Making sweet music

Register Reporter

Marvin Faulwell

As silent film buffs gather for the upcoming Buster Keaton Celebration, they’ll be treated to new sounds from the Bowlus Fine Arts Center.
Scratch that.
While Marvin Faulwell is a newcomer to the Bowlus stage, he’s been making sweet silent film music for years.
Faulwell, of Lee’s Summit, Mo., will accompany a number of silent films featuring Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle Friday and Saturday at the Bowlus.
Faulwell replaces the famed Mont Alto Orchestra, unable to play the Keaton event this year due to a schedule conflict.
As with previous Keaton festivals, all events are free and open to the public.
Faulwell, 69, a retired dentist, got his start on the piano at 5. He switched to the organ at 16 and has stayed with it since.
But it wasn’t until 1985 that Faulwell was introduced to silent film accompaniment. He was a staff organist at the Granada Theater in Kansas City, Kan., and was asked to play along with the Chaplin classic “The Gold Rush.”
“It was just a lot of fun,” Faulwell told the Register in a telephone interview.
But what struck him most about the movie was a stretch near the end of the film when Chaplin could not find a date, and was thus becoming sad.
Faulwell, in turn, began playing more melancholy tunes, enough that he heard a lady near the front of the auditorium begin to sniffle.
She was crying.
“It was kind of neat to be able to convey the mood that well,” Faulwell said. “I was hooked.”
Since then, Faulwell has accompanied more than 120 silent films. He’s a regular performer each year at the Kansas Silent Film Festival and for the annual “Silents in the Cathedral,” a Halloween event held at Grace Cathedral in Topeka.

PART OF the appeal in accompanying a silent film is the latitude afforded the organist, Faulwell said.
He typically spends one to three months preparing his music for each film.
The timing of the music is vital, he noted. “If you come to a scene where the telephone is ringing, then obviously you’d want to play a ringing noise.”
Among Faulwell’s favorite composers is J.S. Zamecnik, who wrote music for dozens of silent films in the early 20th century.
“He created the greatest songs that were so appropriate for the different types of films, whether they were to convey love, or battle, or suspense,” Faulwell said.
Faulwell considers several songs for each film. For the Keaton event, obviously, Faulwell will pick from his library of comedic pieces.
“It’s important to have different songs because you don’t want to play the same thing over and over again,” said Faulwell, who has been preparing for the Keaton festival for the past few months. “This is my first time performing in Iola. I’m really looking forward to it.”