The more shows I do the more I meet people with similar stories about their elder relatives. Great-aunts and great-grandmothers or grandmothers who played for movies back in the silent era. The repeats have confirmed what could easily be fuzzy memories conflated over time and retellings, the way the myth of custard pie fights has become a staple of silent movie lore.
One of these anecdotes first came to me through Marx Brothers history. There is a story that, before the Marx brothers became The Marx Brothers, young Harpo made money playing the piano in movie theaters. The story I recall is that he knew one piece — Love Me And The World Is Mine — and that he played it slow for love scenes and fast for chases. Last week I met the third person I’ve encountered over the years who had a similar tale of a great-grandma/aunt with a very limited repertoire.
So, clearly, there was a wide range of musical accompaniments being heard in theaters. A very wide range — from a couple selections played at a variety of speeds all the way up to a 70-piece orchestra playing a composed-compiled score.
While the ensembles of all different sizes were staffed by men, the gender who were professional musicians in that era, the solo accompanists were either men or women. The 1925 Erno Rapeé book Encyclopedia of Music for Pictures described the make-up of an orchestra thus:
I’ve encountered many people over the last few decades of accompanying silent films whose relatives two or three generations past were women. In fact, with one exception (a great-grandfather who played trumpet in a cinema orchestra) the story I always hear is about a grandmother or aunt, great or otherwise, who played the piano in a movie theater. I always ask, “piano, or theatre organ?” The answer has always been “piano”.
Perhaps the grandpas and great-uncles moved into other orchestral work or other careers that consumed the remainder of their working lives and the movie orchestra work got relegated to the current equivalent of playing cocktail piano during just-after-college. But, for great-grandma, it was their only chance to perform, day after day and week after week, in front of a large audience.
The other recurring story I hear is of nana gathering the grand-kids around the piano and playing all the different moods for them, while inventing a story of a movie she was playing to. A majority of the people who have a film accompanist in their family history have this memory. Perhaps you do, as well.
While I’ve never done this myself, as I’m way too young to be a grand-parent, I’ve sort of replicated this…twice. Once was about ten years ago, when the Palisades Virtuosi commissioned me to compose a piece for them. The other time was for a radio program in Kansas.
In 2017 while attending the Kansas Silent Film Festival, I was a guest on a the local Kansas Public Radio station, along with Dr. Harriet Fields and Bill Shaffer. The program ran an hour, and I was asked to play some “silent film music” for two segments during the show. I improvised some dramatic music that was a mix of what I often play for dramas and “sound-alike” modes that tried to resemble vintage mood cues. One of these improvisations was posted on the KPR’s YouTube channel, seen below.