Organist brings silent films to life

January 19, 2006|by KRISTIN WILSON

FREDERICK, Md. - For almost 20 years, moviegoers experienced film only as silent flickers across a big screen.

On Friday, Jan. 20, audiences at the Weinberg Center for the Arts can travel back in time 80 years to experience a classic movie of the silent film era, complete with Wurlitzer organ accompaniment.

The experience is especially unique since the Weinberg's organ is the same one audiences heard when the theater opened in 1926. Wurlitzer organs such as the one at the Weinberg were designed specifically to accompany films and include sound effect levers to mimic the chirping of a bird, a train whistle, clocks sounding the hour, or the click, click of castanets, explains Ray Brubacher, a silent film organist for almost 40 years.

The movie series at the Weinberg in Frederick, Md., features multiple silent films throughout the year, all of which are accompanied by Brubacher.


Music was the critical ingredient that brought silent films of the early 20th century to life, Brubacher says.

"Try watching one of these movies truly silent," he says. "No matter how good they are, they just fall flat on their face. It's the music that really set them off."

But the scores and music that audiences heard while watching the antics of Charlie Chaplin and the drama of Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Rudolph Valentino have almost disappeared from the film landscape. After sound films emerged in the late 1920s, studios destroyed many silent film reels and the musical scores that accompanied them believing that there was no use or value to the old technology, Brubacher says.

"The studies never envisioned this stuff being used again," he says.

Aside from archive collections at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., the original scores for silent films are not available to the public, Brubacher says.

"You can't buy this stuff. It's just not available," he says.

So Brubacher improvises, creating his own musical score for the films he accompanies.

"I create the score as I go," he explains. For example, when he prepared to play music for the 1921 film "The Three Musketeers," he assigned a musical motif to each principal character, selecting music from 18th-century France.

On Friday, Brubacher will accompany the 1926 silent film "The Black Pirate," starring Douglas Fairbanks. For the well-known Fairbanks film, Brubacher says he's developed musical themes that match what's happening on the screen.

"You have to create that musical mood," he explains. "But never bring the attention to yourself. The music enhances rather than takes over."

The silent adventure movie features Fairbanks as the black pirate, who avenges his father's death at the hands of pirates. Fairbanks plays a sword-wielding buccaneer who joins the ranks of a pirate ship in order to seek his revenge. There is a damsel-in-distress character played by Billie Dove, whom Fairbanks must rescue.

Fairbanks fans will be able to catch the silent-film icon at the Weinberg again Friday, May 19, in another of his title roles in the 1922 film "Robin Hood." The actor is known for his work in 1920s versions of "The Taming of the Shrew," "Ben-Hur," "The Three Musketeers" and "The Mark of Zorro."

Other silent films accompanied by the Wurlitzer at the Weinberg include: "Tramp Tramp Tramp" and "Saturday Afternoon," 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 17; "The Son of the Sheik," 8 p.m. Friday, March 17; "Flesh and the Devil," 8 p.m. Friday, April 7; "Robin Hood," 8 p.m. Friday, May 19; and "Our Hospitality," 8 p.m. Friday, June 16.

Courtesy of Ray Brubacher

Ray Brubacher has been a silent film organist for nearly 40 years. He will accompany the 1926 silent film "The Black Pirate" Friday at The Weinberg Center for the Arts in Frederick, Md.

If you go ...

WHAT: "The Black Pirate" - a silent film accompanied by an organist

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 20

WHERE: The Weinberg Center for the Arts, 20 W. Patrick St., Frederick, Md.

COST: Tickets are $6 and $4

DIRECTIONS: From Hagerstown, take Interstate 70 east toward Frederick. Take exit 54 for Market Street and turn right onto Md. 355 north. Follow about one mile. Turn left onto West Patrick Street, and the Weinberg Center is on the left.

MORE: For more information or to purchase tickets, go to or call the box office at 301-228-2828.

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