Thursday, July 9, 2009

Advice to Pianists

This is Clyde Martin's second column for Film Index. (There is no column for 15 October.) His column now has a rudimentrary header (shown below) and the page layout has all the trappings of a regular feature.

The article itself rambles a bit, with a call for quiet houses, for managers not to use their piano player as bally hoo, and for pianists to improvise.

If I should tell you, you can play better in the winter than in the summer, you would say, “to the nut farm for him.” But it is a fact, not because in the summer you have that lazy feeling and in the winter you feel like working, that is not the idea at all. Again you will say, I am crazy when I say it is the manager’s fault; yes (poor manager) he gets blamed for everything he does, his mind is so busily engaged at the box office that he forgets to oil his fans, and the (fall guy) the patron, upon entering the picture show is first under the impression that he made a mistake and in his absent-mindedness has entered a machine shop instead of a picture show.

In these joints you will never find it to fail that the piano player in order to make himself heard must either play rag time through a picture or do a pantomime stunt at the piano. Then Mr. Manager, will call the musician on the carpet and ask him why he plays rag time through a pathetic scene.

The greatest point about playing appropriate music for pictures is to hold the audience, but this I mean to keep the audience so quiet you can hear a pin drop. Now don’t tell me this is impossible, because I have played in picture houses from Franklin avenue in St. Louis to the best in the country, and have had an audience to work to, from a bunch of Greeks and “Wopa” to the most exclusive set at Washington, D. C.

To begin with, you must have a quiet house. There is nothing that will appeal to an audience as quick as soft music.

I recall a time I was working in the best house in St. Louis and I laid off for a couple of days to study the conditions in the “joints,” so I went down on Market street, and got a job at nine dollars a week, the most that had ever been paid on the street. The first night the manager came to me and said I could certainly play pictures, but he would have to let me go because they could not hear me on the street, “Canuamaginit.”

That is the fault with the average exhibitor today; he doesn’t want a piano player, he wants a Bally-Hoo.

I believe you will find conditions better in the West and Middle West than any other part of the country, and I lay it to the fact that the managers look after the show as well as the box office. In the Western theatres you will find that they have very little transient business, they naturally cater to a family business and are obliged to deliver the goods, as competition is very strong.

Taking this into consideration they have actually gone as strong as to pay a piano player “eighteen dollars;” just think of it (joke).

I find that the musicians in the west are making every effort to play the pictures and some of them are making a pretty good stab at it, but nine out of every ten are handicapped by a noisy house, the buzzing of fans, the rattle of the machine, and the conversation of the ushers with their friends in the back rows and still the manager wonders why his piano player does not make good.

At present I am playing at Dodges Theatre, Keokuk, Iowa, and I believe I can use this picture house as an example. To begin with, during a pathetic scene in a picture the ushers are instructed to hold all late comers to the rear of the house. The aisles are covered with a heavy carpet, so there is no noise from those passing in and out. There are over twenty electric fans running in the theatre during the summer months, and it is the duty of the electrician to go over them every other day to see that they are in perfect running order. I have played in this theatre for fourteen months, and I believe the patrons of the house are the greatest picture critic on earth.

The exhibitors over the country have had a very easy time during the infancy of motion pictures but the time has come when the public is demanding more than a flicker on the screen; the time is here when you have got to deliver the goods or get out of business, and the sooner the exhibitor recognizes the piano player as a feature of the entertainment the sooner the higher standard will be reached.

It does not take a renowned soloist to play the pictures, it takes what is commonly known as a fakir.* My advise [sic] to a musician with ambitions to become a picture player, is, throw away your music, improvise, and study expression.

In my next article I will point out a few pictures of recent release where popular music can be adapted to the action, but they are few and far between. Popular music with few exceptions can only be used with comedy pictures, while with dramatic pictures, you must either improvise, or give it up as a bad job.

* i.e., “faker”—jwb.

Source: Clyde Martin, “Playing the Pictures,” Film Index 22 October 1910, 13.

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