Playing The Audience In To A Film

I don’t remember how or when I started doing this, but I’m certain it’s something I picked up or learned from Lee Erwin. I start playing before the film begins. I’m pretty sure it’s a traditional way to begin a show that theatre organists use and have used since the silent era. Aesthetically, it makes perfect sense to me.

There’s a “booth” conversation I usually have with the projectionist or whoever is operating the DVD or Blu-ray player, DCP system, Q-Lab et al. So that we’re both in synch, or at least have the same understanding of how I like to begin a show.

I introduce most of the shows I play for, but even when someone else introduces the steps are the same. I or the person intro-ing the film finishes up with something along the lines of “let’s watch [insert film name]”, and the audience applauds. After a few seconds of applause I start playing the piano or organ, and the lights begin to dim, the theater goes dark and the applause begins to die down. If there’s a curtain, it opens and the projected image hits the screen. If there are restoration or archive credits, I play through these, and then transition into main title music when the film’s main title hits the screen. If it’s a studio picture, with a Universal globe+plane or Paramount mountain or MGM lion I’ll build a little before launching into the main title music.

It’s referred to by theatre organists as “playing the audience into the film”.

Lee Erwin silent film theatre organist
Theatre organist and silent film composer-accompanist Lee Erwin.

I’ve been doing this, on either piano or organ, for all my shows. I don’t remember when I started, but I don’t exactly remember not doing it. I met Lee Erwin when I was in college, when I started accompanying silent films. Lee had been a movie organist in the 1920s, and played for films into his early 90s. i absorbed as much as I possibly could from him.

Playing an audience into a film keeps the excitement, flow, energy and momentum of the show going, from the end of the spoken intro into the beginning of the film. Otherwise there’s this long, long stretch of dead silence. Even in a regular movie theater, there’s only a few seconds of dead air between the end of the trailers or “turn off your phone” snipe and the start of the movie.

Even at my shows at MoMA where I basically walk down to the piano, take a bow and sit down, as soon as I’m settled I start playing intro music as the lights fade, curtain opens, and the film’s first image hits the screen.

I talk about this in a little more detail and play an example of this on episode 26 of my Silent Film Music Podcast., which you can listen to here.

Thoughts? Comments?

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