by Amy Whipple
At The Hollywood Theater in Dormont, Chad Hunter is in the middle of a six-event series called Silents, Please! which pairs silent films and live musical accompaniment. Hunter himself has been pairing his backgrounds in film preservation and cinema with The Hollywood since 2012. He took some time before this weekend’s Charlie Chaplin screening to talk to The Sprout Fund about the series, silent films, and their musical history.
What inspired Silents, Please? Why silent movies, why live music, why at the Hollywood?
I was kicking around the idea of a silent series. We tried a couple of things: a Chaplin event we did went really well and a Harold Lloyd film that didn’t do as well, but I knew that I wanted a sustained commitment to silent films. There’s a particular interest in experiencing [silent films with] live accompaniment. There’s also a large historical context for that. The Hollywood Theater opened in 1926 as a cinema. It would have had either a theater organ or a small orchestra that would have performed along with films at the time. That would have lasted until The Hollywood reopened as a sound theater in 1931.
Does Pittsburgh have a large film community?
Yes. Pittsburgh has a huge history with film. What is considered to be the first popular model of the cinema was started here in Pittsburgh. There were silent films shot here back in the ’20s, and it’s been a location for films ever since.
Who are the people behind the project?
We had Mac Howison’s help with Sprout funding. Otherwise, it’s Tom Roberts and myself.
What films have you shown so far in the series?
We did a soft launch in October, which just happened to coincide with a string ensemble that wanted to come through town that wanted to perform along with this classic Soviet propaganda film Battleship Potemkin. That did pretty well. Our big first film with a local musician was with Daryl Fleming and the Public Domain and they performed along with a Louise Brook’s film, Beggars of Life. Coincidentally, Barry Paris, who’s a writer and film critic in Pittsburgh, had written probably one of the foremost biographies on Louise Brooks, [so] he came and introduced the film and did questions and answers.
Who is performing along with the Chaplin movies?
Tom Roberts—he’s known in the area as a jazz piano player. He’s helping plan the series with the idea that we’d wrap in his work when we could. We’re premiering his new score for The Pawn Shop. It was a nice fit because it’s something Tom had previously been developing.
What makes the upcoming Chaplin movies special?
It’s the hundredth anniversary of Chaplin’s Tramp character, which first appeared in the film Kid Auto Races at Venice Beach, so we’ll be showing that as well as a couple Chaplin shorts that Tom has previously scored, too. The Q&A for that is with Dan Kamin. He’s from the area and is a world-renowned mime and taught Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp how to perform as Chaplin for their roles.
What kind of research and preparation goes into making this happen?
It’s different for each of the musicians. I don’t want to speak for them, but they’re all meticulous. They’re not the kind of musicians that would play light fare—they like to plan and have recurring motifs for particular characters and play songs that were popular from the day. It definitely has required continued conversations.
We chose the films along with them. We chose the musicians and then spoke about what they would like to perform for, so it put it on them. That was part of this project—giving a new venue and audience for these great local musicians. We would bounce back ideas and then whittle them down.
Did anybody keep records of what people played for the original film showings?
There definitely were scores for early films. There are a lot of scores for Chaplin films—in particular for his later feature films. So when you see those performed these days, they’ll likely be played with the original scores. What we’re showing—The Pawn Shop—is much earlier, and I don’t think there’s a score for it, that’s why Tom scored it. There were music sheets when a film was distributed for the piano player or organist to play along with. For some, they still exist. It takes a lot of time to hunt those down and put those together and that sort of thing.
What’s next for you, for the Hollywood, and for Silents, Please?
In February, we’ll be doing a really great film called Piccadilly. It’s a British production from the ’20s staring Anna May Wong, who is the first Chinese-American movie star. Tom is going to perform along with Appalasia—they do this mix of roots and Asian music; it’s the perfect fit for what we want to do with that film. We’re also talking with Jerry’s Records for them to select a film and then live DJ music from 78 RPM records. It’ll probably be a Western with country-western music. We’re talking with other people to get other ideas to continue this beyond the springboard of The Sprout Fund.
How can people get involved and/or support the Hollywood?
Check out our programming. That’s the cheap way. The Hollywood has been around since 1926, but it has opened and closed a number of times. We reopened as a nonprofit three years ago this May. We have membership, we do sponsorships with businesses. You can also rent The Hollywood as an event venue—weddings, birthday parties, community events. You can premiere your film. And you can always connect via our Facebook page and Twitter.