The Sounds of the Silents — Theatre Organ on DVD

One of the reasons a majority of people associate the piano with silent film, as opposed to theatre organ or orchestra, is that it had been the type of accompaniment utilized the most on a majority of home video editions of silent films. I’d like to address a question that came in from my recent series of posts as to whether David Shepard was or wasn’t a fan of the instrument for the DVD releases he produced.

I’ll tell you what I know, and that is that he was. But there was a reason Shepard’s home video releases appear to have not favored the instrument. One that was technological, and which changed and improved over several years before his passing.

I was asked to write an article for the American Theatre Organ Society’s monthly magazine a dozen years ago, in which I covered the instrument’s role in accompanying silent films at contemporary shows and on home video. I interviewed David for my piece, since he was the main producer of silent film releases on home video at the time, releasing through Image or Kino.

David was a big fan of the sound of the mighty Wurlitzer. What he told me, regarding home video releases, was that the instrument was complicated to record properly and, more importantly, that it did not reproduce well on the speakers of most television sets. 

Knowing the number of LPs and CDs of theatre organ music that theatre organ concert artists have made and released, I realize that it isn’t impossible to record a theatre organ properly. It can be a challenge, but it can be done and done well. Although, I do know that Lee Erwin was never happy with the sound mix on the two albums he recorded for Angel Records in the late 1970s.

Valentinoi Eagle Lee Erwin
The Killiam edition of The Eagle starring Rudolph Valentino has Lee Erwin’s excellent theatre organ score on it.

Perhaps Shepard meant that, given the budget and time constraints for production on a home video release, it was a challenge. But his second point — and remember, this was in the late ‘aughts of the current century — is well taken. Even if a good theatre organ could be recorded, and recorded well, it still didn’t sound great over a TV set.

The first time I can remember hearing a theatre organ is when it burst forth from my Bell & Howell Filmosonic Super 8mm projector. I was 12 or 13, and had bought my first Buster Keaton film from Blackhawk Films: a print of Cops, with a musical score by Gaylord Carter. The half-dozen or so Gaylord Carter scores done for Blackhawk were repurposed for shorts on the “Art of Buster Keaton” releases David produced for Kino in the 1990s, with the majority of the scoring being done on piano or a small chamber ensemble.

Over the last ten years, the sound quality of TVs has either improved, or the ability to improve on them has increased a great deal, with affordable home theater set-ups and sound-bars. 

The DVD and Blu-ray releases David produced in the years since I interviewed him included more theatre organ scores. I’ve used my virtual theatre organ on scores I’ve done for Kino more and more, and gone from having to request that I use the organ to being requested to use the organ. And Grapevine Video, whose releases may be known for needle-drop scores, hired Dave Knudtson to record theatre organ scores for many of their releases over the last several year, prior to his passing a couple years ago.

Classic film fans now have the opportunity to hear theatre organ on home video a lot more now, which is great. Because the DVD/Blu-ray musical landscape is now a closer match to what folks were hearing in cinema in the 1920s.

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