Classic silent films are alive and well at the Allen Theatre in Annville, and have never sounded better thanks to the musical artistry of Don Kinnier and Tom and Laurie Reese.
Kinnier, of Lititz, is master of the Allen's mighty theatre organ. The Reeses, of Mt. Joy, perform their genius with Tom on flute and Laurie on cello. It comes as no surprise that all three profess a love for the art of the silent film, having viewed and studied dozens of them. The surprise is in how they cast a spell and excite the audience with their live accompaniment using completely different instruments.
At the mighty organ, Kinnier conducts a virtual symphony of sounds be it a glockenspiel, a horn, a tuba, a xylophone, an oboe or a clarinet among others to underscore action and emotion as well as to rivet the audience to a scene.
The Reeses skillfully coax a seemingly endless patina of short bursts, sorrowful wails, gleeful interludes and sparkling moments from their flute and cello, as well as at times turning on each other to accent what's being silently portrayed on the screen.
Kinnier, who began organ lessons at 8 years of age and has played his compositions for silent films for 53 years. He recently accompanied "The Eagle," released in 1925, at the Allen. It starred Rudolph Valentino in the swashbuckling role of Lt. Vladimir Dubrovsky, a Russian cossak in the Czarina's cavalry, who avenges the swindle of his family's farm by a corrupt local government official, Kyrilla Troekouroff, and has a romantic interlude or two.
One of Kinnier's favorite scenes in "The Eagle" is when the Czarina attempts to seduce the young Lt. Dubrovsky by offering to make him a general.
A lot of flirting goes on that Kinnier underscores in a minor key to create a Russian blues, sensuous type of sound by combining clarinet and flute stops on the organ to synthesize a saxophone, which he said is a Russian instrument.
As the lieutenant and the Czarina try to romance each other, Kinnier includes bits of Russian dances to portray the flirting that is unfolding, while a smooth legato frames the scene. When, unbeknownst to each other, the two characters repeatedly spill their drinks into potted plants to stay sober, Kinnier uses flips, three or four notes in a short run that are disconnected, to accentuate those moves.
"The organ picks up the emotional mood of the conversation that's taking place on screen," Kinnier explained. "It seems to let you believe you are hearing the words and emotion."
While you won't hear a clarinet or a horn when they perform, the Reeses utilize strings and air to produce effects such as a glissando, pizzicato, tremeloes, tri-tones and trill slides among others with the cello and the flute.
"There are no bells and whistles," said Tom. "We have to provide that."
The Reeses, who have composed scores and played for silent films since 1989, last summer at the Allen performed their score for the 1927 film "The General," based on the famous locomotive chase through Georgia and Tennessee during the Civil War. Buster Keaton starred as the irrepressible and unassuming Johnnie Gray, a Confederate locomotive engineer, who sets out to prove his worth as a true son of the South, and woo the fair Annabelle Lee.
A favorite scene of the Reeses takes place at the Rock River Bridge when Keaton sets the bridge on fire to cut off the Union Army's supply line.
"You have the dynamics of fire and the burn," Tom said, "with soldiers trying to cross the bridge."
There is action and awe that climaxes when the pursuing Union locomotive reaches the middle of the bridge and plummets into the river as the bridge collapses.
"It's planned dissonance," Laurie explained of their accompaniment. "There are fast lines and motion punctuated by dissonant scales and minor keys. We use tremolos, tri-tones and trill slides. Tri-tones are really scary and convey a sense of impending doom."
The Reeses admitted that some improvisation takes place during a performance.
"There are some boundaries," Tom said. "It's not complete improvisation."
While it may vary somewhat, a character's theme remains his or her signature. However, improvisation or variation can adapt the theme from happy to sad in a minor key, said Laurie.
A theme can work even if the character is not in the scene.
In "The General," Buster Keaton is seen mulling over how to propose to his lady fair, Annabelle, and her theme is heard.
"A theme can be used when a character reappears or his or her presence is implied," said Laurie. "Keaton is thinking of ways to propose to Annabelle, so we bring in her theme."
Love themes are usually delivered in a major key to set a happy or poignant sound or to convey the feeling of yearning, explained Laurie. By the same token, sadness is expressed in a minor key.
Kinnier initially previews a film non-stop watching for cues. On the second time around, he slows down the film to hone in on a cue to compose for that scene.
"Every scene has a rhythm and there are visual cues in the film," Kinnier said of how he matches the organ to tempo and meter.
Laurie Reese agreed.
"There is rhythm built into the movie," she said of what she and Tom look for in the scenes. "We consider the film as a third musician."
Tom stated the obvious about the need for preview screening.
"We need to know the film," he said. "We write and infuse a theme for each character that recurs with that character. We work together as one brain held together by the film."
As he sits before the Allen's organ, which is owned by the Susquehanna Valley Theatre Organ Society, Kinnier said, "I have a job to do. It is to connect the emotions of the audience to the screen and to have you believe you are hearing the words by hearing the emotion through the organ."
Tom and Laurie hit the same note.
"We want people to look at the film," Tom said. "It's an opportunity to hear what we added to it. It's not a concert. We want them to enjoy the film as a great piece of art."
Skip Hicks, owner of the Allen, which was known as The Hippodrome when it opened in 1917, plans to continue the silent film series.
"People can see what movie making was like during the silent era," Hicks said.
Of the live accompaniment by the Reeses and Kinnier, he said, "They are three extremely talented musicians in their fields. You can't do better than any of them."
As Kinnier says to the audience at "The End" of a silent film, "Well, that's how it was done."
For information on the silent film series which runs through this summer at The Allen Theatre, 363 W. Main Street, Annville, click on www.allentheatre.com or call 717-867-3545.