Making music with Laurel and Hardy
Clark Wilson is leading an organ-centric life. He performs solo organ concerts and church recitals, does repairs and tonal work on pipe organs around the country (including the Babson College Wurlitzer), and teaches silent film scoring and history of American theater organ courses at the University of Oklahoma. But his main job is going on the road to accompany silent films with his own scores. He’ll be seated at the Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Pipe Organ at the Hanover Theatre in Worcester on Sunday at 3 p.m. to perform along with five silent Laurel and Hardy shorts: “Putting Pants on Philip,” “Leave ’Em Laughing,” “The Finishing Touch,” “Habeas Corpus,” and “That’s My Wife.”
Wilson, 60, was already tinkling at the piano by 7, but he was more attracted to his grandmother’s organ playing at church, and would tag along to watch and listen to her practice sessions on Saturdays. “One day when she was finishing up I asked her if I could play something,” he said. “I sat down and played the hymn she had been practicing, and that’s when it was decided that I should take lessons.”
He spoke about the instrument and the art of accompanying silent films by phone from his home in East Liverpool, Ohio.
Q. Do you recall the first time you went to a silent film that was accompanied by an organ?
A. I sure do. It was at the Indiana Theatre, in Indiana Harbor, and the organist was John Muri. He did a re-creation of a 1920s theater program. So, there was organ music, a vaudeville show that he scored and accompanied, and then he played for a couple of Our Gang silent comedies. His cueing was dead on. When Fatty [Arbuckle] fell down the staircase, there was a whoopie whistle and a bass drum! I had never seen or heard anything like it and I was astounded.
Q. What exactly is a theater organ?
A. I refer to the theater pipe organ as being the church pipe organ’s Broadway cousin. It has bells and whistles and sound effects and this incredible bravado to it. It’s designed and built for the playing of popular music and the scoring of silent pictures instead of classical music. So, you have a sound effect for anything that’s happening on the screen.
Q. When you’re accompanying a film, what do you have written out in front of you?
A. Any player worth their salt will try to find the original score for a silent film, if one still exists. If it doesn’t, you go to the secondary score, which is called a cue sheet, which has major action, titles, things that are going on in the film, and suggested pieces to go with it, which could be anything from Beethoven to Stravinsky to Gershwin. It’s like a road map. We take that sheet to a music library and find those pieces — or a different piece if you choose — and put the score together that way. The backbone of my scores is based on published music by fine composers, then I fill in around that. So, there is some improvisation, but that factor is very small.
Q. You’ve put together scores for dramas as well as comedies. Among the comedies are films with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. But the upcoming show is all Laurel and Hardy. What separates them from the pack?
A. In silent comedy, the top three were Chaplin, Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. But Laurel and Hardy were the team, the pair that played off each other, the fat man and the skinny man. It took the two of them for their particular style. The things they do are just ridiculous, and their films are very slapstick and can be violent, for instance when they destroy automobiles. But they are funny, funny films.
Q. Are the scores for the five films on this program based on originals?
A. I’ve never seen a score for the shorts. These films have individual cue sheets that I made up. The challenging thing about doing five pictures in one performance is you don’t want to use the same musical style for all five. They need to be five totally separate stand-alone scores.
Q. So, how many things are you doing at once when you accompany the films?
A. When we play the theater organ for silent movies, we become the entire orchestra. We provide all of the sound effects, all of the mallet instruments, all of the different sounds of the woodwind, brass, and string sections, and we combine these to be done with two hands and two feet. So, you have to manipulate the instrument, you have to play your music and watch your cue sheet, and you never take your eyes off the film, particularly in these fast-paced comedies where so many things happen one after another, because you might miss something. It’s a very, very busy time.
More information at www.thehanovertheatre.org/laurel-hardy.
Interview was edited and condensed. Ed Symkus can be reached at email@example.com.