Studying organ at IU in the late 1960s, Dennis James, BM’74, MM’79, got the inspiration for a musically accompanied silent movie series after taking a film history class. In 1969, he rented the IU Auditorium for a live music screening of The Phantom of the Opera, which turned out to be hugely successful.
James is now internationally known for almost single-handedly reviving interest in period-authentic live music for silent film, as well as performing on lesser-known instruments such as the glass harmonica, cristal baschet, and theremin.
The following interview took place about a month before James’ 50th-anniversary performance of The Phantom of the Opera at the IU Auditorium.
Tell us about your early life and how you started playing the organ.
I really wanted to play the piano when I was growing up. My brother was the one who started off playing the organ. He was older than me. I used to linger behind the kitchen door and watch him take lessons. I figured out how to play the organ without ever touching it. … [Back in the ’50s], parents used to trot out the children, dressed in their Sunday best, to display whatever their talents were for visitors at dinner. My brother was first up and he played the organ. He hit a wrong note or something, and I said, “That’s wrong.” He spun around and he said, “Well, if you can do it right, you get up and play.” I got up and played, and he quit playing the organ and started playing the clarinet. I got to play the organ.
To go back a bit further, I actually began playing the accordion from age seven to 12. I remember once in seventh-period science class, I said, “Nobody wants to hear me play this accordion. I’m gonna take up the organ.” So, I became an organ wiz.
How did you come to attend IU?
I auditioned at all the music schools in Indiana. I was swept into IU with the hoards that got into the music school back in 1968 when anybody who applied got in. There were no actual qualifications because they just needed enrollees. They expanded the size of the music school right at that time, and it was the world’s largest music school. Anybody got in. I got in.
I had very little actual academic training that qualified me to enter, but I was swept in. Fortunately, I had a very sympathetic teacher, Dr. Oswald Ragat, and step-by-step, through all of that, it dawned on people that I had a double life in that I was a pop music fan and a film music fan, and I played all sorts of other instruments. It became evident that if I did my school work and the classical training that I was doing for my degree, they would let me be free and do anything I wanted.
The late 1960s was a pretty dynamic period at IU. How was that for you?
Yeah. That’s a nice way to put it! We had the whole radical ’60s thing going on—and we might be entering another similar period, who knows? My recollections were that it was such a factory, this gigantic school, the music school. The enrollment was huge.
I remember the opening speech by the head of the music school at the time, Dean Bain. He gave this speech and he said that he wanted us to shake hands with the guy in front of you, the guy next to you, the guy behind you, and the guy on the other side. He said, “In four years, only one of the people that just shook hands is actually going to still be here.” They had a huge attrition rate.
IU did quite a job in cranking out professional musicians into the world of music. I consider myself lucky to have been one of those.
They were cranking people through and my recollection was that the music school was such a factory that I could sort of annex into the workings of the whole place and take up my own interests. I signed up in the business school for a business minor and I signed up over in the English department with Harry Geduld and took the first academic film class.
So, Harry Geduld’s class was the inspiration for doing silent film accompaniment?
Yeah, and the way I got into that is within weeks of living at Wright Quad, somebody mentioned that they showed movies at the Whittenberger Auditorium in the Union. Harry was showing his history of film course on Wednesday nights, and they were showing silent movies, which is what the course started with. I got there early enough for the first film, The Great Train Robbery, which is really close to the beginning [of silent feature films]. It must have been the second week of school. It was open to anybody, not just the class.
I went in and they were getting ready to start the film and there was a piano in the room. I went right up to Harry and I said, “Hey. I’m a music student. You got a piano. You’re gonna show these things silent?” He said, “Well, do you know how to do this?” I said, “Sure,” even though I hadn’t a clue. So, he said, “Go ahead.” I went up there and it went fine.
Then, I played the next film up and I started playing every Wednesday night. And it was almost a full year into doing that when the Museum of Modern Art sent a score along with the film they sent, Beau Geste. They sent the actual score. I had no idea at all that there was written music for these movies. That set me off on what’s become a career in actually pursuing the music that was designed and distributed to be played with these movies. So, I’m sort of the first of the young generation that actually took a look at silent movies as something real, and that happened at IU.
The ’60s was obviously a volatile time, socially and politically. But it was also a very rich and vibrant period, musically. Did the music of that period influence you?
Well, some of my classmates at IU formed Blood, Sweat & Tears, so that gives you an idea that the pop music industry was crossing over with classical music. And the students themselves were crossing over. The isolated, almost warring, cultural approach between classical music and pop music was breaking down. During those years I was at school, Leonard Bernstein had the IU choral ensemble, the Singing Hoosiers—which was the pop version of a singing choir—go to Washington and be the chorus for a new piece he had written, Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers. And he, himself, was incorporating pop music and classical music together.
It was a heavy time, in that the academic community was catching up as fast as it could to a wildly changing society and the students were taking advantage of the disarray. Recital formats were changing, and the way people publicized their own performances on campus was also changing, moving away from hanging up a recital brochure on a bulletin board, to me running between classes scrawling “The Phantom is Coming,” on blackboards. Running around the dorms and going into the bathrooms, putting stickers inside the lids of toilet seats, so when people lifted the lid, they’d see an ad for my first show. Dropping a banner on the clock tower. I put the slogan, “The Phantom is Coming,” all over campus, but never explained what it was until the day of the show.
I paid for an entire year of school with one performance. [The music school] was able, with the money I made, to buy all the organ scores that were available.
Up until the day of the show we’d only sold about forty tickets, but we ended up with about 4,000 people because there was so much publicity that my friends and I had done. We even took out little ads in the Indiana Daily Student for about a month which said “The Phantom is Coming” at the bottom of the front page. My college roommate, Steven Fink, BA’73, was on the staff at the IDS, so I sort of had an in for doing publicity. And then, I had a front-page newspaper article in the IDS displaying what the whole “Phantom” thing was, and that’s what sold it out.
Anyway, the climate was amazing. I knew IU was a real seminal training ground for being a professional musician, which has been proven to this day, because inevitably every symphony orchestra—and I’ve played with 120-some orchestras—every orchestra I’ve played with worldwide has at least one, and usually four to six IU graduates, many of whom went to school with me. IU did quite a job in cranking out professional musicians into the world of music. I consider myself lucky to have been one of those.
So, that very first performance of The Phantom of the Opera brought about 4,000 people into the Auditorium?
Yeah, 4,000 plus. There used to be a little arts and crafts set-up in the Union, next to the bowling alley. I hand-printed about 400 tickets there. No one expected more than 400 people would show up at this thing. But they sold those tickets, then they just started taking cash and putting it into trash buckets, while people were coming in, because there were so many people. It was just all this cash. It was quite the deal. There was no real ticket count, but it was well-over 4,000 because there were no seats left.
There were only 3,800 seats in the Auditorium. We had people standing in the aisles and it was just a gigantic performance. It got the attention of National Public Radio and they put me on “All Things Considered.” Then, I just started playing. As a student, I was traveling on weekends to play concerts all over the Midwest. My career actually started while I was a student, and it has just blossomed ever since, and here we are 50 years later.
It’s very obvious that you are a natural showman. You get very much into the spirit of the event. Did you always do that? Did you always see it as a vehicle for doing something fun?
Yeah. It was kind of counter-culture initially. It was a satire of an organ recital when it began. The whole thing was a joke. I came up with the idea of putting on a cape, and when I walked out that very first show, the whole spirit of everything was set by the fact that I was inundated with paper airplanes—around 4,000 of them—when I stepped onto the stage. I had to shovel them off of the organ, to be able to play the first piece.
I prepared a complete written score for that first performance of The Phantom of the Opera, boring as hell, just a tedious, beginning-student kind of score. I started playing, and within the first 30 seconds, I realized that this just did not fit what we were doing. There were 4,000 people excited people, mostly students, and I’m playing this very studious, studied score that I’d personally written, under the tutelage of my mentor, Lee Erwin. So, I abandoned the score and improvised. I just made music up, all for effect. It was all very theatrically effective.
I’m sort of the first of the young generation that actually took a look at silent movies as something real, and that happened at IU.
Fortunately, somebody had a bootleg cassette tape recorder. And, I have a tape of that performance. It’s pretty exciting, I must say. It’s the classic thing. I was on drugs and I was so excited, the adrenaline was running so high and the enthusiasm was so great that I could do things that I, myself, couldn’t even explain how I could do it. I was improvising fugues and I was imitating toccatas and I was doing these huge scenes that were coming out of nowhere.
When I listen to it today, it’s quite spectacular and it really shows that I was going to do what I’m doing. I was crashed into it in that moment. I guess the freedom of doing what I had been doing with the piano, with the silent films at Whittenberger, must have set that in motion. And, I was able to realize that this collision of my classical training being exposed in front of 4,000-plus people just wasn’t gonna match. So, I slashed into what I had been doing on the piano but did it in an organ manner. It excited me as much as anybody else because I didn’t know I could do that. It was really exciting.
The IU Auditorium now has whole seasons planned out, probably years ahead. Was The Phantom of the Opera going to be shown and it just serendipitously happened that you did a score?
I conceived this idea of showing The Phantom of the Opera, which is about an organist, and to do it at the IU Auditorium in 1969. I went to the management there and they told me, “Oh, a student can’t rent the school facilities for private gain.” They said, “You’ll have to have a sponsor.” I went to my teacher and he said, “Well, yeah, alright. You can do that. You have to do all the work and we’ll take 50 percent of whatever money comes in and use it for buying sheet music for the school’s music library.” That was the deal.
It was just the sponsor that was gonna take 50 percent of the money and I got to keep 50 percent. At the rate of the school tuition, I paid for an entire year of school with one performance. They were able, with the money I made on that performance, to buy all the organ scores that were available. We had enough money left over to pay for tuition.
Every symphony orchestra—and I’ve played with 120-some orchestras—every orchestra I’ve played with worldwide has at least one, and usually four to six IU graduates, many of whom went to school with me.
It became a business instantly. The next film we did was The Mark of Zorro, and that one didn’t sell out, but it drew up in the 3,000 range. We all agreed at the same moment, that with two successes like that, this thing would probably keep going. The next one was The Son of the Sheik. I did the costuming. We started bringing in all these special lighting effects and smoke effects, and it just was this hilarious take on an undergraduate kid being totally free and doing anything he wants, as long as he makes money. I think I’m quite fortunate to still be doing it, fifty years later and have people happy about it.
So, the Halloween film series has run uninterrupted for the past 50 years?
Well, it went on like that for quite a while and then the politics of music started to kick in. All sorts of weird things happened. The school almost lost its funding from the state legislature, and they almost shut down the school for four days when I showed the D.W. Griffith film The Birth of a Nation, [editor’s note: Griffith’s 1915 film was highly controversial for its negative depiction of African Americans and its positive portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan]. It made front-page news in the national papers for four days. It was quite a scramble. That was sometime in the early ’80s, around ’82 or ’83, It was front-page news. All the politics of academic culture and everything with freedom of speech, everything was front page news. It was quite dramatic. There were four people in the audience.
Protestors surrounded the Auditorium and the Ku Klux Klan showed up and it riled everybody up so much that the whole thing just scared everybody off and four people actually got into the Auditorium. I went ahead and did the show, but it killed the series for a while. It just wiped it out for a few years.
They fired me for a while and brought down a guy from of the University of Chicago for a few years. I don’t know how it came back again. I think the Halloween thing kicked in and the school decided to sponsor me, which hadn’t happened. So, no. I don’t have a continuous run, but it looks like it.
This year, you’re performing with a full orchestra of IU music students. Does that present any particular challenges?
Let’s see. It’s gonna be a lot more pressure with this show because of course I’m dealing with 30-some musicians and I’m dealing with a conductor and dealing with all sorts of aspects of the show that are going to change it inherently from what I’ve done before. It’s going to be a bit of a challenge, but I’m up for it. I’ve been doing this thing for years. There’s a real excitement because of that artificial anniversary number: 50.
I decided if we’re gonna do a 50th-anniversary, we should celebrate what I did with this career, rather than what I started with. It’s really kind of a very affectionate feeling for me to bring this all together, because of the nature of having made a whole professional career out of something that was a joke 50 years ago.
Are you still going to bring the same sense of showmanship and have fun with the concert?
Oh, I always have fun and that’s what I do. It’s going to be interesting to see if I slip into this world of convincing people that this is serious enough to pay attention to. Probably not. I expect the environment’s going to be quite jovial. I’ll probably summon my anarchist undergraduate spirit. I’ll probably joke around with the conductor and sort of introduce him into what he’s getting involved in here and sort of introduce him to the world of back when a line of smoke obscured the screen and we had to all inhale to be able to see the movie and all these things!
It’s just so much fun. Yeah, I fully expect it’s just going to be a fond anniversary with a giant extra sprinkle of musicality because we’re actually performing with a full orchestra. It should be quite exciting!
Dennis James appeared in the Original section of the Winter 2018 issue of the IU Alumni Magazine, a magazine for members of the IU Alumni Association. View the current and past issues of the IUAM.
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