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The music of silents; The success of "The Artist" has silent movie organist Dennis James playing all over the world

Dennis James does more than play the organ for silent movies. He lives the life.

In the 1980s, he spent six years on the road with Lillian Gish, who had starred in D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation."

He also went on the road with Charles "Buddy" Rogers, a devastatingly handsome leading man of the silent film era, and the longtime husband of Mary Pickford. One skill he acquired was making Buddy Rogers cry.

"They would have music on the set, usually a pump organist and a violinist," James explains.

And every leading man or leading lady had a "crying song" -- a song that, when the actor heard it, would elicit tears.

Rogers' crying song was Liszt's "Liebestraum No. 3"

"They had a list of famous crying pieces. He chose that one," James says. "We were on tour and I would play that, he would burst into tears. It was very, very cute."

Gish died in 1993 at age 99. Rogers passed on in 1999, age 94. But James' passion for silent movies goes on forever.

Now, it could be called hip.

Sunday at Shea's Performing Arts Center, James will be at the controls of the Mighty Wurlitzer, joining forces with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra to accompany the 1925 silent film "The Phantom of the Opera." It is the first time since the 1930s that a live orchestra has performed to a silent movie at the historic theater.

And it is no accident.

The silent film business has been booming, James says, thanks to "The Artist," last year's multi-Oscar-winning silent film.

"It caused a tsunami in my field," he marvels. "It caused things like the Buffalo performance. I've had five days off since January."

The folks at North Tonawanda's Riviera Theater also have noticed the phenomenon.

"We do between three and four silent movies a year. They're usually well attended," says proprietor Frank Cannata.

"It's interesting, the theater organ was originally invented and designed to take the place of orchestral music to accompany silent films," Cannata says. "In 1930, when the talkies came in, nobody wanted to go to silent films. The theater organ had to reinvent itself as a concert instrument. Now, there's been a resurgence of the theater organ going back to its roots."

While delighted by this upturn, James is not exactly surprised.

He grows quiet as he remembers cold-calling Lillian Gish.

She said, " 'I've been waiting for your call,' " he says.

"She had always predicted that silent films had not died nor even faded away. They were just in suspension until the younger generation took an interest in them."

>A 90-second kiss

James, 61, is laughing and relaxed, even though in a couple of hours he is due at New York's American Museum of the Moving Image to premiere a score he wrote for a 1921 German film, "The Elevated Train Disaster."

It is clear nerves are no issue with him. His life has been like a silent movie, full of vivid images and high drama.

"Buddy Rogers said the best thing they told him was how to hold a kiss for 90 seconds without laughing," he says.

But no one had quite the personality of the great Lillian Gish. One haunting incident involving the screen icon took place in Madison, Wis., where James and Gish were screening the 1926 silent film of "La Boheme."

"This sweet blond thing from the campus paper came in to interview Lillian," James says.

"Everything went fine, until the girl asked, 'Miss Gish, what was it like to be a movie star?'

"She had just made her hundredth film, Robert Altman's 'A Wedding.' The point is, she was still a movie star.

"Her eyes went blazing. She cocked her neck into the pose of a cobra about to strike. She drew in her breath and put up her shoulders. She looked like Gloria Swanson in the scene at the end of 'Sunset Boulevard,' when she comes down the stairs with her eyes blazing."

Watching from the doorway, James was dumbstruck.

"The girl, at that point, dropped to her knees. It was so powerful, this woman, age 80-plus, doing this. She dropped to her knees. And Miss Gish simply stared and said, 'I am a movie star, and this interview is over.'

"The girl kneed backwards out of the room. Lillian slammed the door and said, 'She'll never forget that.' "

Neither would he.

>Mozart and Melody Mac

James fell in love with silent movies as a kid in Philadelphia. He listened, spellbound, to Melody Mac, an organist who performed on the radio.

His father arranged an audition for Melody Mac, and James subsequently became the master's protegee. "He passed it all on," he says. Melody Mac taught him Bach and Handel, and James went on study at Indiana University's School of Music.

His life now, like his life then, is a unique mix of journeyman experience and academia.

Recognized as a foremost authority on the silent-film era, James lectures at universities and works frequently with museums and film festivals. His scorings for silent films have been preserved by such institutions as the George Eastman House and British Film Institute.

He and the BPO will be playing the original score for "The Phantom of the Opera." Don't expect Andrew Lloyd Webber -- this is the music written for the movie in 1925. James' extensive home library includes the original sheet music.

The film, starring a threatening-looking Lon Chaney, holds a special place in James' heart. James' father was 6 when it came out, and never forgot how it affected him.

The movie used cutting-edge German technology that allowed occasional color to pop out from the black-and-white screen. "They did it for the billowing cape," James says. "The Phantom is menacing people on the top of the stairs, and the cape was painted bright red." His father was so scared he never forgot it.

On Sunday, James hopes the movie works the same magic on today's kids.

email: mkunz@buffnews.com

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"The Phantom of the Opera," silent film accompanied by organist Dennis James and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Bradley Thachuk.    

Presented at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Shea's Performing Arts Center.

Tickets, $25-$65; call 847-1410.