Image from goldensilents.com

When my friend suggested we watch the original 1925 silent film The Phantom of the Opera featuring the Royce Hall Skinner Organ, I could only picture two things: one, there will be a tall pale man wearing a dark silk suit, hunched over rows of keys in the eeriest setting possible, or two, Count von Count will be counting the spiders on the wall and the cobwebs in the hall.

Naturally, I was mistaken. Come October 30th, I was sitting center row staring at a polished-looking organ whose regal presence made me wish I was an expert organist (Too bad my musical talent is limited only to the pots and pans that grace my mother’s kitchen. (Even then, she tries to keep them away from me and refuses to acknowledge my rare gift in playing these instruments)). The organ comprises of more than 6,600 pipes and has been part of the UCLA legacy for more than 75 years.

On the organ was Steven Ball, a senior staff organist at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, and not at all Dracula-like. He walked on stage in a spiffy suit, introduced himself and the film, and said that if he did his job right, we as an audience would forget he was even playing the organ live in just a few minutes. Soon enough, he slid onto the bench, fixed his coattails, and started turning so many knobs and playing so many keys and pressing so many buttons and pedals that I started to think he probably had ten other pairs of invisible arms and hands and feet hidden somewhere.

This led to too many questions: How can he look at his music sheet and the buttons and keys and at the film on screen all at the same time? Did he memorize the film by now to get the synchronization of sound and film to be so exact? I wonder how ripped his finger muscles are? How can Count von Count play such a demanding instrument and bother to count random objects at the same time? But as Ball said, once he and the organ started to descend and once the movie started to roll, the music became a natural part of the film experience, and my questions were soon overshadowed by the magical atmosphere that permeated Royce Hall.

The music danced when the ballerinas danced, ran when victims and shadows ran, wept when heart-broken characters wept. This version of The Phantom of the Opera was the first visual adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel. Although it largely has the vibe of a horror film, many of the players’ obvious, dramatic gestures (there were quite a lot of flailing of the arms) and the amusing content of the title cards rendered the silent picture a bit more comedic to present-day viewers.

Because I seemed to laugh more than I’d wince during most of the film, I thought that the unmasking of the phantom would not be as horrifying as it was rumored to be (the early audiences were said to have screamed and fainted at the scene). But I must admit, with Steven Ball behind the keys that built on a frightening melody, Lon Chaney’s grisly and phan-tastic (I crack myself up) make-up did make me flinch in my seat. The grotesqueness of his face immediately seemed to alienate him as a monster, and my analytical nature as an English major began taking over my thoughts. Who’s the monster in this film? The Phantom, Erik, or the men that ruined him? Is he inherently evil or does he just want to be loved? Would even Barney the purple dinosaur be able to love him?

The silent film was more than a good thriller or a medium for comic relief. After the intermission, Ball said that the reason why he finds the silent cinema so interesting is the same reason why video gamers find video games interesting. With both forms of entertainment, there is a missing element that attracts an audience through its interactive quality.

The lack of dialogue definitely allows us to use our creativity and fill in the words (although sometimes when I instinctively try to lip read, I find myself composing sentences like, “The chicken wants to butter lamps” during scenes of great distress), and the whole experience—although not like the Count-Dracula-Sesame-Street feel I was initially imagining—becomes a rarity in which the sounds of the organs help create a sense of magic.

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