Silent film festival launches at Warnors Theatre

The Fresno BeeSeptember 24, 2013 

When the ornate Warnors Theatre opened in 1928, the plan was for vaudeville acts to perform. That changed when silent movies began to sweep the nation.

Because the only sound that accompanied the black-and-white flickering images came from a theater pipe organ, an order was put into the Robert Morton Organ Company.

Then the era of talkies began and musical accompaniment was no longer needed.

Although efforts were made to cancel the order for the pipe organ, the theater was held to its contract and the organ was installed, placed on a platform at center stage of the ornate theater, where it could be raised or lowered as needed.

It hasn't been needed to accompany silent films for decades, but that changes tonight with "Return of Silent Films," a new series launching at the downtown landmark, 1400 Fulton St. Tonight's first screening is of the Charlie Chaplin 1925 classic "The Gold Rush."

"We are doing a silent film series because we want to showcase in our historic theater, with our historic Morgan organ, what built this facility in the first place. It was the silent films. And, to introduce this genre of films to a whole new generation who hasn't experienced it," says Dan Fitzpatrick, president of the board for Warnors. "The viewing of these classic silent films will be entertaining, educational and most importantly, fun."

Along with the series opener, the lineup of silent movies will include:

"The Phantom of the Opera" (1925), Oct. 17.

"Hot Water" (1924), Nov. 21.

"Big Business" (1929), Dec. 19.

"The General" (1926), "The Iron Mule" (1925) and "The Great Train Robbery" (1912), Jan. 16.

"Pollyanna" (1920), "What Drink Did" (1909) and "The Narrow Road" (1912), Feb. 20.

"Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World" (1925), "A Trip to the Moon" (1902) and "The Impossible Voyage" (1904), March 7.

All screenings will begin at 7 p.m.

Warnors, a nonprofit foundation, has also turned back the calendar when it comes to prices to see the movies. A single ticket is $3, while a family ticket costs $8 (there are no limits as to how many members are in a family). Tickets for the film series can be purchased at the door for individual showings and series passes are available at

The schedule was designed for the films to screen while schools are in session. Thousands of free student tickets — made possible through local sponsorship — have already been handed out for field trips to see the movies.

Although the films are open to all ages, Fitzpatrick points out that because they are from a different era, some may not be considered politically correct by today's standards. That's why he suggests the films are better suited for middle and high school age students.

As part of the educational elements of each screening, local silent film expert Nate Butler will emcee and local film educator John Moses will present a brief history about the movie.

Patrons will see the best quality versions of the movies, which will be shown through a DVD projector. The higher quality gives the Warnors a wider selection of titles.

Each film will be accompanied by music and sound effects from the original pipe organ purchased almost a century ago. Dave Moreno, who has played the pipe organ in vintage theaters and restaurants for 40 years, will be the featured organist for "The Gold Rush" and "Phantom of the Opera." Organists Dick Concebaugh and Ron Titus will be performing at future screenings.

Fitzpatrick says it takes time for the musicians to prepare for a performance because the sheet music for a silent movie is very different.

"All of the organists do lots of research to match the kind of music that originally accompanied the silent films. But, even in the old days, a lot of the music was improvised. They mainly have a whole bunch of cues. Now it's going to be chase scene. Now love scene. So they know the different types of stops and feel of music they want to play with it," Fitzpatrick says. "Everything has to fit like a glove."

Because every film will be accompanied by the organists, the term silent movie is almost a misconception. Not only is there musical accompaniment for each action, but the organists can provide a wide variety of sound effects. The only thing missing is the dialogue that flashes on the screen through a series of printed cards.

Every effort is being made to make each screening interactive. Because there's no dialogue, the audience is encouraged to boo, hiss and cheer the action. Patrons are also encouraged to wear '20s style clothes and participate in a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest.

"We also will have volunteers who will be dressed in period wear. They will be taking tickets, working concessions, standing at the doors for ushering. We're hoping that having that, combined with the Charlie Chaplin costume contest, is really going to make it feel like you stepped back in time and you are at a silent movie in 1928," says Michelle Swift, project coordinator.

Show info

"Return of Silent Films," featuring Charlie Chaplin 1925 classic "The Gold Rush," 7 p.m. at Warnors Theatre, 1400 Fulton St. in downtown Fresno.


TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at

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