Turning Back the Pages: Pianists kept busy with thematic cues in silent film

Turning Back the Pages: Pianists kept busy with thematic cues in silent film

By Colleen Palumbo

I think it’s absolutely fabulous that Stuart, at Golden Cinema and Kicking Horse Movies is investing in Golden by adding a second screen in Golden. When so many theatres are closing down it says so much about his commitment to our community.

I’ve written a couple of articles on the Lyric Theatre, Golden’s first movie house and I’ve shared many of the stories of what it must have been like to go to the theatre back then.

One of the things that I have always marveled about is the lady who played the piano for the silent films. In the case of the Lyric Theatre in Golden this lady was Yvonne Mercier.

The Lyric was built in Golden in 1910 by Dartt and Patterson. It had two storeys and four rooms and cost the owners about $18,000 to build. The theatre part of the building was on the west side and could seat 300 people, and often there was more than one show an evening. In between the two films, or when they were changing reels, they would put up the slide that read, “Ladies, please remove your hats.” Today we get the cell phone warning.

Here in the archives at the Golden Museum we have some of the sheet music that Yvonne played for the movies. In fact we have a whole box of old sheet music, most of which doesn’t have a lot of meaning to the people of Golden and at some point we may remove them, but not the Thematic Scores.

They are called “Thematic Music Cue Sheets.” In total we have 19 thematic cue sheets and they are all in really good condition and each one lists the names of the people or company presenting them; the name of the movie and the actors involved in the movie. I’ve picked out one to share all the information on it with you.

“Lon Chaney, in Mockery of Ricardo Cortez. A Benjamin Christensen Production. Continuity by Bradley King. Written and Directed by Benjamin Christensen. Compiled by Ernest Luz. A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Picture.

“Length of film: 7 reels (5920 feet). Maximum projection time: 1 hour, 12 minutes. 1. AT SCREENING….Symphonic Color Classic. No. 2 (Schoenfield) (RED)…1.5 min. 2. (Title) IN SIBERIA…Troyka Paraphrase….3.25 min. 3. (Acting) GIRL HANDS MAN HER PARCEL TO CARRY…Dymphonic Color Classic No. 2 (Schoenfield) (WHITE)..[45 seconds].”

And it runs on like this, point by point throughout the movie for a total of 42 points. The music is printed on the sheet below each of the cues and it must have kept the pianist just hoppin to try to keep up with the changes.

It appears that some if it was played by good instinct and other parts were cued by the titles that were appearing on the screen.

At any rate, it is a pleasure to have these amazing pieces of memorabilia in the collection at the Golden Museum. It certainly has given me an idea of what a challenge it must have been to be playing the piano at the silent films.

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