The full story has still not been told but, simply put, Dennis James has been ejected from his seat at the Mighty Wurlitzer, where he has accompanied the silent movie series at the Paramount Theatre for the past 11 years. James has spent his career as a professional organ player and composer largely accompanying silent films in the traditional style, both in solo performances and in collaboration with orchestras or guest musicians, and promoting the lost art of accompanying silent films as part of the silent film experience. He helped the Seattle Theatre Group launch the Silent Movie Mondays film series in 1998 and has been active in the continued restoration of the theatre’s Wurlitzer organ. (The Paramount is one of the few preserved movie houses in the country that still has its original silent film organ.) And he has used his contacts with the studios and film preservation houses to secure the best silent film prints around. He has been essential to nurturing the series and one of the primary reasons for the success of the series.
The entire affair came out of nowhere for audiences who came to the June 22 showing of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Godless Girl and found Dennis James standing outside the theater in his tuxedo and Oakland-based organist Jim Riggs at the organ, flown in for the performance. (The Seattle Theatre Group had sent out a press release on June 19 announcing that Riggs would replace James for the final two performances of the current series, but the news was nowhere to be found on the Paramount website.) It seemed very abrupt to those of us who had been attending the series over the years and, based on the comments section of various recent articles, to James himself. There has been some finger pointing and accusations of unprofessional behavior on both sides. James has been called temperamental and difficult to work with, but he is also a dedicated professional who takes great pride in his work and interest in the upkeep of his tools.
The most complete report comes from Seattle Times film critic Moira Macdonald, whose article was posted online and published in the Monday, June 29 edition of the Seattle Times. She wrote the first notice in the Seattle Times here and there is also a report on the Seattle Weekly’s Daily Weekly blog and a preview of the June 29 showing of Seventh Heaven on Siffblog, all of which are worth checking out if only for the comments. (And in response to at least one poster, James is in fact one of the best, if not the very best, at what he does: playing the theatre pipe organ at silent film performances.)
There isn’t enough information about what happened to offer any kind of informed opinion on what happened and why, but from my vantage point, it seems that James was treated quite shabbily considering his efforts in making the series as successful as it has been. Yes, the man does have an ego; I know from experience. He also has a rapport with audiences and a devotion to his art, and his talent is undeniable. When the film starts, his performance is in service to the film. His musicianship, his knowledge of the silent movie style and his ability to draw from the stock library of silent film themes and cues to create a seamless score are indeed what brings many audiences to the shows. I love all kinds of silent film experiences, from solo piano (Donald Sosin at multiple SIFF performances) to small combo (I dig the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and Vince Giordano and his Nighthawks) to experimental or modern approaches (like The Alloy Orchestra) and I don’t consider any one of them more legitimate than another. But when it comes to the theatre organ, it doesn’t get better than Dennis James, whose experience and dedication is second to none.
You can read more about Dennis James at his wikipedia page here. And for fun, check out my profile of James and the silent film series from the Seattle Weekly in 1999.