Sounds of Silents

Sounds of Silents

A century ago, saying that there was a silent film screening downtown would be like saying “There’s something on television” today. There were numerous theaters within blocks of the New Haven Green, from grand entertainment palaces to tiny rooms where the loudest noise was not a piano accompanist but the whirr of the projector mounted right behind the audience.

Even though you could say New Haven is experiencing a renaissance of silent movie screenings, they’re still few and far between—three or four a year compared with dozens a day in the 1920 and ’30s. Back then, silent movies were the most popular of popular entertainments, edging out vaudeville revues in the days before network radio and TV, not to mention talking films, engaged our senses.

At 7 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 1, Trinity Church on the Green transforms its elegant environs into an old-fashioned movie palace, screening the 1925 drama The Phantom of the Opera with live organ accompaniment.

Trinity Church’s famous Aeolian-Skinner organ was built in 1935, by which time the silent movie era had been mostly over for some time.  The “talkie” which transformed the film industry, The Jazz Singer (starring Broadway star Al Jolson, several of whose live shows played at the Shubert on College Street), was released in 1927. But it wouldn’t have been unusual to find silent films still being shown in downtown New Haven well after the dawn of talking pictures. Some of the local theaters had fine organs which they continued to use for pre-show entertainments and intermission sing-alongs. It would have been unusual to see a popular film—especially a sensational one such as The Phantom of the Opera—in a church, but hearing organ melodies wafting down Chapel Street would have been a common occurrence.

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Today, it’s more common to hear silent-movie music than it’s been in a long while. Much of New Haven’s renewed interest in seeing silent films in public is due to Lyric Hall in Westville. Having restored and reclaimed a stage area in the building which dates back to 1912, Lyric Hall presents all kinds of shows, but regularly acknowledges the original purpose of the theater space by screening silent movies with live musical accompaniment. Steve Asetta formed the 10-piece Lyric Hall Theater Orchestra, which has done several concerts a year, accompanying films as diverse as the murder mystery The Cat and the Canary, the horror film Nosferatu and comedies from the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

Nosferatu (an unauthorized 1922 German Expressionistic classic based on the 1897 Bram Stoker novel Dracula) has also proven popular with modern musical types. The neoclassical ensembles Loop 2.4.3 and SoundUnderground conspired a few years ago to present a post-modern musical take on Nosferatu at the Neighborhood Music School on Audubon Street. That’s just a block away from the Little Theater, now a stage run by the Educational Center for the Arts but originally built in 1924 to be the major silent movie house in that part of town.

In 2003, the experimental jazz combo Goose Lane (featuring several players who’d end up in the Lyric Hall Theater Orchestra) scored the silent horror flick The Unknown, featuring Lon Chaney. Last year, the local symphony Orchestra New England, best known for its recreations of Colonial-era classical concerts at United Church on the Green, moved into the industrial age for a show in the Co-op Arts & Humanities High School auditorium accompanying films by D.W. Griffith and—there’s that name again—Buster Keaton. Keaton’s work is beloved of film-scorers due to its comic rhythms and inventive camera work.

In the realm of silent film revivals, Lon Chaney shines almost as brightly as Keaton. The Unknown’s star—dubbed “Man of 1,000 Faces” due to his dexterity with makeup—will be seen in cape and ghoulish white pallor, his nostrils stretched and his eyes popping, when Trinity Church projects The Phantom of the Opera onto a screen at the front of the church, with nationally known church organist Tom Trenney.

When performing with silent films (which he’ll do this month in Memphis, Tennessee, and Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, as well as in New Haven), Trenney specializes in Phantom, a demanding combination of horror film, love story and action film which was a well-known classic decades before Andrew Llloyd Webber turned it into a musical theater piece. In the story, based on a French novel by Gaston Leroux first published in 1910, a disturbed man with a scarred face lives in the dark corners of the Paris Opera House and lusts after the beautiful young singer Christine.

Luk de Volder, who’s been the pastor at Trinity Church for the past year and a half, calls the Feb. 1 screening of The Phantom of the Opera “definitely a relaxed opportunity, with popcorn.” It’s a harbinger of a series of springtime events at the church, including choir concerts.

Trinity’s Associate Music Director Andy Kotyoo notes that the church last “did one of these two years ago. We showed The General by Buster Keaton, plus a shorter comedy, Teddy at the Throttle. Some of my friends are some of the best people in the country” in the now-rarefied field of accompanying silent films on church organs. “It’s a chance to show off the organ at Trinity.”

Kotyoo says he only knows of two venues in Connecticut with old-fashioned theater organs of the type which used to routinely accompany film screenings, and one of those instruments is in private hands. “Church organs are not really meant to do this kind of thing, but can be made to sound like a theater organ.”

Trinity Church has considered making its silent movie concerts an annual rather than bi-annual event, but “we held off,” Kotyoo says, because of the dual difficulties of finding films which could reliably draw hundreds of people into the church and finding enough skilled organists to accompany them. “You can’t just call down the street and get someone to play,” he smiles.

The Phantom of the Opera, accompanied by organist Tom Trenney
Trinity Church on the Green, corner of Temple and Chapel streets, New Haven (map)
Friday, February 1 at 7 p.m.
(203) 776-2616

Written by Christopher Arnott.

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Christopher Arnott has written about arts and culture in Connecticut for over 25 years. His journalism has won local, regional and national awards, and he has been honored with an Arts Award from the Arts Council of Greater New Haven. He posts daily at his own sites and New Haven Theater Jerk (

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