Aunt Myrtle played for silent movies, she told me many years ago. Last year I asked her son Bill Snyder if it was true. “Yes,” he said, “she played for the silent movies, probably in New Orleans in the 19-teens.” I wondered where in New Orleans that might have been but Bill didn’t know.
Since then I’ve found that probably Myrtle played for the silent movies right here in Florence. She was too young when her family moved permanently back to South Carolina (her father’s home state) to have played for New Orleans movies. But Florence had quite a few theaters in the 19-teens and Myrtle was the right age to have put her musical talent to good use here. For quite a while, the Colonial Theater served as a combination Opera House (live performances) and movie house (first for silent movies, later for “talkies”).
I was curious about how the music and silent movies worked. Did the film companies provide the music to the theaters? Did they only send a list of pieces to be played, along with the frames they went with? You know, fast giddy-up stuff for the western chase scenes, slow dreamy-romances for the love scenes? Or did the theater manager pick the pieces? Or hire a musician and then let her pick?
You know, it’s hard to get that sort of information today. I am grateful to the internet for the answers to that question, and now I understand Aunt Myrtle’s stacks of stuff. She had reams and boxes and folders of piano music in her apartment on West Evans Street. Atop the piano and the dining room table were stacks of music. Underneath the popular sheet music were books of classical music; everything she’d ever needed for the films was still there at her fingertips. She entertained us with great rolling renditions whenever we visited her.
I discovered that in big cities, an upscale theater would have an in-house orchestra to accompany the films. Imagine that! The production company would ship the entire score along with the film canisters and the orchestra would rehearse like mad to learn the material before the first showing. (And you know, they still do? Silent movies still circulate in the big cities, in theaters especially dedicated to them!)
In smaller cities the theater might only have an organ, perhaps calliope-style. The organist in some cities rose out of the floor on an elevator. This was a full-time paid position. The organist might receive the score with the film, or if the film company only provided a suggested list the theater manager (if he was generous) or the organist (if he wasn’t) would go out and buy the music.
In smaller towns like Florence there was only a piano. The film came with a suggested music list and the pianist provided her own music. She watched the film as many times as it took to decide what pieces to use where. It must have been a lot of work.
I never did learn how the pianist was paid. Was it by the showing? By the movie? By the difficulty? Was she reimbursed for the music she bought? I have no idea and I don’t know who to ask.
Now, this wasn’t Aunt Myrtle’s only occupation. She was a ladies millinery specialist who worked for some time in a Richmond, Virginia department store. She knew all about ladies hats and she never went anywhere without one herself. Aunt Myrtle lived here in Florence when I was a child, but she didn’t insist I learn all about ladies hats — no, she wanted me to learn how to play the piano. So I did.
Chopin, Bach, Beethoven, Handel, Tchaikovsky, big band numbers, movie themes and church music — if she loved it, she knew I would too. At the age of six I began taking lessons from Myrtie Berry Wescott, and for ten years I went twice a week during the school year. I learned how to read music, play scales, do finger exercises, and memorize long concertos. I worked hard, determined to play like Aunt Myrtle.
Long, trilling runs up and down the keyboard were her trademark. Fast or slow, soft or loud, crashing major chords or eerie minor ones, octaves and arpeggios galore. Somehow, however, these beautiful runs escaped me. A glitch in my finger joints has interfered, so I don’t play exactly like Myrtle. But I do play, and I love to play, and that is her doing.
I was born several generations too late, but I wish I could have attended a silent movie with Myrtle at the keyboard. That would have been a blast!