

This sort of thing is not always that well-documented or paid attention to, it seems. There are certainly a number of film accompanists who played quite a bit in the 1960s and 1970s who are completely unknown, like Paul Norman whom I’ve only recently learned about.

Perhaps my posting this item here will help conjure up some more information about Charles Hofmann and his work as a silent film pianist, at MoMA and elsewhere. Anyone have a copy of that flexi-disc?

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Susan Walls

Charles is from Tampa Florida and was my father’s best friend from a young age until his death. He played for silent films at The Tampa Theatre and was a leading authority on silent works including those of his dear friend Lillian Gish. He moved to Toronto Canada and taught at the university there and wrote other books one of which was about American Indians which my father did all the illustrations. My father was William Walls a renowned artist and violin maker. Hope this helps.

Christopher Terry

While I was a film student at York University in Toronto in the early 1970s, I had the pleasure to be a film projectionist and be in classes where Hoffman accompanied many silent classics. He brought in his friend Lilian Gish as a guest for a film she had starred in as a young actress (sorry I don’t remember which film). I got to meet Hoffman several times and my friend Risa Schuman (later producer of TV Ontario’s Saturday Night At the Movies) and I were invited to his apartment one afternoon for tea.

Andrew Airriess

I knew Charles for several years. He was living in Calgary, Alberta at the time. My wife and I visited him and Jessie in Victoria, BC, and in Toronto where she was a producer for Canada AM. He had an amazing collection of posters, a Chaplain cane, American Biograph logo, and more. I have six photos of him if you would like.

Andrew Airriess

I should note, we have a inscribed copy of “Sounds for Silents” which includes the recordings, as well as a letter and postcard from Charles to us, one from 1980 in which he talk about moving to Victoria, and the other from 1986 when he was living in Florida. There are also programs of some of his presentations in Calgary.