This is a small collection of interviews and articles giving the point of view of musicians who were employed in cinemas during that time.
Each gives a unique insight into the working life of a silent film accompanist during the pre-sound era.
This transcribed interview, edited for space, is with 94–year-old Ella Mallett, ex-silent movie musician and was carried out as part of the BECTU History Project on 15th June 1988. She talks mainly of working with top musical director Louis Levy at the New Gallery Kinema in Regent Street.
EM: Well I went to the New Gallery, was interviewed by Terry Siskin[?] and Louis Levy in the May of 1914, just before the first Great War. Of course I carried on with the musical life until sound came in.
RF (Roy Fowler): Right.
EM: Well music then was something difficult to describe. I was describing it to Ted Parker at Cornwall and he was down talking all the business and as old as I. He spoke about a certain film, it was the first film that Lon Chaney did – The Hunchback. And I said, “We had no score for the last scenes where he’s climbing, that poor, deformed creature.” I said, “We simply struck chords with the violins muted. And as he climbed each step, we struck another chord. And the timp. quietly rolling. And as he got higher we moved the mutes. When he grabbed the bell we stopped dead.” And I said, “It had a most dramatic effect.”
RF: And that was all extemporaneous was it? Not scored?
EM: That’s Louis Levy you see. He was absolutely a wonderful person.
RF: How did you get the job there?
EM: Well I had an audition, I got a smack on the back and I was told to come and meet the crew.
RF: And was that part of an orchestra or were you solo? How many people in the orchestra?
EM: Oh, if I remember and count them rightly I think there were nine.
EM: Without the organ. Somehow we were all in harmony. We lived the picture, although it was just a glance. We’d run through, but I mean to say you took your cue from him in every way, although you had [knew?] the score.
RF: And would he conduct every performance?
RF: How many a day?
EM: Three. Four and a half hours a day.
RF: What would you have been paid in 1914 for a week’s work?
EM: I forget. It wasn’t a fortune.
RF: No. But musicians have been reasonably paid I hope, haven’t they would you say?
EM: Well I was perfectly satisfied.
RF: You were happy, that’s good.
EM: Yes, more than happy.
RF: Right. Would you think perhaps it was a pound a day? More? Less?
EM: I suppose it would be more.
RF: What would there be? A matinee and an early evening performance and then late evening?
EM: Yes, then a break, which of course came from the trio in the tea room. And then of course the two evening shows you see, with a break between. But the feature film was not as long as they are today but the news of course - there was no radio. The public relied on it. Scraps of reel. And anyway, the news and the travel picture, was more than valued. You see they go out now. But many of the people, they hadn’t been out of their villages. Then they suddenly found that they were living in a big world. And when there was an opportunity - not often - there was a little effects. We could use the tubular bells, you see, if there was a church in the distance, then you could simply - it made it alive!
RF: Yes? Right. Were you called upon ever to extemporise, or was it always scored?
EM: Oh at times, yes.
RF: And how would you approach that?
EM: Well, you’d memorise all…
RF: You’d memorise the picture?
RF: And what – you’d play with one eye on the picture?
RF: What sort of house was the New Gallery? Was it a classy house? What sort of pictures did they play?
EM: We showed The Battle of the Somme.
RF: Yes, well that’s a famous one.
EM: That played for some time. Of course, I’d never seen such a thing as that. Some of the shots, of course, were taken at the Front. And we had the opportunity in that one in the scene where all those wagons with the wounded men - was able to play Beethoven’s Pathetique.
RF: Yes. Right.
EM: That made them weep.
RF: And did you have the songs from the trenches too in the score, do you think?
EM: No, too heavily dramatic for that.
RF: Ah, right.
EM: No. But of course we had Mary Pickford.
RF: What was she in?
EM: She played in The Poor Little Rich Girl.
RF: So that must have been a very smart little ensemble playing away. Did you make a nice sound?
EM: …very satisfactory.
RF: Did the musicians ever get together for themselves in those days? Did they ever…?
EM: With the first Great War we went through you see…
RF: It wasn’t a happy time for anyone was it?
EM: It was a very exacting time. And - but still - not much happened, except we went on the roof to see what was happening. Which you wouldn’t in the last war! [laughs]
RF: The advent of sound – the end of the silents and the beginning of the talkies – your memories of how it happened. It came as a great blow obviously?
EM: [laughs] I was told that the red light’s gone up. So they asked me and two strings, a cellist and - would I do a little season on the coast, which we did and enjoyed it. Well that was the finale, I thought.
RF: There wasn’t even a transitional period where some houses still had music?
EM: No, O-U-T everybody – hundreds.
RF: You were undoubtedly a member of the Musicians’ Union – do you have any…?
EM: No I was not!
RF: Were you not? Now that’s very interesting. I thought everyone had to be.
EM: No, Jerry Siskin[?] asked me, and I said, “Is it compulsory?” And he said, “Well, of course they’re all continentals, you see.” I said, “Well I don’t want to be governed by someone sitting miles off, who doesn’t know a crochet from a quaver!” I said, “I take my orders from yourself, or Mr Reece[?].” So he said, “You be freelance, and if they catch up with you, well… !” They didn’t! [laughs]
RF: I’m absolutely astonished. I would have thought they would insist upon jurisdiction over the London cinemas. That’s a revelation that is.
EM: I got away with it.
SD: Did you have any other ladies in the orchestras you played in?
EM: Yes, a lady named [indecipherable]. She played the harp and she doubled with the viola. But there was one film where that was really spectacular – Neptune’s Daughter. With Annette Kellerman. Well of course as she came so gracefully, no orchestra, only the harp. And the graceful movements were the beauty of the harp. Very effective that was.
EM: And then when I went to 165 Oxford Street, he was a Polish leader. Oh he was a magnificent player. I got on with [Leo Lliff?] we got on very well together. A small orchestra, but still, it was real and real enjoyment. And quite a common word was, “Ah…that film’s going to play into our hands!” . Some did and some didn’t you know, and not easy!
This extract is from Maurice Lindsay’s anthology of Glasgow life ‘As I Remember’ and was kindly sent to me by David Bruce of Glasgow.
'....[My mother] had given up most of her professional piano playing, but kept on her Saturday afternoon job as 'pianny wumman' at the children's matinees of 'The Picturedrome' near the top of Easter Road. A supermarket now occupies the site of that picture-house that I knew so well. The piano was in a curtained corner to the right of the screen, and there were chairs and stands for the fiddler and cello-player who played in the evening along with another pianist.
My mother and I sat in the darkness, with the hooded light of the music stand and the screen flickering above, or I could look for a seat in the front of the house if I liked. The children got in for a penny each, infants-in-arms for nothing. You would see a boy staggering past the box-office, carrying his wee sister, nearly as big as himself.
They read the printed bits of the picture out loud in unison, as if they were in school, and shouted all the time. When the baddie was creeping up behind Pearl White, they all cried 'Shoat!', and when she got the better of him in the last episode of the serial, after I don't know how many Saturdays, they cheered with all their might. But my mother gave them a good pennyworth of music, mostly from memory. Sometimes she put a novel on the stand and read that, while she kept playing just the same.
The following extract is from ‘Just a bloody Piano Player by Henry Shirley, a recollection of silent movie accompaniments in New Zealand.
"....At our cinema, the Britannia, there was no way of seeing the film before arranging the music, in fact, the evening performance was sometimes held up awaiting the arrival of the next can of film from some cinema on the other side of town showing the same feature. My solution to the problem was to lay out 4-5 piles of music on top of the piano, each one suitable for a different 'mood'. There would be gallops for westerns, one-steps and foxtrots for comedies and various pathetic and passionate pieces for dramatic moments. Our proprietor, Rex Woodward was a fine chap who had retired from a lifetime spent in fairgrounds and circuses and had bought the Britannia to keep himself interested. He was quite fond of us boys and gave us a free hand except in the matter of music for comedies. For him the quick 6/8's of the sawdust ring were the ideal accompaniment to comedy. He hated the new syncopated pieces that we favoured. It was strictly conventional to accompany scenic films with a waltz- by Waldteufel preferably as Strauss was almost unknown then.
It was quite a trick to read music at sight, follow the picture and conduct when needed with the right hand. If there was a quick scene change from, say children playing, to a 'baddie' lurking round the corner, I had to grab a number from the 'suspense' pile, throw left and right a violin and trumpet part and try to keep some sort of sound coming from the piano until we were ready to start together again.
For the next two nights the program would then be in order and we could concentrate on getting the right notes. Then a change of program and a repetition of the process. By Saturday night everything would be running smoothly. From the first pompous notes of the overture to the last tremolo chord of the evening, 3 young musicians could give everything they had and think themselves the best band in town...My only grouch was having to play alone for Saturday children's matinees....
But there was recompense, Because of the din, it hardly mattered what I played, so I could practice improvising. With a musical vocabulary of only a few chords, I eventually worked out a formula that would carry me through a three hour program of assorted love and hate, humour and horror..."
The following extract was kindly sent to me by Luke McKernan of the British Library.
It is an extract from Ursula Bloom's autobiography "Mistress of None" (Hutchinson, 1920).
‘Ursula Bloom was a popular novelist of yesteryear, but before the First World War she was for a time a pianist at a cinema in St Albans. She wrote five volumes of memoirs, and in the one I've read (Mistress of None) there is a delightful account of the experience of playing in a small cinema of the period, as well as being a good account of the cinema experience at that time in general. Gaps in the texts as transcribed by me are marked with ellipses.’
[p. 86] I met a young man. I suffered the inevitable romance. The young man was sorry for me, I think he understood the position, and knew that I was up against it. He was an architect, and he had just erected a cinema at Harpenden. It was called 'The White Palace,' and he was to be the manager. It was suggested that I could play the piano for the pictures. I thought I probably could. I was to be paid thirty shillings a week, minus ninepence for the insurance stamp, and with the whole thing arranged I went home on wings. My new venture, however, did not receive favour in the domestic circle. Mother thought that it was dreadfully infra dig, and [p. 87] she wept tears of woe that her daughter should sink in the social scale like this! A player at a cinema!
On matinee days I was to play from two-thirty until five, and six until ten-thirty. It certainly looked a bit grim. We started the next week with an opening ceremony, and everybody who was anybody was invited. Nobody paid for seats. The whole place smelt of new paint and distemper, and that general dampness which fills a very new building. I have got to admit that as the hour approached, I got more and more frightened.
It was a nice little cinema with a dynamo that persistently let us down that first week (twice we had to give the money back) and rows of plush ‘tip-ups' in the accepted style.
[p. 88] We had a box stuck far back near the operators' room, but it was discovered later that one of the operators used it for immoral purposes, and it had to be closed. In the beginning the piano was set on a balcony, which was very public for me, and I found it distinctly trying. For the whole preceding week I had been practising Hermann Finck's 'Melodious Memories' and 'Danube Waves,' and a selection from the Geisha, which the music shop had suggested would be very suitable. Now I was frightened to death.
[p. 89] The moment I started playing at the cinema, a very horrid fact was borne home to me. The piano was far too near the roof. The echo went upwards to the roof, and descended, with the result that the waves of sound met each other. It was nothing more or less than a hideous row. In that first bitter afternoon I lost all my affection for Chin-Chin-Chinaman, for Hermann Finck and his 'Melodious Memories,' also for 'Danube Waves.' I never wanted to hear the beastly things again. By five o'clock my hands were aching beyond belief, and I went out to tea at a café, and treated myself to a fairy cake, which I felt that I had deserved. Only the piano would have to be moved, I had become quite decided on that point, it would not possibly continue where it was.
The subsequent evening performance was little short of Hell. You got about two and a half minutes' rest in every half-hour, in between the pictures, and it is few people who are used to playing the piano for four and a half hours straight off. Mother helped me most nobly, but she had to leave at nine, and the last hour and a half in that fetid atmosphere were terrible. After that I could not understand [p. 90] why people ever went to the pictures for fun. I can still recall the enormous relief with which my aching fingers played 'God save the King.'
'Tomorrow they'll be worse, because they will have got stiff,' the young manager told me.
That was a nasty thought, and probably a true one, and I cannot possibly stress how stiff your hands can get when playing the piano at the cinema.