Organists resurrect the lost magic of silent cinema at Appell Center

Maria Yohn
York Dispatch

Silent expressions flicker across a black-and-white screen, expressions encased in primitive and sometimes damaged film that often hinders their ability to communicate to a new generation.

However, these expressions still have important stories to tell, and York City's Appell Center for the Performing Arts and a small theater organ society are teaming together to reveal the magic of a vital piece of American cinema.

Longtime organist Don Kinnier is shown here performing on the 1927 Wurlitzer theater organ for a silent film showing at the Capitol Theatre.

The Appell Center, 50 N. George St. in York City, is  working with the Susquehanna Valley Theatre Organ Society to provide the one thing no one usually associates with silent films — sound.

Bringing music to the silents: The organ society, based at the Appell Center, is  composed of 12 organists who range from hobbyists to professionals, according to longtime member Don Kinnier. It is a chapter of the national American Theatre Organ Society, Kinnier said, and any of its members can be called upon to play the organ for a silent film showing.

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Kinnier is one of the group's most active members and has created original scores for 20 silent films. In fact, those who attend the 1925 film "The Eagle," which will be shown at 4 p.m. Saturday, April 14, at the Appell Center's Capitol Theatre, will witness Kinnier playing his own score on the organ.

Rudolph Valentino stars in "The Eagle," playing at 4 p.m. Saturday, April 14, at the Capitol Theatre.

Kinnier has been an avid organist and silent film enthusiast since he was a teenager, spending years reading up on the art of silent film accompaniment and performing at festivals and organizations. 

Kinnier said that his wife, retired music teacher Judy Townsend, is very knowledgeable about international music, and Kinnier used her knowledge to create a score for "The Eagle" with a Russian flavor, as the film is set in Russia.

The film was a turning point in the career of Rudolph Valentino, dubbed by women of the time "The Great Lover." The actor was previously famous for raising the heart rates of women in theaters, but in "The Eagle" he received critical acclaim as an actor. 

Kinnier's score can also be found on a version of the film released by Alpha Video, based near Philadelphia. Kinnier has provided the score for 20 films through the company thus far, he said. 

The organ: Inside the Capitol Theatre sits a 1927 Wurlitzer theater organ that accompanies all of its silent films. 

The donation of the organ to the theater spearheaded its foray into silent film, according to longtime organist Gary Coller.

Although the origins of the organ remain mysterious, it can be traced back to Philadelphia, and Coller believes it was used in a theater there or on the other side of the Delaware River, in New Jersey.

"People typically didn't carry those things any great distance," he said.

After being privately owned by organ society members for several decades, it was donated and installed at the Capitol Theatre in the 1986, he said.

Winging it: Silent films usually didn't arrive at the theaters with their own scores, Kinnier said. 

Musicians who accompanied silent films typically were given thematic cue sheets, Kinnier said, which described the action and used title cards to indicate when to play selected pieces of music at various lines and moments.

Classical music was most commonly used, and musicians were given the title and composer of the piece. Most working orchestras probably had the classical pieces already on hand, he said.

"Mood music" was also often used, and he described how slight changes in a chord can evoke drastically different moods.

"You have to go from a mood, from somber to happy to 'somebody's in a car chase,'" he said.

One time, before a showing of the silent film "The Phantom of the Opera," he asked the audience if they wanted him to play a drama or comedy score.

"They weren't up to the challenge of a comedy. I was disappointed," he said.

A new emphasis:  Although the Appell Center has dabbled in silent films since the organ was added, the center began a concerted effort to focus on films — short films, independent films, classic films, silent films and others — in January 2016 with the creation of the CapFilm series, according to Rebecca Fellin, Appell Center representative.

Silent films continue to be one of the most popular showings at the Capitol, and they are generally shown three to four times a year, she said.

Fellin said she is especially inspired by the creativity and latitude organists had in shaping the movie experience and was surprised to learn that the instruments could be used to create sound effects that were integral to the films, such as train whistles and clapping.

"Seeing it with an organ is amazing, it can be anything you want it to be," she said.

How films are selected: Coller said that the organists play a very active role in selecting which silent films will be played, and they often rely on Kinnier's expertise.

"He carefully chooses films by people who know how to make a film," he said.

The theater also focuses on films that showcase the big stars of the day, including  comedians Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd and screen sirens Clara Bow and Greta Garbo.

"Many of the films they choose were produced by artists and weren't the product of a corporation," Coller said. "These people designed the film to say what they wanted it to say and what they thought was important." 

The enduring appeal of silent film:  "It's nostalgia. I guess people like the experience of seeing a film the way they were seen before sound came out in 1928," organist Larry Fenner said. 

Coller added that silent films give a unique insight into the era they were created, as viewers can watch a cameo of Babe Ruth in the 1928 film “Speedy,” the year after he earned 60 home runs, or shots of Coney Island, complete with rides that would make most parents shudder today.

However, Kinnier noted that silent films are home to universal themes that have intrigued audiences from one generation to the next, such as heroism, survival and evil. 

It's the theater and the organist's job to open a portal to a world that has long since faded away but still has something relevant to say, according to Kinnier.

"If I do my job right as far as playing, I should disappear within five minutes," Kinnier said. "If I'm really doing my job right, they'll forget and think they're watching a sound film. In some cases, they have said, 'I've heard them speak.'"