Why hearing a Buster Keaton silent is just as important as seeing it

 Rick Benjamin, far right, brings the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra to the Granada Theatre. Courtesy photo

Rick Benjamin, far right, brings the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra to the Granada Theatre.
Courtesy photo

When Rick Benjamin and his Paragon Ragtime Orchestra play music in front of classic silent films, like they will do on Monday night when they accompany a screening of Buster Keaton’s “Steamboat Bill, Jr.,” audiences not get something to listen to, but a re-creation of a time and place, a look into a sound industry that was disrupted by new technology like ours is now, and a rediscovery of early 20th-century composers whose fame and popularity dissipated when the sound era erupted.

In 1985, Mr. Benjamin discovered a treasure trove of lost scores, music written for the silent movie era that was thought to have been gone. It wasn’t like modern scores in the sense of a singular work for a film. It was closer to scores for soap operas, where cue sheets outlined the emotional outline of a film, sending a conductor to that cinema’s library to put together a score. “Like Legos,” says Mr. Benjamin.

The cliche of the piano player improvising in front of a screen did exist, but only at the beginning of film history. As soon as the technology advanced, so did the accompaniment.

“By the time you get to 1910, you get the rise of the movie-house orchestra,” says Mr. Benjamin. “By about 1916 or 1917, there were eight to ten thousand orchestras in America. It was a huge business, involving tens of thousands of people across the country, and a very developed network of creating scores and distributing music. By 1917, if you just had a piano sitting there, you were considered a low-brow, small-time cinema.” Each cinema owned its own orchestra, and audiences knew who played where.

This is the era that the Pennsylvania-via-Manhattan-based Paragon recreates, a “whole rich tradition of performance,” and where a beautiful restored theater like the Granada “is our natural habitat,” Mr. Benjamin laughs.

A conductor of one of these orchestras would be as much a celebrity as the movie stars, says Mr. Benjamin. A typical night at the movies would start with the orchestra playing a classical work, maybe an overture to a Mozart opera, then followed by a newsreel, then the orchestra would play a popular song. And so on until the main feature. “Films were 50 percent of the mix,” he says. “Sometimes if the film was long, like two hours, they’d stop in the middle for a dance contest. . . .This whole idea of the sacred text of the film, that you must be quiet, that wasn’t the idea at all. It was a whole evening of entertainment.”

“Steamboat Bill, Jr.” was Keaton’s last silent film. Monday night’s performance will use the original 1928 cue sheet, made up of 20 different composers’ stock scores. The film was also Keaton’s last film as an independent filmmaker. It’s a bittersweet film, says Mr. Benjamin.

By the time of this film, sound was becoming a viable option not just because of the advance of technology, but because full-time orchestras ate up something like two-thirds of a cinema’s profit. Says Mr. Benjamin, “That’s where the economic pressure came from, to find an electronic way of producing music.”

That switch left many composers twisting in the wind, and Mr. Benjamin has helped bring awareness to composers like William Axt, Adolf Minot, and Mayhew Lake . Last year New World Records put out a CD of Paragon playing the works of 17 composers, including the ones above.

Paragon Orchestra works in a very small niche market, and has few peers. They’ve played “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” over 30 times and have clocked in over 600 performances total.

“A colleague said, there’s nobody above ground that has this much experience,” Mr. Benjamin laughs. “That makes me nervous.”

“Steamboad Bill, Jr.,”
with Paragon Ragtime Orchestra
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday
Where: Granada Theatre, 1214 State St.
Cost: $23-$63
Information: (805) 899-2222, www.granadasb.org

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