Silent films set to play at the Zoetropolis

Dan Clarke
Staff Writer

Before the “talkies,” audiences were exposed to an assortment of sounds as they watched their stars whisk across the screen. One might be subjected to a poorly tuned piano clanking along with its operator scrambling to hit their action cues. Other establishments had the benefit of the “Mighty Wurlitzer” to make the crowd gasp as Lon Chaney seized his next victim in “Phantom of the Opera.” Some luxurious venues even had a full orchestra pit, conductor, red curtain and everything.

The 1925 movie “Phantom of the Opera” features Lon Chaney as the Phantom.
The 1925 movie “Phantom of the Opera” features Lon Chaney as the Phantom.

Movie houses were once the largest employer of musicians in this country, but once movies started to talk, musicians were given their walking papers as the beginning of the Great Depression set in.
Since then, several generations of moviegoers have come and gone without ever having the experience of hearing musicians perform a live score to these classic films.
Tom and Laurie Reese, of the Reese Project, realized the greatness of these films and the importance of reformatting them for a new audience. Since 1992, Tom (flute) and Laurie (cello) have accompanied these great classics with modern jazz improvisation. Laurie says, “We use the term ‘jazz’ to denote improvisational material. We do incorporate classical, folk, and fusion as well.”
Many of the old films would come to the theaters with sheet music for the pianist to hit musical cues during action sequences. “We don’t use sheet music,” says Laurie, “we interact spontaneously with the film. The flute and the cello open up the sonic envelope, almost like an orchestra with no limits.”
Although Tom and Laurie improvise during the film, they prepare by watching each new movie four to six times with additional study on more intricate scenes. Laurie says, “We have played many of the films, like “Metropolis,” “The General,” “Nosferatu,” and “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” more than 20 times. At this point, the music grows in depth each time we play it.”
The scores that Tom and Laurie generate for the films are influenced by the action, basic theme, and the characters. “We also take the basic rhythm of a scene and use that to create the themes,” says Laurie, “it’s amazing to me how film geniuses like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin kept the rhythm the same throughout a whole scene, then brought back that rhythm later. Metropolis is a good example of that: the worker’s rhythm changes depending on whether they were on their way in to work or away from it.”
Tom recalls performing Buster Keaton’s movie about the Civil War “The General,” for a group of early American train enthusiasts, “It was a sold out show and one of the fellows said to me, ‘I really feel you have captured the historical air from the era of the steam engine and the music of the American Civil War.’ We use several tunes from the Civil War in the score for that film.”

Silent film icon Charlie Chaplin stars in the 1925 comedy “The Gold Rush.”
Silent film icon Charlie Chaplin stars in the 1925 comedy “The Gold Rush.”

The Reese Project has gotten some great responses over the years. Some have included standing ovations, sold out shows, and some audience members just close their eyes to just listen to the music. “Some folks who had never seen silent films are amazed at the timelessness of the story lines,” says Laurie, “and those who have seen the films before are amazed at the effectiveness of the music as a tool to highlight the film’s dynamics.”
The Reese Project will be performing at the Zoetropolis every second Friday in Lancaster for all of 2014. The Zoetropolis is located at 315 West James Street, Lancaster. All shows will costs $10. For more information, visit
(FEB 14) COMEDY — Buster Keaton shorts (1925-28) 60 min. total
(MAR 14) DRAMA — Tarzan of the Apes (1918) 61 min.
(APRIL 11) COMEDY — The General (1927) 79 min.
(MAY 9) COMEDY — The Gold Rush (1925) 88 min.
(JUNE 13) HORROR — Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) 52 min.
(JULY 11) COMEDY — Girl Shy (1924) 80 min.
(AUG 8) HORROR — Phantom of the Opera (1925) 93 min.
(SEPT 12) COMEDY — Seven Chances (1925) 57 min.
(OCT 10) HORROR — Inferno (1911) 71 min.
(NOV 14) DRAMA — Sunrise (1927) 94 min.
(DEC 12) CHRISTMAS — 6 Christmas Shorts (1989-1928) 80 min.