by Scott Mason
Local 6 Life Member Bob Vaughn is one of the few movie theater organists still playing in the Bay Area. He started out in l927 playing the “silents” and in l929 was working seven nights and two matinees a week. At that time, “talkies” came in, while “silents” and Bob went out.
Around the time of his retirement from government work in l970, he was again discovered by the Avenue Theater in San Francisco. He then began performing weekly for the silent classics until videos and rent increases forced the closing of that theater in l984.
He currently plays for the silent films at the Castro Theater, the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto, and the U. C. Theater in Berkeley. He is also on call to present films and music for other theaters, organ clubs, schools, universities and varied fraternal organizations. Meanwhile, he continues to acquire an ever increasing library of prints of famous film classics now in the public domain. He is also in the process of cataloging and preserving his extensive collection of music, and that of another theater organist, for presentation to a college for educational purposes.
The following is a series of questions to which Bob responded. They have been slightly edited.
How did you get started with silent movie music?
In those days — l925 thru l929 — our chief entertainment was the movies, which until l926–27 when the first sound films crept in (Warner Brothers vitaphone), were all silent. There were organists or orchestras in the pit. I had taken piano lessons, but hated to practice. But the movies interested me, and the music used interested me, so I said, “why not me?” I took church or concert organ lessons briefly, but that was no fun. So I arranged for a good theater movie organist to give me lessons. For those I would practice. But no great musicianship ever came to the fore. Never has, never will!
What makes a good player in this genre?
Opinions vary, of course. Speaking for myself, the organist need not be a genius, but he must have sufficient technical ability to handle all types of music — including fast and light stuff. He must think orchestrally, not like a church organist often does. He should try to underplay the picture in volume, saving the “big stuff” for brief — but hopefully effective — moments, scenes, or sequences. He should be able to improvise or fake decent melodic passages to cover moments or sequences which cannot be covered by printed music. He should also have tunes or musical excerpts memorized to cover emergency needs. Of course, basically, I’m thinking of pops tunes of the l920’s or before. It’s not easy to come by, but it helps to have a library of printed music composed for silent films. In any event, a good organist will frequently pay attention to action in the films rather than reading music all the time. The film must be the guide. If necessary, printed music can go out the window in order to make a personal musical point to suit the action. In other words, a good organist would stay closely with the picture — never overpowering it. His special musical quotes might be no longer than a few seconds — or might last as long as several minutes if need be. And I’ll say it again — the film, not the musician, should and must determine what goes on. He might be qualified, but a movie organist is not there as a concert artist — and shouldn’t try to be one.
In the early days, what was a player paid per performance or hour?
People today don’t always realize how we are living in an inflated world. In my younger days, decent apartments rented for $25 to $40 a month. A hamburger sandwich (good, too) was only a dime, and coffee, a nickel. A fairly decent, modest restaurant meal came for 25 or 35 cents — really deluxe for $l.00 or $l.50. So an organist in a small theater working night shows six or seven nights a week — and possibly occasional matinees on Saturday and Sunday — could live on $25 a week. Incomes of $50 or $l00 a week were far and few between. Downtown movie houses charged 25 cents for matinees and 50 cents at night, and that often included a stage presentation. The overstuffed divan seats at night could go for up to 75 or 90 cents. In the l930’s when I did dance work, $4 to $5 for a four hour gig was good money. More details aren’t important. You get the idea — believe it or not!
What styles are used in this music?
Essentially, movie music seems to stem from the orchestral music of the turn of the century. Many composers of concert or symphony music are represented in movie music. Tchaikovsky, for example, might be a classical model — the romantic, the emotional, the action sequences of his symphonic works. Later in the l920’s Gershwin and parallel American composers may be suggested. The film itself would dictate the choice of music — Southern, Western, modern (for the l920’s, that is) American, European, Oriental, African; World War I military; the jazz, flapper, Charleston age; action concepts (railroading, auto, airplane); love themes. While orchestral music may suggest many things, the organist was limited to his personal instrument. Big organs allowed much greater tonal and pseudo orchestral flavor. Pops tunes of the day dominated the organ scores for the, then, modern or contemporary — all hopefully in keeping with the film.
Did they send music with the films?
Basically, no. Organists bought their own movie music, usually reduced to piano from orchestral scores. Popular music of the day was usually memorized and used freely. We had to extemporize or fake much music (pseudo-instantaneous composition) to fill in for special sequences where action called for quick background not covered by printed material. Rarely did we have a chance to practice with the films or to preview them. If there were multiple showings of a movie, the first showing was usually a matinee, so by the important night shows, we were ready.
Rarely, certain big pictures had a full printed piano score. The house manager might rent it, but for one or two days, it wasn’t likely. We relied on cue sheets.
Who were the big composers of that genre?
In the l920’s, there were many, many composers who were published — most now lost in time. In the formative years (l9l5–l920), we had Sol P. Levy, Adolf Minot, J. E. Andino, and M. L. Lake, to name a few – all good, but now long forgotten. But a few composers were stand outs – Erno Rapce, Domenico Savino, J. S. Zamecnik, Irenee Berge, L. Kilengi, Albert Ketelbey, and William Axt, who was the composer-arranger for big scores like Ben Hur and Big Parade. The first original score for a big American movie was by Joseph Carl Briel for Birth of A Nation — about l9l4. Mortimer Wilson was a major full score composer for Douglas Fairbanks films such as The Thief of Bagdad and The Black Pirate. Louis F. Gottschalk and Victor Schertzinger composed or assembled music for other Fairbanks films.
How did certain cliche passages become popular?
If I understand your meaning, according to the organists ingenuity or imagination, a New York skyline or street scene might be good for a quick quote of “East Side, West Side.” Fun auto sequences might come with “Breezin’ Along With The Breeze.” Beach area scenes got along with “By the Beautiful Sea.” Flappers might get “Ain’t She Sweet” or “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby,” or a dozen other tunes of the day. In all honesty, these days it is not necessary to identify scenes with pops tunes of the l920’s. But old timers (some are still left!) love the old tunes if they seem to fit. At any time, unidentifiable music in the rhythm of the scene is O.K. Some of today’s organists refuse to play l920’s tunes on the grounds that “nobody knows ‘em” — and largely, that’s true.
How many bay area theaters still show silent films?
Only the Castro and Roxie in San Francisco; the U. C. Theater in Berkeley; the Pacific Film Archive at U.C.; the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto; and the Towne Theatre in San Jose. The Castro and Roxie showings are only sporadic. The U.C. in Berkeley devotes one night about every three months. The Stanford has done silents off and on — usually in festivals. The Towne Theatre’s presentations are usually the last Sunday of each month at 5 P.M. Also, there are special showings for specific groups now and then.
How many pictures do you own?
Roughly, in l6 mm size, about l30 features — many of which are short items. But I soft pedal this for printing purposes. It is just as easy to say I have a sizable collection of public domain features and shorts. (Collectors don’t make a big deal of films they may have found that aren’t in public domain — that is, completely free for public showing.)
Is there any society dedicated to the preservation of silent films?
There are several archives in the East, including the Library of Congress, that have preserved large collections. Thank goodness for that, because the film studios have done a lousy job of preserving their own. Recently, Turner-M.G.M. has belatedly improved in that regard. The UCLA Film Archive has, over the years, been the most dedicated to such film preservation and restoration out West. Film restoration, etc., costs big bucks. The Society for Cinephiles, to which I belong, embraces a large number of private film collectors, both small and large. If it were not for private collectors, a large number of old films would have unquestionably been lost.
(Ed. Note: Bob Vaughn died not long before the online posting of this interview.)