Silent Movie Mondays – The House That James Built Silences Dennis James

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.

Dennis James at the Mighty Wurlitzer
Dennis James at the Mighty Wurlitzer

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.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I’m a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I’ve written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View.

I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

5 thoughts on “Silent Movie Mondays – The House That James Built Silences Dennis James”

  1. Dennis is worth fighting for! Thanks for your article Sean. …I’d write more here, but I’ve already said a lot in the other blogs about this, and my hands are getting tired!

  2. Thank you, Sean. Well said.

    Having professionally worked with Dennis James since 2006 with our annual Anniversary Silent Film Classic, I must say that he knows how to put on a great show. When we’ve followed his suggestions, the audience got much more for their money – and their wild applause and comments showed it.

    To dispel any notion that Dennis is demanding, let me say we’ve found him to be “exacting” without the connotation of imposing hardship. He doesn’t demand any more of us than he does of himself. He knows how to put on a rousing performance, and we are happy to help facilitate that endeavor.

    Dennis is performing at The Historic Lynwood Theatre here on Bainbridge Island this coming Sunday, July 5, at 1:30 and 7:00 for King Vidor’s THE CROWD. Although our structure is not as grand as The Paramount, we can offer a more personal atmosphere. I’m sure Dennis is working on a score which will knock our socks off.

    In the meantime, here’s hoping the Paramount/Dennis James situation resolves its differences.

  3. Some more clarification to the above: I served as the final appointed house organist of Seattle’s Paramount Theatre from 1999 to August, 2008 at which point I resigned the post signifying the conclusion of professional organ performance services to the theatre. The reason for the resignation was the onset of public announcement by local unpaid amateur organ players performing service assignments by a Seattle Theatre Organ Group associate staff member eliminating a portion of the professional, paid performance duties within the AFM union supervised and negotiated position. As of March, 2010 I am still on unexplained “hiatus” from performing my silent film services at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle, and while awaiting Seattle Theatre Group’s written notice to resume I continue, now as the theatre’s Artist in Residence, researching and restoring historical silent film scores that I am assigned to address. Starting in mid-June, 2009 the Seattle Theatre Group began paying me for services rendered while simultaneously engaging for the improvised film performance services of the non-union, self-taught silent film scorer Jim Riggs effectively dismantling the remaining prior historic preservation emphasis within the presented theatre organ use in the theatre.

    Dennis James

  4. Hope you enjoy next week’s silent film event with live organ music – the April 19, 2010 screening of Nell Shipman silent films at the Admiral Theatre in West Seattle, the first in what is being planned as the return of Original SIlent Movie Mondays bringing historically-informed authentic musical scoring to silent film screenings to Seattle after the recent one year hiatus. Stay tuned for the other Admiral Theatre silent film events – and also these in the surrounding Northwest area in coming months with my performances at the organ:
    July 5, Lynwood Theatre, Bainbridge Island, Washington
    Annual Anniversary silent film screenings: title tba
    November 4, Washington Center, Olympia, Washington
    25th Anniversary Celebration Musica Curiosa with organ event: title tba
    November 13&14, Blue Mouse Theatre, Tacoma, Washington
    87th Anniversary screening: Harold Lloyd in SAFETY LAST
    February 13, Lynwood Theatre, Bainbridge Island, Washington
    Silent film series- two screenings: title tba
    February 17, Washington Center, Olympia, Washington
    5th annual silent film series
    March 27, City Museum, Wenatchee, Washington
    Silent film program: Buster Keaton in THE BOAT plus THE NAVIGATOR
    March 31, Washington Center, Olympia, Washington
    5th annual silent film series
    April 21, Washington Center, Olympia, Washington
    5th annual silent film series
    July 5, Lynwood Theatre, Bainbridge Island, Washington
    Annual Anniversary silent film screenings: title tba
    For more information, visit: http://www.cas.sc.edu/film/james.htm

    DENNIS JAMES | THEATRE ORGANIST
    SILENT FILM CONCERTS
    INTERNATIONAL TOUR CONTACT
    PO BOX 69 | ADDISON, NY 14801 USA

  5. Dennis James, final Paramount Theatre House Organist (1998-2008) and creator of the Silent Movie Mondays series, announces his 2012-2013 professional touring performances:

    September 17, Cologne Philharmonie, Cologne, GERMANY
    Debut silent film performance-:Filmharmonia Duo accompany Fritz Lang’s DIE FRAU IM MONDE a new historically-based commissioned organ and electronics score

    September 21, Stanford Theatre, Palo Alto, California
    Friday Night Silents autumn series: Laura LaPlante in CAT & THE CANARY

    September 30, Black-Eyed Susan Cafe, Angelica, New York
    Musica Curiosa Salon with Dennis James featuring the Theremin plus solo piano

    October 4, Winspear Center, Edmonton, CANADA
    Dennis James, organ soloist, with Edmonton Symphony Orchestra presentation: Lon Chaney in PHANTOM OF THE OPERA featuring Dennis James’ arrangement for organ and orchestra of the 1925 G. Hinrichs and M. Winkler orchestral score

    October 5&6, Historic Coleman Theatre, Miami, Oklahoma
    Silent film program: Douglas Fairbanks in THE MARK OF ZORRO with historical-recreation compilation score by Dennis James

    October 12, Stanford Theatre, Palo Alto, California
    Friday Night Silents autumn series: Erich von Stroheim’s FOOLISH
    WIVES with historical recreation styled improvised solo organ score by Dennis James

    October 19, Scottish Rite Cathedral, New Castle, Pennsylvania
    2nd Annual Halloween silent film performance: F. W. Murnau’s NOSFERATU, A SYMPHONY OF TERROR with new solo organ compilation score by Dennis James incorporating surviving fragments of the Hans Erdmann original orchestra score

    October 20, Embassy Theatre, Fort Wayne, Indiana
    Annual Halloween silent film: Robert Weine’s THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI with compilation score by Dennis James

    October 24, Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, University of Chicago, Illinois
    F. W. Murnau’s FAUST accompanied by the Filmharmonia Duo

    October 26, I. U. Auditorium, Bloomington, Indiana
    Annual Halloween silent film event: F. W. Murnau’s FAUST accompanied by the Filmharmonia Duo

    October 28, Proctors Theatre, Schenectady, New York
    Halloween silent film event: F. W. Murnau’s FAUST accompanied by the Filmharmonia Duo

    October 29, Missouri Theatre, Columbia, Missouri
    Halloween silent film event: Lon Chaney in PHANTOM OF THE OPERA

    October 31, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York
    Annual Halloween program: F. W. Murnau’s FAUST accompanied by the Filmharmonia Duo

    November 2, Stanford Theatre, Palo Alto, California
    Friday Night Silents autumn series: Lon Chaney in PHANTOM OF THE OPERA

    November 24,25, C&C Hall, Austintown, Ohio
    Saturday evening- private glass music and theremin Musica Curiosa plus organ and film program / Sunday afternoon: Annual holiday open house- Wurlitzer organ performances with glass music and theremin Musica Curiosa elements

    December 31, Venango Museum, Oil City, Pennsylvania
    Annual First Night festival – Musica Curiosa program featuring theatre pipe organ plus piano, glass armonica and theremin and silent film comedy

    2013

    January 20, Arlington Theatre, Santa Barbara, California
    SBTOS silent film matinee (2pm) program: Buster Keaton in COPS plus Marion Davies in SHOW PEOPLE

    January 30, USC, Columbia, South Carolina
    International Wagner conference: Fritz Lang’s SIEGFRIED with performance of original orchestral score by Otto Huppertz, transcribed for organ solo score by Dennis James

    February 1, Center for the Arts, Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT.
    “Music from Monticello” touring instrumental program featuring Dennis James performing Mozart with a concert replica of Benjamin Franklin’s armonica

    February 7, Washington Center, Olympia, Washington
    7th annual Silent Film Concerts series: Louise Brooks in PANDORA’S BOX

    February 9, Overture Center, Madison, Wisconsin
    Annual ‘Duck Soup Cinema’ variety show appearances: Willis H. O’Brien’s THE LOST WORLD

    February 10, Al Ringling Theatre, Baraboo, Wisconsin
    Theatre organ with silent film: Buster Keaton in THE CAMERAMAN

    February 23, Trinity Hall, Spring Valley, California
    Annual San Diego Theatre Organ Society silent film program: Ramon Novarro in A STUDENT PRINCE IN OLD HEIDELBERG

    March 2&3, Historic Coleman Theatre, Miami, Oklahoma
    Annual silent film series presentations: Harold Lloyd in SPEEDY

    March 7, Washington Center, Olympia, Washington
    7th annual Silent Film Concerts series: Douglas Fairbanks in THE MYSTERY OF THE LEAPING FISH plus the feature film WHEN THE CLOUDS ROLL BY

    March 8. California Theatre, San Jose, California
    Annual Cinequest film festival silent film screening: Buster Keaton in COPS and Harold Lloyd in SAFETY LAST

    March 10, Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa, California
    Pacific Symphony presents organ solo accompanied silent film event: Lon Chaney in PHANTOM OF THE OPERA

    March 16, Overture Center, Madison, Wisconsin
    Silent Film Concerts screening: F. W. Murnau’s FAUST with scoring by the Filmharmonia Duo

    April 5&6, Kenyon Hall, West Seattle, Washington
    Variety programs with silent films and vocalist Connie Corrick

    April 7, City Museum, Wenatchee, Washington
    Variety program with silent films and vocalist Connie Corrick

    April 11, Washington Center, Olympia, Washington
    7th annual Silent Film Concerts series: Cecil B. DeMille’s THE GODLESS GIRL

    April 16, Grosser Saal, Mozarteum, Salzburg, AUSTRIA
    Third annual Silent Film Concert series: Karl Valentin in DER SONDERLING

    May 18&19, Historic Coleman Theatre, Miami, Oklahoma
    3rd annual Musica Curiosa program featuring the WurliTzer theatre pipe organ plus unusual musical instruments, exotic repertoire, a guest performer plus silent film

    *June tba, Liberty Theatre, Sedalia, Missouri
    Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival Silent Film Concerts debut: Buster Keaton in THE GENERAL with piano plus sound effects scoring

    June 9, Missouri Theater, Columbia, Missouri
    Blind Boone Festival Silent Film Concerts debut: title tba

    June 12, Konzerthaus, Vienna, AUSTRIA
    Debut performance and recording with Donald Sosin of a newly commissioned score for Piano and Concert Organ to the Austrian national archive restoration of Conrad Veidt’s THE HANDS OF ORLAC

    July 7, Nunda Historical Society, Nunda, NY
    Glass music instruments: “Glass-ical Musick” illustrated informance featuring the Seraphim, Benjamin Franklin’s armonica and the Beyer Glass-cord

    August 5 to 13, Tanglewood Music Center, Boston, Massachusetts
    Performing the glass armoniuca part in the US premiere of George Benjamin’s new opera, WRITTEN ON SKIN presented as part of the Tanglewood Music Center’s 2013 Festival of Contemporary Music

    August 19, Balboa Park, San Diego, California
    25th annual outdoor silent film program at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion: Rudolph Valentino in THE EAGLE

    August 23, Lily Dale Assembly, Lily Dale, New York
    Glass music instruments: “Glass-ical Musick” illustrated informance featuring the Seraphim, Benjamin Franklin’s armonica and the Beyer Glass-cord

    September 12, Lyceum Lecture Series at Kendal, Ithaca, New York
    Glass music instruments: “Glass-ical Musick” illustrated informance featuring the Seraphim, Benjamin Franklin’s armonica and the Beyer Glass-cord

    BOOKING CONTACT:
    DENNIS JAMES | DIRECTOR
    SILENT FILM CONCERTS
    LECTURER, MASON GROSS SCHOOL OF ARTS, RUTGERS UNIVERSITY

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