Live music, silents coming to Topeka

Laurel and Hardy in "Big Business"

Trista Pinick

In the beginning they were silent. The black and white images cascaded across the screens thrilling audiences. Mary Pickford, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin were the stars.

“We wanted to introduce them to new, young audiences who had never seen them before,” said Bill Shaffer, an organizer for the event. “We wanted there to be live music just like they were originally done when they were first aired.”

The Kansas Silent Film Festival is quickly approaching its 11th year and has maintained many of the original people who have been helping make it possible.

“After the first year when the library started it, I kind of spear-headed the whole thing,” said Shaffer.

The organist, Marvin Faulwell, who played for a full day the first year of the festival, has continued to provide the bulk of the music. Since then however, the festival has been broken up into smaller sections throughout two days.

“I know it was really hard for him to play all that time in the beginning,” said Shaffer.

Other musicians have also joined. Greg Foreman will be providing organ music as well. Bob Keckeisen will be playing percussion along with the organ and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will be playing.

The orchestra plays authentic silent movie music featuring cues titled run or chase.

“It’s amazing to watch them, they come in with huge sheets of music taped together and the violin will be playing along and then all of a sudden the musician grabs the music and flings it into the air behind him,” said Shaffer.

A feature of the festival, the first version of “Chicago,” has only three known copies. One resides in the hands of a private collector, Rusty Casselton, which is where the film festival got a hold of it.

“It’s amazing to see the similarities between this original version and the new one. The only difference, really, is that there’s no singing in the original since they obviously didn’t have sound in silent films,” said Shaffer.

One of the films Shaffer is excited for is “Cyrano de Bergerac,” which was hand painted in prisma color, a meticulous process. Due to the time- consuming nature of hand painting every bit of film, there wasn’t an overpowering mass production. The film also took three years after being shot before it was ready for viewing.

The festival is also a rarity and has evoked interest from places as far away as Australia.

“There aren’t a lot of these going on around. We get calls and e-mails from all over asking how we put it on and how we acquire the films,” said Shaffer. “We’re definitely being noticed.”

Since the festival is free to the public, it would be difficult to put on without the help of independent donors like Washburn University, The Dickinson Foundation, Paul D. Post, The Blanche Bryden Foundation and a handful of others.

“It’s very expensive to produce something like this, so its very important to have these people supporting us,” said Shaffer.