Organist Dennis Wolkowicz's first outing as an accompanist for a full-length silent film was a near disaster. Fifteen minutes into the 1923 classic Hunchback of Notre Dame, the former church organist ran out of material. "It was the loneliest feeling in the world," says Wolkowicz, who performs under the name Jay Warren. He ended up improvising variations on the themes he'd prepared and missing most of his cues. "It was a big baptism for me, and showed me how much work was involved," he says. "But I was hooked."
Wolkowicz, who manages the Gateway Theatre and helped found the Silent Film Society in 1998, has been playing and collecting silent-film music since the early 80s. Most of the full-length scores were written for orchestras in downtown theaters, so his biggest treasure trove of music is a two-foot-high stack of mood music given to him by big-band leader Tony Barron in 1994. Each piece is a page or two long and was designed for a specific type of situation, e.g., "The Holdup," "The Verdict," "Tenderness, Love Sentiment," and "Gruesome Mysterioso #3 (Extreme Tension)."
"When you play these things they last just a couple of minutes," says Wolkowicz. "You can improvise on them or tie in your own themes that you have written."
That's what he'll do for Friday's Silent Summer Film Festival screening of the 1927 Clara Bow vehicle It. "We don't have the original score, but it's a pretty easy film to play because there are such strong characters," says Wolkowicz. "Each one has its own major theme, which gives you a lot to work with."
These days he prepares by watching the film a few times beforehand, on video or DVD. "I don't practice with it. I watch it silently and get the feeling for the film and take note of certain crucial areas where the music has to be exactly on the money," he says. "You have to be able to musically turn on a dime to the next scene. In an action sequence if there's a hammer going down, you want to hit that just right. It has to fit, and you can't make it hackneyed or overplay or underplay it.
"Those of us who play for silent films like to hear, 'You know, we didn't realize you were playing, we were so engrossed in the film.' That's the best compliment of all."
One thing he doesn't like to hear is an avant-garde score accompanying a silent film, no matter how good the musicianship. "It's like neon-ing the Mona Lisa," he says. "It's not just the films that need to be preserved, but the music of that period, too."
Friday's screening will be preceded by a short audience sing-along to lyrics projected onto the screen using original glass slides passed through a projector--just like back in the 20s. The other opening act is Jay Warren's Flapper Revue, featuring a pair of dancers doing the Raccoon, the Charleston, and the Varsity Drag. Wolkowicz promises the preshow hoo-ha will be brief. "We want to give people the flavor of the 20s without ramming it down their throats."
It screens at 8 PM on Friday, August 13, at the Gateway Theatre, 5216 W. Lawrence; tickets are $10. Call 773-205-7372 or see www.silentfilmchicago.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.