Silent film and sonic scariness at the grand in Galveston, November 1.
By Rich Arenschieldt
Photo of Landes by Michael Hart
One of Houston’s prolific musicians, Rob Landes, offers a retro-inspired Halloween treat as he accompanies Lon Chaney’s 1925 silent film classic The Phantom of the Opera on Saturday, November 1, at The Grand 1894 Opera House in Galveston.
Landes is known to many in Houston as the driving force behind his self-named jazz trio, a prolific composer, and most notably as the longtime organist at Saint Luke’s United Methodist Church. He’s a native Houstonian and the product of a musical family. “By the time I went to the University of Houston to study music, I had already formed a jazz trio and was working steadily,” Landes says. “I had done nightclub and restaurant work for years, and when the organist at Saint Luke’s retired, I applied for the job.”
Landes still has his fingers in both musical pies, but really enjoys his close association with Saint Luke’s, one of the city’s most established faith communities that is now in the midst of a significant sanctuary refurbishment. “When I usually do silent-movie concerts [at the church], the film is projected onto a huge screen and the organ is placed out front,” he says. “Since our worship space is in the midst of a renovation, for this concert we relocated to The Grand in Galveston. Given the age of the opera house and its history, The Grand is a perfect venue for this show. In many respects it matches the setting for Gaston Laroux’s 1909 French novel.”
Phantom, which premiered in 1925, was produced after Universal Studios’ enormously profitable The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Lon Chaney was the reigning film star of the day and, according to Landes, “Chaney was drawn to portraying tragic characters for highly personal reasons. Both of his parents were born deaf and dumb. For decades he witnessed the prejudice and cruelty that they had to endure as the result of their disabilities. As a result, he always played roles depicting those who existed ‘outside the norm,’ imbuing them with very sympathetic undertones [that enabled] them, no matter how damaged they were, to connect with audiences in some way. This is why his various characterizations are considered theatrical masterpieces.”
This ability to humanize the seemingly grotesque made Chaney the biggest film star of the era. His attention to detail was legendary. Chaney’s portrayals elicited visceral reactions from audiences, partly as the result of his self-applied makeup, utilizing techniques developed by Chaney and kept secret during his lifetime.
Landes is well acquainted with providing an aural bulwark for this type of entertainment. In addition to Phantom, there are about six other silent films that Landes accompanies on a regular basis. “In Galveston, I’ll be in the orchestra pit and will begin by playing music from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera [as the organ rises out of the floor], in the tradition of theater organists. Then I just plow right in to the movie,” he says. “The vast majority of the music is improvised on the spot. I do have some cue sheets to remind me of what is about to happen dramatically, and I’ve created some specific musical themes that I use often.”
Landes’ non-liturgical musical skills are put to good use in this endeavor. “For me, it all harkens back to jazz and improvisation, something organists do every Sunday. We always have to adjust things to enhance the worship experience.” This is relatively effortless for Landes. “At age three, I started playing by ear and developed a keen sense of musical progression and harmonization,” he says. “I would sit at the piano, find a melody, and add several layers to it. Even though I studied music in a formal academic setting, occasionally I would hear a piece and be able to reproduce it. Sometimes as I studied classical keyboard repertoire [much to the chagrin of his instructors], I wasn’t satisfied with what was on the page.
“With Phantom, I get so tuned-in to the process; it’s almost like having tunnel vision,” Landes continues. “The mechanics of playing sort of recede—it just happens. Any of the classic films from this era are so gripping—the time flies by for me and for audiences. I always try to enhance the action on screen. As film composer John Williams said, ‘If you notice the music, it’s not doing its job.’ This is not about me or the instrument—the film is the focus. An audience member once asked me, ‘Have you recorded this [musical score]?’ I gently told her that this music was nothing without the movie. People are surprised that I don’t play from a printed score.”
Moving from key to key or switching between musical styles is easy for Landes. “God was really good to me in this regard,” he says. “I got the ‘improvisation gene,’ one that is needed in every facet of music that I produce, be it in a church, a nightclub, or in a 19th-century opera house. Whatever I need at the moment, I can somehow produce without too much fuss.”
For information and tickets, call The Grand’s box office at 800.8211894 or visit their website, thegrand.com.
Rich Arenschieldt is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.