Plaza Theater and Strand Theater celebrate National Silent Film Day on September 29 – WABE

Long before there was “City Lights,” the Atlanta arts and culture show on WABE, there was “City Lights,” the wonderful silent movie starring Charlie Chaplin. September 29 marks National Silent Film Day, a rare opportunity for moviegoers to experience screenings of classic silent films, accompanied by live music.

The Strand Theater in Marietta will offer a full program of screenings with live musical accompaniment from Atlanta’s finest theater organists. Organist Ken Double was joined by “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom along with Andy Gaines, general manager of the Strand Theatre, and Christopher Escobar, owner of the Plaza Theater, to discuss their shared admiration for silent-era movies and the music that brings them to life.

Interview Highlights:

On silent shorts and feature film screenings at the Strand:

“We’re very fortunate to have five different shorts screening before the main ‘Safety Last!’ screening,” said Gaines. “We’ve got a Laurel and Hardy, we’ve got two Buster Keatons, we’ve got two Harold Lloyds plus ‘Safety Last!’, and we’re bringing in organists from across the theater of the American Theater Organ Society. Atlanta chapter to come play, and all of them are very familiar with playing at Strand. We love our silent movies, which aren’t really silent, and they also come and play before our main shows at the Strand Theatre. So every time someone walks in, they get a little bit of that quiet era.”

“Phantom of the Opera” at the Plaza Theater, with music by Ken Double:

“It’s a great movie and it’s part horror, but it’s really a love story. And if people have seen the Broadway show, they understand the gist of the story,” Double said. “The funniest thing is that as you play, you can feel the reaction of the audience. And so, if the silent actor is doing his job, first and foremost, we hope that the audience will become completely absorbed in the film and forget that you are there. If that happens, you’ve done his job. The biggest compliment we get from playing silent movies is, ‘My God, I’ve never heard the music.

Live accompaniment, a balancing act of scripted and improvised music:

“There are some original sheet music dating back to the late teens and 1920s that still exist, so there are some players who have tackled that task. But for the most part… the way I was taught the art form, and talking to people like Gaylord Carter and Lee Irwin, who were great players going back to the ’20s and ’30s, was finding important scenes and find main characters and create themes that match those scenes and characters,” explained Double. “And then there’s a certain level of improvisation as you go through the movie… It heightens what’s happening. Don’t exaggerate what happens on the screen.”

“What I also want to point out, too, is the incredible level of musicianship involved that the organist and, in this case, Ken must have, and the amount of familiarity they must have with this film. Escobar said. “It’s not just about sound and orchestration. It also serves as a sound effect, it serves as a lot of things… The good thing is that they can, as Ken said, respond to the energy of the audience, and there is that quality of ‘aliveness’”.

The fantastic digital theater organ of the Teatro Plaza:

“My history as president of the American Theater Organ Society for 10 years, the international organization, brought me into contact with many people, including one person who had a 3-manual Allen digital theater organ that needed to find a new home, and he was willing to make the donation. So he came to our chapter and we acquired him,” Double said. “It was a bit of kismet. “Where can we find a place to put this where it can be heard and enjoyed by the public and enjoyed by our chapter here in Atlanta?” And there was Chris Escobar, the son-in-law of the great Héctor Olivera, with a great theater where we could place this electronic organ. And it sounds magnificent in space.”

The Strand Theater’s screening list for National Silent Film Day will be held on September 29. Tickets and more information are available here.

Tickets for a performance of “The Phantom of the Opera” at the Plaza Theater on September 29 with live organ accompaniment are available here.

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