Tom Hart and Rodney Sauer on Colorado Chautauqua’s 2015 Silent Film Series

The movies started small. So small that only one person at a time could watch them. The year was 1892, and Thomas Edison and his colleague William Kennedy Laurie Dickson discovered that if you spun sequential photographs in a small box, you could create the illusion of movement. Edison called them Kinetoscopes, and these viewing booths were the iPhones of their day, a private experience where patrons paid to watch short movies of a giddy girl kissing a mustachioed man, of a dancer swirling her dress, and of a weightlifter flexing his muscles.

But then on Dec. 20, 1895, on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris, Auguste and Louis Lumière projected the first movie, L’arrivée d’ un train en gare de La Ciotat. Immediately, cinema escaped the private and joined the public. A communal experience was born.

They were called many things: “flickers,” “photoplays,” “moving pictures,” or just “movies.” They were images projected on silver screens that brought dreams to life and communities together. And while these movies didn’t talk, they were never silent. Almost always, someone would accompany them with an organ or piano, sometimes even a full-blown symphony orchestra, but regardless of the equipment, the results were pure emotion.

It was a magical combination of image and music that relayed powerful messages to the head and heart, and almost a full century later, those messages still ring true at Colorado Chautauqua’s Silent Film Series.

Chautauqua Auditorium. Photos courtesy Jonathan B. Auerbach.

Not just a trip to the early days of cinema, Chautauqua’s Silent Film series is a celebration of an art form that amazingly continues to remain relevant. That’s what has Tom Hart, Chautauqua’s program development coordinator, excited for another season of silent films.

“It is very cool to attend a silent film, to step back and appreciate the wonder of the cinema with live musicians,” Hart says. “Especially in a venue that has been showing films since the advent of motion pictures.”

Now in its 30th season, this jewel in Boulder’s cinematic cap returns with a new line-up of silent (and a couple of not-so-silent) entries to delight audiences young and old. The series runs from June 3 to Aug. 25 and screens 12 features, including classics like Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr., F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, and the movie that forever immortalized matinee idol Rudolph Valentino, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. An additional short silent film will precede most of the movies, and all silent-era films will feature live music.

It is an impressive line-up, but even more impressive is the audience that Chautauqua’s 1,000-seat auditorium draws.

“Twenty percent of the audience are return customers,” Hart says. “It’s new to a lot of people. Which always surprises me.”

Not to mention that the demographic cannot be easily categorized.

“It’s a really wide variety. I wouldn’t nail this down to say it’s just the older generation or just the Baby Boomers,” Hart explains. “It’s a whole variety of people. … When we did The Black Pirate last year, there was a bunch of college kids dressed up as pirates.”

These movies come from a time when going to the movies was an event, and Chautauqua recreates that atmosphere in hopes of providing patrons with a glimpse into the past. According to musician Rodney Sauer, these movies are still working their magic.

Sauer ought to know. In addition to performing with The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra—which will be accompanying three of the movies—Sauer programs and accompanies silent shorts at various Boulder Public Library branches, and these programs manage to draw a diverse demographic, as well. Come to any one of Sauer’s performances, and you’ll get an idea of what the cinema was like a century ago.

“From about 1915 through 1930, where most Americans got their music was from the movie theaters, and it was live music played there,” Sauer says. “Some of the theaters tried to educate the American public. They would play a movement of a Beethoven symphony as the overture to give people an idea of what the concert hall was like.

“The music was left up to the local theater,” Sauer continues. “If you got a movie, you did not get a score with that movie. It was up to you to put that score together. What I’m doing, I’m creating new scores, but I’m using the same material that was available back then and using the same techniques. So these are scores you could have heard in the 1920s.”

In addition to his work with Mont Alto, Sauer is one part of the Silent Cinema Trio that will perform on the improvised score for The Trail of ’98, a movie about the Alaskan Gold Rush that was shot here in Colorado.

“Instead of the Chilkoot Pass, they actually used the Rollins Pass,” Sauer explains. “The train tracks were still up there, so they could get their camera crews and actors up into the tundra and film these desolate winter scenes, and then come back down to Denver and spend the night in a comfortable hotel.”

Hank Troy, an accomplished silent film pianist, accompanying seven movies in the series, will also be performing on The Trail of’ 98.

The Trail of ’98 was made in 1928, and Sauer doesn’t think it has been shown in Colorado since, which brings up a fascinating aspect of silent cinema: It’s coming back in a strong way.

In 2012, Sight and Sound conducted a worldwide poll of the greatest movies ever made, and three of the top 10 were from the silent era. And while the vast majority of silent films are lost (roughly 75%, according to The Library of Congress), each year, crucial new discoveries appear. Be it an early John Ford (Upstream), a Walt Disney animated short (Empty Socks), missing reels from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (all from 1927), one of Orson Welles’s first experiments (Too Much Johnson, 1938) or a movie that Alfred Hitchcock was only loosely associated with (The White Shadow, 1923), the point is clear: We may be done with history, but history certainly isn’t done with us.

“It’s a thing that survives to the present day,” Sauer says. “It’s still art, [and] it still speaks to us.”

Concerning the relevancy of these movies, Sauer highlights Chicago, the 1927 movie that inspired the Broadway show that, in turn, inspired the Academy Award-winning 2002 movie.

“You would be hard-pressed to find a more cynical movie about the American press and justice system made today. It’s an incredibly bitter movie,” Sauer says. “Although it has lots of comedy in it too, but its attitude about the criminal justice system almost takes your breath away.”

• • • • 

Ask people in 2015 how they consume media, and a theme develops, one that points to individual experience—more specialized cinema on more personal devices delivered whenever and wherever we want them. That may be true, but a variety of box office numbers seem to say different. At the time of press, Avengers: Age of Ultron has grossed $1.1 billion since its release on May 1, and Furious 7 has brought in $1.4 billion since early April. And before the year is up, audiences will have another Star Wars, Hunger Games, and James Bond installment to feast upon, all of which will rake in billions more before the books close on 2015.

These numbers tell us that audiences still crave the communal experience of the cinema. That can be found in the local cinema with new releases, but it can also be found in one of Colorado’s historic landmarks. There, nestled away at the base of the Flatirons, the screens still flicker, and the music is live.

“You aren’t just going to go see a film. It’s an event,” Hart says. “It’s a real combination of live performance and movie. … Perhaps a lost art.”

But as long as people keep watching and listening, the art will never be lost. And it won’t, because moviegoers in 2015 want the same thing moviegoers in 1925 did: the pleasure of seeing sheer invention unfold before your eyes and the excitement of seeing something new.

Sometimes that something new is 90 years old.

The Trail of ’98

The above article first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 22, No. 43, “Make way for yesterday.”