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The poster, displayed on the Visit Athens Ohio website, accompanied the details for the performance at the Southeast Ohio History Center.

Organist brings silent film to life

The sound of the organ reverberated throughout the theater. Only a few tones were played before audience members recognized who was playing the instrument: the phantom of the opera. With its instantly recognizable sound, the musical “The Phantom of the Opera” is a worldwide legend. 

Although many know Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical version of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel, few know the silent movie telling a more twisted, darker story. Southeast Ohio History Center, or SEOHC, showed the 1925 film on Friday evening, accompanied by Dennis James playing the organ. With the most predominant sound being the organ rather than audible dialogue, it was a new experience for many theater and movie-goers alike.

“It’s a cultural experience, more than just going to the movies,” Tom O’Grady, the director of development outreach at SEOHC, said.

Although the demographic may run toward older generations, it doesn't mean that younger audiences can't also enjoy seeing a blast from the past. Jenny Klein, an audience member, brought her young daughter to introduce her to different perspectives.

“Because in her world, anything you want to watch is available all the time,” Klein said, pointing at her daughter. “She has never seen a silent film.”

The two attended the screening with Klein’s father because her daughter was interested in experiencing a film similar to what her grandfather would have experienced when he was her age.

What started out as a fundraiser has developed into an annual tradition around Halloween. For the past five years, organist James has stopped in Athens to play the historic organ.

James is a well-known organist who has performed around the world and spent 15 years as the resident organist at the Ohio Theater in Columbus. His passion for playing the organ and accompanying silent movies started with a screening of “The Phantom of the Opera” 53 years ago. Up until today, James stages his performance with a great love for details, wearing a cape while playing the organ and even putting on a mask.

“I have heard him play before and he is magnificent, it’s a real experience,” Lynn Anastas, a local woman from The Plains, said. “I enjoy it every time.”

The audience was humming on that warm Friday evening. The small, historical foyer filled up while last preparations were completed. A mirror was set up so James could see the film on-screen and play the organ accordingly.

“The thing that's funny is it's backwards,” James said. “So I can't read the titles, but I've been doing this movie five to 10 times a year for 53 years, no problem. I've often said I could play it blindfolded and still play it.” 

Before the movie started, James gave an introduction to the topic and the history of silent movies, making the evening’s showing not only entertaining but also educational. He explained how the black and white film rolls were dipped in color to create their atmosphere. However, he also shared personal anecdotes and historical insights.

The silent film, “The Phantom of the Opera,” may be hindered by the hurdle of no sound, but still tells a cohesive plot through the use of lights, facial expressions and dialogue cards, animated by James’ live music and the audience’s applause mirroring what the silenced audience is doing in the movie.

James said silent movies were never silent, explaining there was always music.

“The theaters had full orchestras,” James said. “They were higher paid than the Metropolitan Opera, the ballet, all the orchestras in town. The movie orchestra was the most prestigious and they made the most money and they were all thrown out of work in 1926 when the sound came in.”

The movie follows the story of opera singer Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin) giving her debut at the Paris opera house when the phantom (Lon Chaney) falls in love with her and tries to use his power to force the directors to install Christine as the lead. While Christine is in love with Raoul, her sweetheart, she is frightened by the phantom’s power. His obsession causes him to kidnap Christine. Different from the musical, this is not portrayed as a twisted love triangle but as the crime it is and ultimately ends with the downfall of the phantom.

The silent movie was a spectacle back in the 1920s, partly because of Lon Chaney’s – who was also known as “The Man With a Thousand Faces” – self-devised horror makeup. James said he also remembers his father telling him about seeing the movie as a boy.

The replication of what a typical audience member would see in the 1920s is important to James. Playing the organ, he believes, is a key way to bring the quality of silent films back into focus.



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