Tom Roberts keeps accompaniment alive at the Hollywood Theater | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Tom Roberts keeps accompaniment alive at the Hollywood Theater

"You just have to have a good knowledge of music from that era and roll with it."

click to enlarge Tom Roberts
Photo courtesy of Nick Keppler
Tom Roberts

Tom Roberts can ramble about the sublime intricacies of Charlie Chaplin films, like he's Quentin Tarantino taking an interviewer through a lengthy aside about Italian action movies or Kevin Smith presenting his latest epiphany about Return of the Jedi.

Take, for instance, 1916's The Pawn Shop.

"Everyone in the film is a stereotype," explains Roberts, a musician and piano teacher who performs original scores to such silent movies as part of the Hollywood Theater's Silents, Please! series. "There's the Orthodox Jewish owner, his hot daughter, an uptight accountant and a sneaky thief." Playing a shop employee, Chaplin "shows up late and when the boss tells him he's late, he checks his [pocket] watch against the wall calendar." From there, hijinks ensue, of course.

His geeky enthusiasm for all things from the silent era has led Roberts to organize Silents, Please!, which, as of this Sunday's showing of 1926's The General, starring Buster Keaton, will have brought eight programs of live musicians and silent films to the Hollywood Theater (a movie house that actually dates back to the silent era).

Andrew Greene, a ragtime expert, accompanies the train-themed film. At another show, composer Ben Opie teamed up with the spacey Sound/Unsound Trio for a slate of films that utilized primitive special effects.

Putting a band in the pulpit was common in the silent era and has made a comeback. Daryl Fleming, who has brought his ragtime/folk-rock band The Public Domain to perform his score to the 1928 Louise Brooks film Beggars of Life at Silents, Please!, has also played to early movies at the Warhol and the George Eastman House, a photography museum in Rochester, N.Y. "It's fun, and it's not like you have to be John Williams to do it," says Fleming. "You just have to have a good knowledge of music from that era and roll with it. Sometimes, I will throw in 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game' and stuff like that."

Roberts says the performances have enticed a wide audience, from retirees to young hipsters.

"I get a lot of compliments from twentysomething women with tattoos and asymmetrical haircuts," he adds, "who tell me that Buster Keaton is the hottest man they've ever seen."

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