Organist Christoph Bull accompanies classic shorts by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd with his mighty 1921 Wurlitzer
By Michael Aushenker
Get a glimpse of what Venice looked like 100 years ago at Saturday’s Charlie Chaplin Centennial in Santa Monica, where a program of silent film shorts includes “Kid Auto Races at Venice,” the Chaplin short that introduced his Little Tramp persona.
Other classics on the evening’s bill include Chaplin in “The Immigrant” (1917), Harold Lloyd in “Never Weaken” (1921), a restored and hand-colorized version of George Melies’ 1902 fantasy film “A Trip to the Moon” and the 1922 Buster Keaton short “Cops” — each accompanied by acclaimed organist Christoph Bull on his 1921 Wurlitzer theater pipe organ.
Growing up in Mannheim, Germany, Bull started playing piano at age 5, organ by age 8, and classical pipe organs at church by age 12. He trained with a piano teacher who taught him to improvise as well as play repertoire — skills that come in handy manning the Wurlitzer during silent-movie screenings. It was during an event at UCLA’s Royce Hall that Bull first accompanied silent movies with the organ, making his scoring debut with Keaton’s “The General.”
Before a public screening, Bull absorbs a movie at least five times.
“When I first watch it, I don’t do it with playing,” said the Elysian Valley resident. “I get familiar with the movie then write down ideas.”
The final performance is “usually a mixture of implementing preconceived themes and reacting in the moment. There’s some planning so I don’t have to go on completely naked,” Bull said.
No two organists usually accompany a movie the same way.
“To a certain extent, it’s interpreting and paraphrasing the movie,” Bull said. “Honestly, I’m going to express my version of the movie. Others may do something funny while I may play something sad.”
Ultimately, he said, “The whole trick is that it must enhance the movie, but it should not distract.”
With so many comedies on the bill, Bull’s soundtrack is sure to be competing with lots of laughs.
The Charlie Chaplin Centennial, which also promises screenings of silent cartoons and appearances by surprise special guests, benefits the Santa Monica High School band program. Screenings start at 7 p.m. Saturday at Barnum Hall, Santa Monica High School, 601 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. Tickets are $10 or $5 for students and seniors. Call (310) 395-3204, ext. 71586, or visit samohiband.org.