Saturday, July 11, 2009

Drummers and Illustrated Songs in the Moving Picture Theater

Martin's column this week features a new header, which includes a picture—though the microfilm did not allow me to reproduce it very well. His topic this week is the role of the drummer. Martin believes that the drummer belong in picture houses but thinks that most drummers are not properly trained. He draws attention to the work of Lyman H. Howe, especially his use of music and sound effects, which allows Howe to charge $1 a seat for his traveling show. (For a fine book-length treatment of Howe, see Charles Musser in collaboration with Carol Nelson, High-Class Moving Pictures: Lyman H. Howe and the Forgotten Era of Traveling Exhibition, 1880-1920 (Princeton, 1991).) Martin also makes the surprising remark that "piano and drums are the only instruments that can be used in playing pictures, when you add other instruments you cannot expect your musicians to make good playing pictures." Martin is lead to this position because he believes that improvisation is the only reliable way to successfully play the pictures and that group improvisation is prone to disaster. He concludes his article with a largely negative assessment of the illustrated song.

The average drummer in a picture theatre is the greatest handicap a piano player has to contend with. A good drummer, one who knows how and when to play, is a necessity in every well regulated picture house, but, they are hard to find. The average drummer wants to make himself heard from the overture to the chaser, and, as a rule they are very partial to marches, and play so loud that in a short time the piano player gets the habit of following the drummer instead of leading, and the result is, the audience is treated to a big noise from the beginning to the close of the picture, and, upon leaving the theatre, the audience would not speak a good word for the best picture ever produced after being compelled to sit and listen to such music.

You have, no doubt been in just such places, where the music has grated on your nerves to such an extent that you could not get interested in the pictures, and when the good night slide was thrown on the there was such a sigh of relief from the entire audience. Don’t blame the piano player because the drummer is no musician, it is not the piano player’s fault. Drumming looks very easy, and, nine times out of ten the manager, and, being not overly fond of work, they have bought him some second hand drums and given him a job in the picture house to keep him off the streets at night, consequently, the piano player an the patrons are made to suffer. [This is how the original reads—jwb.]

It is just as essential that an exhibitor secures a professional drummer as well as a professional piano player. He can hire the greatest piano player in the world to play the pictures and give him an amateur drummer to work with and his music will be a failure.

The professional drummer who has the least conception of playing the pictures, will never try to play through a pathetic scene or during the showing of the average dramatic subject unless he gives a roll during some good point in the picture or at the climax. When I say a roll, I do not mean a role on the snare, if the picture is a strong dramatic subject and the piano player has held the audience quiet up to the strongest point or the climax, how much more in keeping with the picture it is for the drummer to give a roll on the base [sic] drum, if he does not possess kettle drums.

I am a great believer in traps and effects if they are properly handled, and I can point to no better example than Lyman H. Howe. If the exhibitors would pay more attention to their music and effects they too would be receiving a dollar a ticket instead of five and ten cents. Lyman H. Howe is recognized as the greatest motion picture man in the field to-day. He can take the same pictures that you are showing for five cents and demand a dollar a seat for the same show. There is something behind this that would be worth while for the exhibitor to look into and consider. Lyman Howe has always made the music and effects a feature of his entertainment, and it is this point that has placed him as leader in the picture business. And still the exhibitor will give souvenirs, put on cheap vaudeville and pull off voting contests to boost business instead of considering the music. They put themselves in a rut at the opening of the house by engaging a ten-dollar piano player and an eight-dollar drummer.

Piano and drums are the only instruments that can be used in playing pictures, when you add other instruments you cannot expect your musicians to make good playing pictures. I have seen the greatest bunch of fakirs [i.e., “fakers”—jwb] in the country assembled for a picture orchestra, and the result was a failure.

There are certain pictures where a violin can be used in a pathetic scene to good advantage, but no matter how good the violinist is, they cannot change with a piano in playing pictures.

At Dodge’s theatre, Keokuk, Iowa, where I am working at present, we have a violinist, one of the best in the business, and I can safely say we do not use him in more than two pictures a week. If you are showing such a picture as Edison’s “The Song That Reached His Heart,” a violinist can use “Annie Laurie” in certain parts of the picture to good advantage.

Then for example take such a picture as the Biograph release of October 24th, “The Message of the Violin,” the violin is a necessity and the picture is not complete without one. If you have no violinist on your pay roll when you show such a picture as “The Message of the Violin” don’t be afraid of spending a little money, and, engage one for the night you show the picture, you will soon notice and increase in your receipts.

There is another thing to be considered. A drummer cannot be expected to handle the entire line of effects, it is the drummer’s business to handle chimes, tom toms, tambourines, castinets, wood blocks, cymbols [sic], bells and his drums. If you wish to add railroad imitations, slap sticks, etc., they should be worked from behind the screen.

The illustrated song is, as a matter of fact, looked upon as part of the music in the picture show, and I believe it is one of the greatest drawbacks in the business to-day. The singer, as a rule, is paid on the same basis as the piano player, and what kind of a singer can you get for ten dollars a week? The singer in most places is used as a sort of fill in, and in most cases the audience would rather have a white sheet instead of the song during the changing of the reels. Then there is another side to the illustrated song question. It may be you have a very good singer, but the smut that some of the publishers are putting in their songs to make them go, is enough to drive the better class of people from your house forever. Let us say for example you have a three-reel program made up of “The Tree Friends,” Gaumont, “The Broken Doll,” Biograph, and “The Legacy,” Vitagraph, a program that would please the Saints. Then say that you have a very select audience, people who have been skeptic towards motion pictures, you have induced them to come to your theatre as you have this excellent bill on, and then your singer gets up and hands them such stuff as “The Dance of the Grizzly Bear,” “Naughty Eyes” or “The Angle Worm Wiggle.” What kind of impression do you think your audience will have on your show? You will not only lose those people as patrons, but you have lowered the efforts of the producers in trying to better the picture business.

You may say I am getting away from my story when I mention the illustrated song, but I am not, for, that disgusted audience has left the theatre condemning everything on the inside, even the pictures and the piano player.

In my next article, I will suggest some appropriate music for recent releases of feature films.

Source: Clyde Martin, “Playing the Pictures,” Film Index 5 November 1910, 6.

1 comment:

  1. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.