This month, the Silent Film Society of Chicago (SFSC) is collaborating with three Chicago-area venues to screen the silent films The Kid (1921), The Artist (2011), and 7th Heaven (1927) with live musical accompaniment.
The Kid, starring Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan, will play at the Arcada Theatre in Saint Charles on Wednesday, February 15, at 7 PM, and will be preceded by the short Felix in Hollywood (1923). The throwback musical-comedy The Artist, which earned Oscars for best actor (Jean Dujardin) and best picture in 2012, screens at the Logan Theatre on Thursday, February 11, at 9 PM. And the romantic drama 7th Heaven, starring “America’s Favorite Lovebirds” Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, plays in the lower-level parish hall of Saint John Cantius Church on Sunday, February 26, at 3 PM.
The Arcada Theatre’s recently restored Geneva-Marr & Colton pipe organ will soundtrack The Kid; and Saint John Cantius’s Wurlitzer theater pipe organ, originally from the Terrace Theater in New York City, will score 7th Heaven. For The Artist, the SFSC will bring in their digital Mighty Wurlitzer theater organ to produce a musical motif based on Ludovic Bource’s original score, along with other film music from the era by composers William Axt and J.S. Zamecnik, and additional musical themes by the great theater organist Gaylord Carter. SFSC’s own photoplay organist, Dennis Wolkowicz (who performs under the stage name Jay Warren), will play at each event.
“I wear two hats,” Wolkowicz says of his role at SFSC. “One is Jay, of course: a man about town, playing the organ for silent films here and there. And Dennis Wolkowicz actually does programming—talks to the people working the venues, talks to the film companies, et cetera.”
Since its inception in 1998, SFSC has been preserving and presenting silent films across the Chicago area. “Our mission was to bring silent films to the forefront, because they’d gotten a bit musty,” Wolkowicz notes. “But we got started by doing most of our screenings at the old Gateway Theatre on Lawrence Avenue—that’s a 2,000-seat theater—and we would do it with all the bravado of going to a silent film in the 1920s, with the grand pipe organ and opening the curtain. It was a great scene.”
“Nobody was showing silent films on a regular basis back then, and the films that were available were all on celluloid,” Wolkowicz continues. “Most of them were not restored. So we’d show these scratchy prints, and people would just flock to them, because it felt like a gift.”
As a Polish kid from the northwest side of Chicago, Wolkowicz said he took obligatory accordion lessons; but in the studio where he practiced, he couldn’t help but notice the organ in the room. “All the cool kids were playing the organ,” he recalls, “and I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.'” Around age nine, he says he started watching the Channel 11 program The Toy That Grew Up, which showed uninterrupted, full-length silent films. “The first one I saw was Battleship Potemkin,” he says, “and it was such a powerful film, I got hooked.”
Hal Pearl was the organist for the program, and also the organist for the Aragon Ballroom during its big-band heyday. “I actually got to know Hal, and worked with him a couple times,” Wolkowicz says, adding that he worked with “theatre organist superstar” Gaylord Carter in the early 1970s as well, when Carter teamed up with comedian Harold Lloyd to play silent films on college campuses across the country. “[Carter] would come in to Chicago and I would work with him, and I was just in awe of his style,” Wolkowicz recounts. “He was an inspiration to me and an unofficial mentor.”
Wolkowicz began his career as a church organist, and later became the general manager of a performing arts center on the north side. “I programmed a series of classic films, including silent films,” he says. ” I hired some local organists to play, and I thought they were absolutely terrible, so then I thought, ‘You know, I could do this.’ And I began scheduling myself.”
The first film Wolkowicz accompanied on the organ in front of a live audience was The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). “So I went up there in front of the audience, and it’s 110 minutes,” he says. “After about 15 minutes I was totally lost and really out of my element. And I realized ‘Oh, there’s more work to this than just sitting down at a keyboard.’ So it’s been a lifelong learning curve.”
“A lot of people come to silent films, consciously or unconsciously, with the attitude of, ‘I’m here, show me,” Wolkowicz says. He uses The Phantom of the Opera (1925) as an example. “I start playing the film, and we have the usual sounds of coughing and candy wrappers,” he continues, “but when the Phantom initially speaks to Christine from behind the wall of her dressing room, the theater goes completely silent—because they’re all picking up on the thematic motif, musically speaking, and on the Phantom in all of his shadows and his mystery.”
“Everybody shuts their mouth and starts paying attention,” he says, “and that’s when I know I’ve got ’em.”
For those who’ve never seen a silent film in a theater, Wolkowicz says to come prepared for a unique experience: “Give it a chance, and pay attention, because these are really powerful films.”
“I always used to say that before [cinema] went digital, sound films and silent films had only one thing in common: the celluloid they were printed on,” he continues. “They’re two altogether different art forms.”
For more information on locations and tickets for the events, please visit http://www.silentfilmchicago.com/events.htm.