Professional organist James Riggs sits at a beautiful golden mighty Wurlitzer organ. His hands, which have stroked the keys of many organs throughout the past 40 years, charmingly dance along the kangaroo leather that makes these very keys.
He’s wearing a black tuxedo, a favorite of his, and playing a tune reminiscent of a ballroom waltz one might hear at a 1920s black and white affair. Behind him a diverse audience of filmgoers slowly files into the 2,800-seat Paramount Theatre located in downtown Seattle.
For film buffs young and old, the Paramount is the place to be on Monday nights in March. In partnership with Trader Joe’s, the Seattle Theatre Group is presenting its “Silent Movie Mondays” celebrating the women of silent film.
The first film shown was Heart o’ the Hills, starring film pioneer Mary Pickford. The second was The Scarlet Letter, starring Lillian Gish. In addition, a special Sunday matinee on March 10 featured Disney’s Alice Comedies, which combined live action and animation.
The STG is a nonprofit organization that runs the Paramount, Neptune and Moore theaters. In the past they have held silent movie Mondays at each theater, but they are usually held at the Paramount.
Trader Joe’s has sponsored the series for about a decade. Free snacks are handed out in the lobby before each show, and a raffle takes place in the auditorium right before each screening. There are multiple raffle winners of Trader Joe’s gift bags, with the grand prize at each show being six tickets to any Paramount show.
According to Vicky Lee, director of education and performance programs for the STG and curator of the series, this is the third women in film series and first of this year. Since 1997, the STG has typically held two silent movie months each year, with the next one occurring in June and focusing on international silent films.
“I first started looking in a few more obscure places [for silent films],” Lee said. “And I found that some things that were produced, or written, or starred women who really made an effect on the industry weren’t necessarily accessible to the contemporary audience. So I went through a lot of rejects.”
Lee looked for films with iconic women such as Pickford and Crawford, but eliminated those that were too dull, too long or too offensive. She was particularly interested in films that hadn’t been shown yet, and were innovative for their time, but weren’t extremely popular. She eventually chose each of the five films being screened for a variety of different reasons, such as where the actresses were in their careers at the time of filming.
An interesting aspect of silent films is that they’re accompanied by live music, typically played by an organist. Riggs is playing for all showings this month; Lee described him as “a genius.”
A native of Wichita, Kansas, Riggs has been playing the organ for more than 40 years, and describes himself as a “very big fish in a dry pond.” He said there are about 60 professional theater organists playing in the world today, and only about six or seven of them specialize in silent films. What’s challenging about playing for silent films these days is that most scores that originally accompanied the film have been lost. Riggs estimates that less than 10 percent of scores remain.
“How I come up with the score, I call it ‘highly prepared improvisation,’” Riggs said. “What I do, my improvisation thing, is based heavily on knowing the film really well. So I watch it five, six, sometimes a dozen times. Then I compose short themes or motifs for characters. And having prepared with that performance, I weave all that together and I’m actually creating art, in terms of music, at the moment [the audience] is watching 80-year-old art.”
Riggs continued, “It’s a wonderful thing. When I’m sitting there, I lose track of time. I’m in a Zen sort of state up there because I’m looking at the screen, my hands are playing what I’ve already kind of prepared them for, and there’s this symbiosis happening. For me, time stands still.”
Following each screening, a “CineClub” takes place in the barroom of the Paramount, led by a different Seattle film expert each week. This is the first time the STG has held a CineClub following the silent films; the purpose is to allow viewers to discuss the films, what they thought of them, and their impact on contemporary art.
Lee didn’t exactly know what to expect from the CineClub, calling it an experiment. About 40 people stayed after Heart o’ the Hills to discuss topics that ranged from the overall film itself to Mary Pickford’s impact on contemporary film and women in film.
Sandy Cioffi was the resident film expert following Heart o’ the Hills. Cioffi is a Seattle-based film and video artist. She is a tenured professor in the film and video communications department at Seattle Central Community College.
“I was pretty impressed, not just in what Mary did in terms of driving the way that her contract would look, [but] her relationship to not just being an artist but a business person; [it] was powerful in a way that perhaps we wouldn’t assume,” Cioffi said.
If you’re interested in film, or just want a cheap night out with a chance to win some prizes from Trader Joe’s and the Paramount, tickets are still on sale for the final two screenings and cost $10. Our Dancing Daughters starring a young Joan Crawford, will be shown on March 18, and The Kiss starring Greta Garbo in her final silent film, will wrap the series up on March 25. Doors open at 6 p.m. with the films beginning shortly after 7 p.m.
Luke Severn is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.