Silent Films with Live Music Make a Comeback

One national arts trend which Cincinnati lags behind is the rediscovery of silent movies — especially the public screening of them to live musical accompaniment.

May 1, 2013 at 11:03 am
Jeff Rapsis
Jeff Rapsis

One national arts trend which Cincinnati lags behind is the rediscovery of silent movies — especially the public screening of them to live musical accompaniment.   

“I would say there’s more interest in it than ever before,” says Clark Wilson, a past recipient of American Theatre Organ Society’s Organist of the Year Award, who creates period-accurate scores that he plays at silent-film screenings. Wilson is based in East Liverpool, Ohio, and performs around the country. 

“I find myself playing music for films for every conceivable kind of arts group, where 20 years ago you wouldn’t see that,” he says.

But as fate would have it, considering the relative paucity of such presentations here, two separate ones are occurring on two consecutive Thursdays, May 2 and 9. Both are presenting films by one of the silent era’s great comic geniuses, Buster Keaton. 

At 7:30 p.m. May 2, The Carnegie in Covington presents his 1926 masterpiece, The General, with Jeff Rapsis improvising his accompaniment on digital synthesizer. And on May 9, the Society for the Preservation of Music Hall, which installed the restored 1927 Albee Theatre Mighty Wurlitzer Organ in the building’s ballroom in 1999, will offer Wilson playing his period-accurate score to Keaton’s 1928 Steamboat Bill, Jr. Performances are at 10:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. This is the first time the Society will match the organ with a silent film for an event. 

“The silent film/live music thing is not done often (here),” said Joshua Steele, Carnegie’s theater and facilities manager. “It’s a coincidence that Music Hall is (also) mounting their production, which I wasn’t even aware of until a couple weeks ago.” 

“We wanted to try this — it’s one more variety to what we’re doing,” explained Don Siekmann, president of the Society for the Preservation of Music Hall. “It might be fun to imagine this very organ was being played to this very movie in 1928, when it was new.”


Silent movies, whose era lasted from film’s beginning to the late 1920s, when the talkies arrived, were shown in theaters to live musical accompaniment, usually by theater organists but sometimes by orchestras. According to Wilson, some had printed scores, but more often film distributors sent cue sheets to let the organist know what to expect in the way of action. Few of those scores/cue sheets have survived.

One reason for the growing interest in silent films has been the success of the 2011 film The Artist, a contemporary silent film that won the Academy Award for Best Picture. But a bigger one has been the growth of digital projection and Blu-Ray DVDs. They have created a market for the restoration of old silent films and a way to show them in places that aren’t traditional movie theaters. They’ve also created a cottage industry for all sorts of musicians — not just traditional theater organists and symphonic composers but also chamber groups, Jazz and Rock bands, DJs and avant-garde experimentalists — to play new scores during screenings.

Last year, for its first venture with a silent film, the Carnegie presented Seattleite Leslie McMichael, playing her original harp score to the 1924 version of Peter Pan. This year, Steele has gone to the opposite side of the country, New Hampshire, to bring in Rapsis. 

Like a theater organ, Rapsis is able to get a whole range of orchestral sounds and effects from his 10-year-old Korg Triton. “I actually do improvise in real time,” said Rapsis, who also publishes a regional arts weekly. “The General is one of the all-time classics and I’ve done it probably a dozen times, so it’s not unfamiliar to me. But I try to not prepare a lot.” 

Rapsis does draw upon classic songs of the Civil War era in which the film is set.

At the Music Hall ballroom, Wilson will be prepared to play the fabled theater organ the way it was back when Cincinnati still had downtown movie palaces. Not only can it sound like orchestral instruments — brass, woodwind and strings — but it can also recreate percussion sounds and has what Wilson calls a “toy counter” to make noises from crashing surf to barnyard animals.

“So it’s a great big sound machine besides being a proper pipe organ,” Wilson says.

For information about THE GENERAL screening at the Carnegie Thursday, visit t

he . For the May 9 screening of STEAMBOAT BILL, JR at Music Hall Ballroom, visit