“A day without laughter is a day wasted.” – Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin is synonymous with old Hollywood and the silent film era. And while YouTube, Netflix, Tumblr, and Instagram represent the more common media in our modern lives, a fascination with the glamour and drama of silent film remains. All across the country, audiences still flock to film festivals and showings of these classics as they have for the past 10 years at The Washington Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Olympia.

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Live music is part of the authentic silent movie experience. Photo courtesy: Dennis James.

While they may be called “silent films,” a precursor to the “talkies,” there’s very little silence during these cinematic experiences. The films are accompanied by period-authentic music played on The Washington Center’s 1600 Wurlitzer pipe organ played by master organist, Dennis James. Organ music was the original accompaniment for silent films and theater-goers of the past and present enjoy the live musical component as an essential component to the silent film experience.

Michael Cordier, Marking Director for The Washington Center shares how a silent movie showing is a “full sensory experience not to be missed” explaining that the organ, literally “vibrates through you engaging you in the film in an entirely different way.”

The Washington Center’s organ, and it’s location, has a history of it’s own. Originally the Liberty Theater, opened in 1924, the venue was renamed The Olympic Theater in the 1943 where the Wurlitzer organ was used often. The organ was removed to storage when The Washington Center opened its doors in 1983. Local musician Andy Crow was instrumental in the refurbishment of the organ and its eventual re-installation in 1995, an event celebrated with a dedication concert by Crow on October 1 of that year.

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Dennis James has been playing The Washington Center’s Silent Movie Series since it’s inception in 2006. Photo courtesy: Dennis James.

The organ itself is worth hearing, even without the backdrop of a classic silent film. However, the films, paired with the powerful, authentic musical scores played by organist Dennis James, are an experience like no other. James is well known throughout the country. He is credited with bringing silent films back to the Northwest in 1988 through a successful silent film series at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle, leading to his hire as House Organist there. He introduced “Silent Movie Mondays” at the Paramount and expanded in 2006 to The Washington Center in what he describes as “a long running, well received professional series for the past 10 years.”

A long-time colleague of organ champion Andy Crow, James shares how with Crow’s prompting he made the trip to Olympia to see the Wurlitzer for himself.

washington center silent movie
Dennis James will be in command of The Washington Center’s mighty Wurlitzer organ for each of the Silent Movie Series shows, as he has for the past 10 years.

“I finally visited the hall and instrument in 2006 and found it to be a world class instrument ranked within the top ten such instruments anywhere. It is the finest theatre pipe organ in the entire Northwest, professionally maintained and perfectly matched to the theater’s acoustics and the dedicated purpose of historical silent film revival presentations, presented in the authentic manner,” says James. “I am thrilled to return each year to present the most recently restored silent films presented in a manner that closely matches how they were seen by the film-going public when they were first released 100 years ago in 1916.”

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Dennis James entertains a full house during a silent film showing where the musical score is just as important as the images on screen. Photo courtesy: Dennis James.

Celebrate 100 years of silent film history, and 10 years of silent film enjoyment at The Washington Center, with the Silent Movie Series this year. The series includes three classic silent films from three decidedly different genres. The first, showing on January 31, is The Charlie Chaplin Comedies. Chaplin’s iconic image is what comes to mind for many people when they think of silent films. The showing includes Behind the Screen, The Rink, and The Pawnshop, all originally release in early 1916, making their showing a historic, 100-year celebration of Chaplin’s craft.

The second film in the series features the 1916 production of Sherlock Holmes featuring popular stage actor William Gillette know for his stage portrayal of the character. The 1916 film was thought to be lost until a copy was found in the fall of 2014 in a vault in France. This debut film, showing February 28, along with James’ well-researched and authentic live organ score is sure to delight fans of the ageless sleuth.

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Charlie Chaplin is the iconic actor of silent film and is featured in the January 31 showing of the 2016 Silent Movie Series. Photo courtesy: Dennis James.

The third showing on March 20 is a western double feature of Hell’s Hinges and The Americano, again, both 1916 original releases. Complete with gunslingers, a frontier town, and a forbidden love story, the action on the screen will be heightened by James’ dramatic accompaniment on the impressive Wurlitzer.

“If one loves movies as do most moviegoers do today, seeing and hearing them as they were originally intended is an experience that simply should not be missed,” shares James.

With the Silent Movie Series at The Washington Center, the general public is able “to experience fully realized and critically-acclaimed, period-accurate accompaniments to silent films, focusing on the original period-release music actually written for silent films when they were first circulated,” continues James.

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Silent films have retained their appeal over 100 years after they were first introduced. Photo courtesy: Dennis James.

And anytime you can “feel” the music in your seat, you know it’s going to be a good show.

Click here for a short video of The Washington Center organ in action, played by organist Dave Wickerham.

The Washington Center for the Performing Arts Silent Movie Series
512 Washington St. SE in Olympia

Tickets: $20 adult / $5 Youth (through age 14)
Purchase for all three shows: $48 (available through January 31)

Sunday, January 31 at 2:00 p.m. – Charlie Chaplin Comedies
Sunday, February 28 at 2:00 p.m. – Sherlock Holmes
Sunday, March 20 at 2:00 p.m. – Western Double Feature – Hell’s Hinges and The Americano


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