One of the great conceits of locally based filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s vampire reverie, Only Lovers Left Alive, was the cool ennui that the timeless must live with as they discern and hold onto the best that mankind has created over the years. Classic old films, analogue recording equipment, musty old books and the decaying city of Detroit — along with its cars — all make the eternal grade.
That makes the Ulster Performing Arts Center (UPAC)’s choice of the very first vampire movie — W. F. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror — such a perfect choice as the first silent film to be shown with organ accompaniment there since the 1950s. It’s also a grand way to kick off its seventh season of Friday Night Film Classics at the biggest venue between the City and Albany on October 14.
“They took the original organ and pipes out from the old Broadway Theater at some point in the 1950s,” said John Vanderlee of the New York Theater Organ Society, which is bringing in a new portable digital organ for the occasion after a weekend inspection of the classic 1920s-era theater space. “From what I’ve been able to tell, the pipes were on the left, behind a screen in the wall, and were replaced with a heating system. Unfortunately, after sound films came in, most places stopped using their organs and, they being mechanical, they started decaying soon after from disuse.”
Set to play with the film on a portable Allen GW 319 EX Digital Theater Organ will be Juan Cardona, Jr., house organist at the Bardavon for over ten years and the staff organist at the Thomaston Opera House for 15 years now. He said that, although this performance will be his first visit to UPAC, it will be a return to one of his favorite films and film scores.
“I attack each film as a clean canvas, watching it several times as it reminds me of pieces of music — none too obvious, so I can accentuate themes and make the work speak, as it were,” said Cardona. “Yet even though I’ll have played this film many times before, with all the same material at hand, it also changes each time I perform.”
That, Cardona added, is where the glory of silent film music continues to be its own thing, and the actuality of seeing such a joint performance of film and live music its own artform.
“I encourage audiences to be part of it, cheering and booing what happens on screen,” Cardona noted, after also pointing out how importantly the room — each theater — also plays into the experience.
“Back in the day, there were some films that had live orchestral scores, and many that worked with pianists. But then, as the bigger palaces got built for ever-larger audiences, the thing was to bring in bigger and better theater organs,” said Vanderlee, addressing the golden days of film venues some 90 years ago. “To play those organs there were star organists, each of whom would essentially create his own scores for the films he’d play with.”
All of that was to end with the 1927 release of The Jazz Singer, bar a short hi-fi enthusiast’s revival in the early days of long-playing records in the 1950s, when the old pipe organs were treasured as the only instrument with a vast enough rage to match the new acumen of recorded sound — and a much more recent revival, as with Jarmusch’s vampire aesthetes, for all things grand and analogue.
So what of Nosferatu, that original vampire film? First off, it was made by the man whom many now see as silent film’s greatest visual genius and master of moods: the German great Murnau. Think perfect timing, mist-enshrouded mountains and castles, spooky carriages and fast-moving night shadows. But then there was its singular star, Max Schreck, whom myths have since made into a mysterious vampire himself.
Need we say more beyond the fact that future Friday Night films, in whose company Nosferatu will sit, include The Wizard of Oz on November 21, Some Like It Hot on February 20, Stop Making Sense on March 6, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial on March 27 and Blazing Saddles on April 17? Ah, yes — vampires get in free!
Nosferatu with organist Juan Cardona, Friday, October 24, 7:30 p.m., $6, Ulster Performing Arts Center, 601 Broadway, Kingston; (845) 339-6088, www.bardavon.org.