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The Sound of Silents

Live accompanists bring old movies back from the dead.



Dennis Scott likes to tell the story of his friend John Muri accompanying a screening of Phantom of the Opera at a private home in Racine, Wisconsin. "This is a studio where you're completely surrounded by pipe organ," he explains, gesturing to the Mighty Wurlitzer in the orchestra pit of the Tivoli Theatre in Downers Grove. "It's an organ that's about three times the size of this one. The unmasking scene started to happen, and he just had two little pipes going way back in the corner of the chamber while she gets close...and on another manual he had full organ. So when the mask comes off, John just lunged at that big massive chord, and some little kid in the first row had to be taken out because he had messed himself. John said, 'My crowning achievement in silent movies! You want to get through to your audience--I guess I did that time.'"

Silent film may be a dead language, but Scott and his friend and fellow organist Jay Warren are still fluent. The two men stand in the pit at the Tivoli, taking turns at the ten-rank Wurlitzer, massaging fat, syrupy chords out of its three manual keyboards. The "ranks" are sets of pipes, and each of the keyboards can be set with a combination of instruments: clarinet, violin, violin celeste, flute, tibia, trumpet, kinura, harp, vox humana. The organ has been covered with brightly painted panels since it arrived at the Tivoli in the late 1980s; back in the 20s it was installed at the Indiana Theatre in East Chicago.

"The music has to go just underneath the story line," says Scott. "Sometimes you're playing thunderously, and sometimes you're playing so it's very quiet. If you do your job right, you can hear people breathing in the audience, which has happened to both of us a few times in some of these quiet scenes. That's when for us it's really good. It's not making all the noise and racket and everything; it's when the story has captivated the audience and they're sitting there very quietly and intently."

Halloween weekend always brings a wave of silent classics with a live-music element, and this year is especially good. If you're reading this early enough, you can hear Scott accompany the goofy haunted-house film The Cat and the Canary (1927) on Thursday in Park Ridge on the Pickwick Theatre's Wurlitzer. On Friday, Warren will play the Rockefeller Chapel's E.M. Skinner classical organ for Lon Chaney's gut-wrenching performance as Alonzo the Armless in The Unknown (1927). Also on Friday, at the Music Box, staff organist Dean Cook will accompany midnight and matinee screenings of Chaney's signature film, Phantom of the Opera (1925), and, at the Chicago Theatre, you can hear the Kronos Quartet and Philip Glass perform Glass's 1999 score for the early Bela Lugosi talkie Dracula (1931), a film whose long silences and hypnotic stillness firmly link it to the silent past. Then on Sunday evening the Chicago Cultural Center will host free screenings of F.W. Murnau's German expressionist classic Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922), with a live score by Austin art-rockers Brown Whornet.

All the musicians will be trying to play "just underneath the story line," but that becomes more difficult with each passing year as silent films recede into the past, eaten away at the edges by camp sensibility. Silent cinema encompassed performances of enormous depth and subtlety, but the lion's share of it embraced the florid pantomime of 19th-century stage melodrama. Back then musicians often accompanied the plays, underlining the emotions of scenes or players, so it made perfect sense later for the theater organist to become an integral part of the film experience. All five films screening this weekend qualify as melodrama, yet one key element distinguishes most of them: a severe sense of dread induced by the postwar delirium of German expressionism. When, in 1931, those two elements intersected with the supernatural in Dracula, the American horror film was born.

Of this weekend's films Nosferatu is the oldest and most esteemed in world cinema. It's a spellbinding early work by the great F.W. Murnau, who developed his dramatic sensibility as an actor and assistant director to Max Reinhardt in Berlin. Reinhardt, a giant of the German theater, developed such directors as Ernst Lubitsch, Otto Preminger, and Paul Leni, not to mention actors like Emil Jannings, Marlene Dietrich, and Conrad Veidt.

By the time Murnau shot Nosferatu he was 34 and had already made nine pictures, including one tale of the fantastic, Der Januskopf (1920). In that film Veidt starred as a doctor who purchases a Janus-faced bust from an antique shop and then finds himself mutating into a sinister alter ego. Hans Janowitz wrote the loose adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, though the studio, Decla-Bioscop, never bothered to clear the rights. The film was shot by the brilliant cameraman Karl Freund and featured a supporting performance from 38-year-old Bela Lugosi as the doctor's butler. (A highly respected actor with the National Theater in Hungary, Lugosi had been vocal in his support of Bela Kun's communist regime when it took power in the spring of 1919, but after the counterrevolution in August, artists were targeted by the new regime, and Lugosi fled to Vienna and then Berlin looking for work.)

Like Janowitz before him, Nosferatu screenwriter Henrik Galeen adapted a British suspense story, Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula, and like Decla-Bioscop, Prana Films neglected to clear the film with the late novelist's wife, a decision they would live to regret. Over in the U.S., Universal Pictures had considered the novel as a property as early as 1915, but the only thing close to a film adaptation was Dracula's Death (1921, now lost), about a musician committed to an insane asylum who's convinced that he's a vampire and challenges his keepers to shoot him.

Nosferatu follows Stoker's novel closely, although the names and setting were changed: in 1843 a real estate agent in the town of Wisborg is sent on a fool's errand to Transylvania to sell a house to Count Graf Orlok. After arriving at the castle he's stalked and imprisoned by his vampire host, who then travels to Wisborg, moves into his new home, and ravages the countryside, ultimately preying on the agent's lovely wife. As Orlok, Max Schreck resembled a rat more than a bat, with his claws, bald head, hooked nose, pointed ears, and long fangs. And Murnau, painting in shadows, creates some of the most chilling tableaux in all of silent cinema, grim images that haunt the mind long after the romantic leads' overripe acting has faded from memory.

The players in Brown Whornet know those images well. They first accompanied the film in October 1998 at the invitation of Tim League, who had been screening silent films with live music since his Alamo Drafthouse Cinema--a movie theater with a bar--opened in Austin in 1997. The eight-person ensemble had just returned from a tour when League approached them about Nosferatu, and they went into overdrive to finish the score in time for Halloween--less than two weeks later.

In addition to bass, drums, guitar, and keyboard, the band features trumpet, saxophone, clarinet, and singer Tyler Harwood, who in this case contributes howls, chants, and bizarre noises. They watched the film on video without the sound, blocking out the scenes, then they all began showing up with music--themes for characters or particular sequences that were woven into a partly improvised score. They'd rehearse to a TV screen, stopping to fix problems as they went along, and two dress rehearsals at the theater gave them the chance to make more adjustments before facing an audience. Both screenings sold out, and the band returned to accompany the film again in 1999. This year League has bankrolled a limited video release of the film with Brown Whornet's score, recorded by Chicago engineer Jason Ward.

The music runs the gamut from hard rock to jazz to electronic to classical, and its diverse players are full of energy and ideas. Their lack of restraint becomes a problem--with each player eager to get a tune in edgewise, they often wind up trampling the film. But other times their loopy wash of horns, guitar, and electronic whatnot provides an eerily effective complement to Murnau's vision: when the vampire, stalking his guest, makes his fearsomely slow entrance through an arched doorway, the sound track fizzes with white noise from a TV set.

Like most people who've seen the film, the players tend to talk about it in terms of imagery. "She's on the bed and she's waiting for Nosferatu," recalls clarinetist Carolyn Cremona. "She's about to give herself, and she's sitting up on the bed and the moonlight is shining through, and [the shadow of] his hand is coming up onto her chest, openhanded, and then right as it's coming over her chest, he squeezes." On the video, throbbing waves of electronic noise are cut by shattering glass and a low piano chord.

Unlike its expressionist model, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), Nosferatu was filmed on location, and the natural images are key to the film's horror. A tense piano figure is cut with spasms of tripped-out electric guitar as the young man arrives at Orlok's castle, appearing at the far end of a tunnel opposite the tall, skinny figure that awaits him. "It's just an amazing image," says Cremona. "The line, just the way he's centered and his figure. . . . I think Nosferatu is the first Dracula film I saw, and it scared the shit out of me. There's definitely parts that people laugh at, the kind of goofy dated stuff that's going on. I think a lot of people take it with a grain of salt but are still amazed by how beautiful and how awesome a picture can be from back then."

Standing over the console of the Tivoli's Wurlitzer you can almost feel John Muri looking over your shoulder. From March 1927 through 1934 he was the staff organist at the Indiana Theatre and played this same organ, painted white at the time. "That was a good one," Muri recalled a few months ago. "That was my pride and joy back in the old days." Now 94, Muri has lived in Atlanta for many years; he was scheduled to appear at the "Silent Summer" festival sponsored in August by Warren's organization, the Silent Film Society of Chicago, but a bad fall prevented him from attending. "There were an awful lot of good [organs] in Chicago," says Muri. "Even more than the Chicago Theatre, I was especially fond of and happy with the Marbro out on Madison and Crawford. Of course it's gone now, that theater is. But I thought that was the best one of the lot."

Muri's parents came to the U.S. from Switzerland in 1895, and John was born nine years later in Hammond, Indiana. As a boy he developed an ear for music by listening to the accompanists at nickelodeons and movie theaters, and during high school he studied piano at the Clifford Conservatory of Music. At 17 he decided he wanted to learn the organ and drove up to Chicago to the Kimball Building at 306 S. Wabash to study with organist Claude B. Ball. "He was the first one I heard about, so I just went up there and enrolled, and I discovered that he wasn't particularly interested in the good, solid side that I thought I'd like to play. In fact, one of the first things I did for him was to play from memory the 'Ballet egyptien' by Luigini. And I knocked him cold with it."

Before long Muri found a job at the Temple Theatre in Hammond. "I went in there and just introduced myself to the man who came out from Chicago every day and every evening. He heard me play and said, 'How would you like to take this job?' 'Well, yes, of course!' And he said, 'Well, OK, you'd better start tomorrow.' He was tired of coming out from Chicago every day." As a theater organist Muri learned to tell a story in music. He couldn't preview the films, but for most films he was given a cue book that synopsized the story and offered suggestions for accompaniment, and even at that age he had a broad enough repertoire to make it through a show.

In November 1924 he left the Temple to work at the Hoosier Theater in Whiting, Indiana, and the next year he began studying at the Chicago Temple with a more classically inclined teacher, Arthur Dunham. That December Phantom of the Opera opened in the Loop at the Roosevelt (State at Washington); it played an exclusive three-week engagement there and then reopened at the Castle (State at Madison) the following month. "His music--his voice--enslaved her," read a display ad in the Sunday Tribune. "She feared him--she hated him--yet she could not resist him when he called!"

Muri still accompanies films in Atlanta occasionally, but for years he's turned down Phantom of the Opera. The story has been filmed and staged so many times now that audiences have a hard time taking it seriously; director Rupert Julian approached it as big-budget melodrama, clashing with Lon Chaney, who wanted his Phantom to be more complex. Yet his extravagant performance as the wicked, lovelorn organist and the film's subterranean mise-en-scene still evoke a Hollywood Grand Guignol--especially the chilling masked ball sequence, filmed in two-strip Technicolor, in which the Phantom descends the opera's grand staircase disguised as Poe's Red Death. "My mother left Phantom of the Opera with her girlfriend," says Jay Warren. "They were ten years old, and they couldn't take it. It was so horrific then, they had to leave. It was the Red Death scene--when his outfit was just flying in the breeze, with the skull mask, that was it!"

A fair amount of malarkey has been written about Chaney's various guises (for years Dave Kehr's capsule in the Reader erroneously claimed that the actor had used fishhooks in his nostrils to create the Phantom's ruined nose). But as Michael F. Blake explains in his carefully documented book, Lon Chaney: The Man Behind the Thousand Faces, Chaney's makeup was simple but shockingly effective. He used layers of cotton and collodion (a glutinous substance used in coating wounds) to build up his cheekbones, then glued a strip of fish skin to the tip of his nose, stretched it tight, fixed the other end to his lower forehead, and blended the fish skin with the bridge of his nose. He wore a skullcap that elongated his forehead and gruesome teeth made of gutta-percha, and he glued his ears back and darkened his eye sockets to accentuate his skeletal appearance. Yet the secret ingredient to Chaney's characterization wasn't collodion or spirit gum but his delicate pantomime.

For Carl Laemmle, the 58-year-old German who founded Universal, Phantom of the Opera was a chance to repeat the success of Chaney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, shot at Universal Studios under the tutelage of 23-year-old Irving Thalberg. It was also a chance to show up Thalberg, who had since defected to MGM and taken Chaney with him for two solid hits, He Who Gets Slapped (1924) and The Unholy Three (1925). Laemmle spent a ton of money rebuilding Paris on the Universal back lot, including a steel-and-concrete stage that encompassed the opera house, the backstage area, and the scarlet staircase. Dancers were imported from the New York and Chicago operas, and some dance sequences were shot in Technicolor. After the film tested badly, Universal assigned another director, Edward Sedgwick, to add a climactic coach chase through the streets of Paris. But the real climax is Chaney's last bit of mime, when the Phantom drives off the vengeful townspeople with his upraised fist, as if it held some terrible explosive, and then, laughing madly, reveals an empty palm.

"It's kind of a warhorse among organists," admits Dean Cook, who'll accompany the film at the Music Box. "But having never done it before, I'm really looking forward to it." Cook, now 37, started playing the organ at 14 in his hometown of San Jose; he first heard a theater organ in a local pizza parlor, and many years later he found work at the same restaurant, replacing Dennis Scott, who was moving on to Chicago. Five years ago Cook came to Chicago and wound up playing in a pizza parlor in Lansing, where he still works two days a week. Two years later he succeeded Scott again, this time as staff organist at the Music Box, and since then he's accompanied four silent screenings.

Cook doesn't mind if his audience takes Phantom of the Opera as camp. He doesn't. "It's one of the great dramatic films," he says. "If it's overacted, that was just the acting style in those days. You gotta mentally take a leap back about 70 years. I don't approach it as camp at all when I sit down at the organ console. I take a little breath and I try to envision myself back in the time period, and then just play it accordingly. I can't wait to get at it."

In March 1927 John Muri was hired by the Indiana Theatre in East Chicago and moved up to the 3/10 Wurlitzer, working six days a week, "matinee and evening. I began the job playing from one o'clock in the afternoon till four, then gradually the hours increased." At the time, he was still studying at the Chicago Temple, and he would stop off in the Loop to pick up sheet music at the Woods Theater Building on Randolph. "There were six to eight publishers' offices, and all you had to do was go down there on Friday morning or afternoon, and you'd go from one office to another and say, 'Professional copies for Indiana Theater,' and then they'd hand me stacks of stuff, free!"

By that time, many of Max Reinhardt's proteges had immigrated to the U.S. to work in Hollywood. Ernst Lubitsch, one of the first to come over, had just scored a huge hit for MGM, The Student Prince. F.W. Murnau's masterful German films The Last Laugh (1925) and Faust (1926) brought him to the attention of Fox Studios, and his Hollywood debut, Sunrise (1927), is a full flowering of his gift for the poetry of place. Paul Leni had begun his career as an art director, and his imaginatively designed Waxworks (1924) had caught the eye of Carl Laemmle, who signed Leni to direct John Willard's popular stage play The Cat and the Canary for Universal.

Though the film now seems hopelessly corny, it's not without its visual pleasures. In its opening sequence the wealthy Cyrus West, resting in a wheelchair, is superimposed against the dark turrets of his old house; then they fade into huge medicine bottles that dwarf the old man, and giant cats swipe at him as if he were a bird. "All the relatives come to his house 20 years after he died for the reading of the will at midnight," explains Dennis Scott. "And the cabdriver lets the two women off--the woman [Gertrude Astor] and her aunt [Flora Finch]. They're all gold diggers, they're all there for the money. The aunt is kind of an old fussbudget, and the niece is sort of a jealous type. And then Annabelle West [Laura La Plante], the heroine of the picture, comes in, and her favorite relative is this guy named Jones [Creighton Hale], and he's kind of a screwball, and a comic character, and nervous. And then the guy from the prison comes in to tell him that a madman has escaped and may be inside the house, and they can't leave."

Leni does everything he can to animate the screenplay: intense close-ups, strange superimpositions, a moving camera following a flashlight beam. When the aunt hears that Annabelle West has inherited all the money, her head stretches as if through a funhouse mirror. The film's cobwebs and candelabras would influence the look of Dracula and Universal's other horror talkies, but it's more a carnival ride than an exercise in fear, and, as Scott points out, it showcases a wonderful cast of character actors. That sort of conception plays right into the hands of an organist, who'll typically establish a musical theme for each character. Scott appreciates the film's lightheartedness: "That really makes it more fun, because you can be a little more melodramatic and a little freer. This is one that was intended to be comical in the beginning. If it's one that took itself too seriously in the beginning, then a lot of people would see it as camp, which is death to a silent film."

"It's a good old mystery," says John Muri. "In fact, I gave my print to Dennis. After all, I'm pretty old now, and he can make good use of it." The two men met in July 1969, after Scott saw Muri perform at the Indiana Theatre during a convention of the American Theatre Organ Society. Then 23, Scott had been playing the theater organ for five years while an usher and later an assistant manager at the Orpheum in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His brother studied at the School of the Art Institute, and Scott liked Chicago so much he decided to move here. Following the convention he struck up a correspondence with Muri, who was living in Detroit at the time, and they've been friends ever since. In 1972, Scott got his first professional job, playing the B-3 organ at the Green Mill; these days he plays for the Silent Film Society of Chicago and at the Tivoli, where he's a graphic artist. Whenever he needs help with a silent film he'll phone Muri, who's been collecting scores and cue sheets for 75 years.

Jay Warren started playing music during the accordion craze of the 50s, but by the time he was 15, in 1966, he'd decided the organ was cooler. In the early 70s he played at "the infamous Hi-Ho Restaurant in the Starlight Room," at Addison and Pulaski. For five and a half years he played services at Immaculate Heart of Mary, and for a few years he played intermissions at the Chicago Theatre, back when it was owned by Plitt. He's been a fan of silent cinema since discovering the Channel 11 series The Toy That Grew Up, and after being named general manager of the Copernicus Center in 1986 he began to accompany films at the center's Gateway Theatre.

This weekend's screening of The Unknown will give him a chance to play Rockefeller Chapel's imposing 110-rank E.M. Skinner organ. "It's a classical organ," he says, "but it's got very many orchestral stops on there, so the theater-organ style works very well." The film's circus setting will allow him to dip into that musical tradition, which helps to offset the film's cruel and devastating climax. "For those real heavy parts, there's a lot to draw on. You've got all the wonderful pedal stops, and big tubas, and mixtures which are very high-pitch stops, and they come right across the ensemble. The acoustics of the room are very good too, although the organ is mostly in the chancel."

The Unknown reunited Lon Chaney with director Tod Browning, who'd directed him in Outside the Law (1921), The Unholy Three (1925), The Blackbird (1926), and The Road to Mandalay (1926). In The Unknown, Chaney plays Alonzo the Armless, a circus performer who uses his feet to fling knives at the beautiful Nanon. Played by 18-year-old Joan Crawford, Nanon has a phobia of men's hands, which makes her recoil in disgust from the handsome strongman (Norman Kerry) into an intimate friendship with Alonzo. By the late 20s Freudian analysis had become a favorite parlor game, and this perverse tale of frigidity and castration anxiety was excellent material for Browning. His films can often be dull or awkward, but this one races along with the awful momentum of a bad dream.

The film opened on August 1, 1927, at the Chicago Theatre, and a week later at the Senate (Madison and Kedzie). The Cat and the Canary opened at the Roosevelt that same year, the week of Halloween. Its ad promised "THRILLS! LAUGHTER! / Master mystery production that quivers and shivers, with eerie throbbing thrills / You'll never forget this SCALP-CRINKLIN' DRAMA / And it's a tale that will ever remain in your memory." But in nearby Hammond, a bigger mystery was about to unfold.

Just after 2 AM the morning of November 8, 1927, John Muri was awakened by a huge blast from across town. An explosion had ripped through the giant State Theater at State and Sibley. According to the Lake County Times, the explosion "broke windows all over the block...did considerable damage to All Saints Church and School, and made a twisted mass of wrecked plaster, steel and brick" out of the $2,000,000 movie palace--with 3,500 seats the biggest in town. It had opened in August 1926, dazzling the whole region with its massive columns of Italian marble, the gorgeous dome over the foyer, and its $50,000 organ.

"Although no official statement of the damage has been made, it is estimated to be beyond $1,000,000," reported the Times. "The interior of the theater is a complete ruin including the marvelous pipe organ....[T]he costly interior finish, wall tapestries and frescoes were distributed in crushed dust from the stage to the foyer. Steel superstructures were bent out of shape. In places the walls bulged and were cracked from the roof to the foundation." The explosive had been placed near an emergency exit facing Sibley Street, and the surrounding buildings sustained thousands of dollars in damage.

No lives were lost, however, and for Muri the tragedy held a perverse reward: "They had a fine orchestra in that theater, about 14 men. They all were standing out in the street in the morning. I went out there to see what was going on, and I saw that whole orchestra there. Well, within five days the manager of the Indiana had engaged the old orchestra and told them, 'Come on over to the Indiana, you'll play seven nights a week, all the weekends too.' And was I happy, playing organ in cahoots with a 14-piece orchestra. Oh, that was good."

William Kliehege, a Hammond businessman, was convicted of conspiracy to bomb the building. "The story in the newspapers," says Muri, "was to the effect that there were merchants of the street on which that new theater had been built. And 3,400 seats, they felt that that was driving business away from them. The suspicion was that a group of the merchants had decided to bomb the theater."

A bigger blast had rocked the film world a month earlier, when Warner Brothers released The Jazz Singer. The State Theater had been the first in Hammond with a Vitaphone system, which used sound recorded on a disc to make Al Jolson sing, and some Chicago theaters were offering Vitaphone shorts too. Now the full-length talking film had become Hollywood's new frontier. For the silent cinema and the theater organist, it was the beginning of the end.

That October, Bela Lugosi took Broadway by storm in Dracula. The novel had been adapted into a drawing-room mystery three years earlier by actor Hamilton Deane, and after a successful West End run it was rewritten for the New York stage by John Balderston. Dracula was a smash hit and played around the country for 22 months. A yearlong west-coast engagement allowed Lugosi to both lobby Universal for the film part and carry on a wild affair with the "It" girl, Clara Bow. Universal had been reconsidering the novel as a property since the British play became a hit, but the story's weird sexuality presented censorship problems. And there was also the problem of Florence Stoker.

When Nosferatu was released in 1922, the late novelist's wife asked the British Incorporated Society of Authors to help her sue the film's producer, Prana Films, for its unlicensed use of the story. Prana had gone into receivership shortly after the film debuted, but its debts and assets were taken over by the Deutsch-Amerikanisch Film Union, and in July 1925 a German court ruled in favor of Stoker. By then all German prints of the film had mysteriously vanished, but a few months later one turned up in the possession of a British film society. Stoker filed suit against the society, won the print from them in 1929, and promptly burned it. The next year the film turned up in New York, and at Stoker's behest, Universal bought and presumably destroyed it--but not before the screenwriters for its version of Dracula lifted from Murnau's film a scene in which the real estate agent accidentally cuts himself and the vampire stands transfixed at the sight of his blood. Luckily for the world of cinema, Florence Stoker died in 1937.

Carl Laemmle wanted Chaney to play Count Dracula and was preparing to offer him a three-picture deal that would also include a talking sequel to Phantom of the Opera. Tod Browning was the obvious choice to direct; after The Unknown, he and Chaney made the pseudovampire film London After Midnight (1927), a big hit for MGM that grossed more than a million dollars worldwide and is now considered one of the great lost films of the silent era.

Chaney talked to Browning about Dracula and is known to have done some test makeups for the role. But in September 1929 he'd been diagnosed with bronchial cancer, and a year later, after releasing his first talkie (a remake of The Unholy Three), he died at age 47. With Chaney gone, the role was up for grabs. But Universal, hobbled by the stock market crash, procrastinated until mid-September, when it signed Lugosi at $500 a week, a quarter what the studio was paying the romantic lead, David Manners. Shooting began less than two weeks later, with Browning in the director's chair--sort of.

Many critics have commented on the film's inconsistency: the early scenes in Dracula's castle, largely silent, have all the eerie power of Browning's best work, while the last half of the film, heavy with dialogue, unfolds like a badly paced stage play. In his book The Monster Show, David J. Skal quotes David Manners saying that all the scenes in which he appeared were directed by cinematographer Karl Freund--who had shot Lugosi in Murnau's Der Januskopf a decade before, and gone on to photograph The Last Laugh and Metropolis (1926), following Murnau to Hollywood that year. Other accounts note that Browning ignored Freund's ideas for a more fluid camera and disregarded other moving shots in the script.

Browning's somnambulant sequences in Castle Dracula soon had the production behind schedule; as Arthur Lennig notes in his Lugosi biography The Count (1974), the film's first reel contains 60 shots, but by the sixth reel that number plummets to 36. Perhaps Browning disappeared after the shoot began to fall behind and let Freund complete the drawing room scenes while Universal slid toward insolvency. He delivered an 85-minute cut that Universal trimmed to 75; the released film had no score, except for a melody from Swan Lake over the credits and passages from Wagner and Schubert when Dracula visits the symphony. Because so many cinemas had yet to convert to sound, the film was released in a silent version as well.

Clearly the urgent rhythms of Philip Glass's new score are meant to pump up the tension in the more sluggish scenes. The score was commissioned by Universal in 1999 for a new video release, and rather than arrange the piece for a full orchestra, Glass wisely decided on a string quartet, playing to the film's claustrophobic "chamber drama." Unlike the character-driven work of the theater organist, his development of the score was scenic, and in the British publication What's On, he compared Dracula to the work of Einstein on the Beach director Robert Wilson: "The crypt, the castle, the drawing room; the film sets each scene meticulously and then exploits it." And while Glass is best known for his contribution to minimalism, Kronos violinist David Harrington considers the score a history of chamber music: "There are moments that, if Schubert hadn't lived, this music would not exist, and there's some moments where, if Bartok hadn't written quartets, then this music also would not have existed."

Brown Whornet's Nosferatu began as a live performance and has only recently been committed to video; in contrast, Kronos Quartet's performance of the Dracula score took some time to bring off as a concert. "The solo string quartet piece is almost physically impossible to do in concert," says Harrington, "and we pointed that out to Philip, because of such things as page turns and logistics like that. But also there are moments where we're playing frantically for five minutes at a time. And those arpeggios that just keep going--I mean, it's very exciting and all that, but it's basically impossible to play. So we figured out a version that could be done in concert." Glass will join the quartet on piano this weekend, with Michael Riesman conducting and adding occasional keyboard.

Shortly after he and the quartet accompanied Dracula at the Telluride Film Festival in 1999, Glass told the Independent that he wanted to "find ways in which film and live performance could coexist and work together. There was a historic moment in the development of film where that possibility was lost, and film became what we now think of as movies, essentially a 90-minute narrative form." The Dracula screenings have since taken on a life of their own. He and Kronos have performed the score in New York, London, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and various European cities, including one performance in a graveyard in Spain. Their Chicago stop is part of an extensive American tour that later goes to Amsterdam and Lyons. In March 2001 they'll retire the project after accompanying the film for three nights in Hong Kong.

Film had already begun its slippery slide into movies by the time John Muri got his first job as an organist in 1924, but he and his peers did find a way to marry cinema with spontaneous performance. Unfortunately, by the time Dracula opened in Chicago, at the State-Lake, the Depression had hit hard, Muri's schedule at the Indiana had been reduced, and he could read the writing on the wall. "You just didn't have jobs," he says. "The organists by and large were discharged right and left. And that made me decide rather early that, 'John, you'd better get your degree.'" He still had a loyal fan base at the Indiana, but in 1934 the theater finally let him go. He played the piano for WIND in Gary and became music director for WWAE in Hammond, but the work didn't appeal to him. By 1937 he'd earned a degree in English from the University of Chicago, and he spent the next 30 years teaching in the Hammond public school system. "There was a good deal of happiness in that work," he says, "and I never regretted it."

He remained active as an organist, performing concerts for the American Theatre Organ Society, recording scores for the silent-film distributor Blackhawk Films, and serving as a tonal consultant for the Wurlitzer Company in the late 70s. For theater organists and film fans alike, he's a touchstone, an expert practitioner of a dying art. "Three years ago, for his 91st birthday, they had the grand reopening of the Hoosier Theatre in Whiting," says Dennis Scott. "There were people there [who'd been] little kids, who came to the theater to hear him, and they were doddering around in their 80s or something like that. And they were still in awe of him. One fellow said, 'When I was a kid my mom used to bring me to the Hoosier to hear you play. I can't believe you're still here.'"

But even Muri can't turn back the clock. "I have accumulated filing cases full of music, and they are here sitting in my study right now," he says. "They worry me, because they're too large, and I rarely get called upon to play for films. I've been invited [by] Emory University to accompany two films in the last year and a half. Well, that's not much."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Peter Bareras/Michael Lavine--Edge.

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