Wednesday, August 2, 2017

In celebration of Stuart Oderman (1940-2017)

As I type this blog, I am listening to one of my very favorite film soundtracks - Stuart Oderman's piano accompaniment to Pandora's Box. It was Oderman's exceptional, moving, romantic pastiche of classical piano music that helped me fall in love with Louise Brooks - and helped open up a world of music by the likes of Debussy, Satie, Rachmaninoff, Brahms, and others. Thank you Stuart Oderman. I owe you.

Back in the late 1990's, I was so desperate to re-enter Oderman's moving score that I made a tape cassette recording of the VHS soundtrack by placing my recorder next to the TV set. Despite its limitations, I have played it many times since -- almost to the point of it wearing out. Admittedly, it was a crude recording, and the fidelity was poor. And once, when I enthusiastically played it for a friend, a pianist, I could sense the look on their face was one of bewilderment. They likely only heard musical noise. I heard scenes from the film.

Stuart Oderman, one of the finest silent film accompanists, died on July 28 at the age of 77. The Louise Brooks Society mourns his passing.

Oderman was many things. Besides a pianist, he was also a writer and film historian. Oderman was the author of five books, including ones on Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Lillian Gish, and the Keystone Cops.

He also authored two volumes of memoirs called Talking to the Piano Player. The first volume includes interviews with some of the most important people of a bygone film era: Marlene Dietrich, Frank Capra, Colleen Moore, Jackie Coogan, Madge Bellamy, Aileen Pringle, Allan Dwan, Adela Rogers St. Johns, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Anita Loos, Leatrice Joy, Dorothy Davenport (Mrs. Wallace) Reid, Patsy Ruth Miller, Ann Pennington, Claire Windsor, Betty Bronson, Minta Durfee,  Lois Wilson and Constance Talmadge.The second volume featured interviews with Artie Shaw, Lita Grey, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Harry Richman, Veronica Lake, Marie Windsor, Joan Blondell, Gloria DeHaven, and Tallulah Bankhead

Significantly, for more than 53 years, Oderman accompanied and composed music for silent films at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, as well as at theaters, museums and universities across the United States, Canada, and Greece. His scores appear on VHS / DVD releases of Pandora's Box, the Charlie Chaplin documentary The Eternal Tramp, and the Harry Houdini film, The Master Mystery.

Television audiences may be familiar with his Laurel and Hardy series, and his work for the Comedy Channel.

Oderman came to his calling in a special way. While still in high school, the young movie buff used to cut classes in order to see silent films playing locally. In 1954, he snuck off to the Museum of Modern Art in New York to see the Lillian Gish film Broken Blossoms.

A lady sitting next to him took notice and said, "You belong in school." His response was, "I want to play piano for silent films." The woman turned out to be Gish. She took him by the hand down to the piano, Oderman later recounted, and introduced him to Arthur Kleiner, the celebrated silent film pianist.

Kleiner became his teacher and Gish his point-of-entry to the silent era. "She gave me a life," he says of the actress some consider the finest of the era. "I owe her."

For more on this remarkable person, check out these profiles in the Newark Star-Ledger and the New York Times.

Oderman in 1967 with actress Lillian Gish.
Credit Earl Wilson / The New York Times

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