Arts & Entertainment

Organist has the keys for an epic silent film

The 1925 version of "Ben-Hur" was silent and black and white - and organist Scott Foppiano said he believes it is one of the best movies ever made.


by Monica Orosz

Daily Mail staff

The Charleston Daily Mail


Thursday, February 7, 2013


Kansas City church organist and choir master Scott Foppiano likes to pull out all the stops with his repertoire, which includes both the sacred and the secular. Friday, he will accompany the silent film version of "Ben-Hur."


Most Sundays you will find Scott Foppiano behind the organ at his home church. St. Vincent de Paul in Kansas City, Mo., where he also serves as choirmaster.


Yet Foppiano welcomes the challenge and chance to play great organs in other cities and particularly to show a bit of the instrument's secular side.


Friday night, he'll visit Forrest Burdette United Methodist Church in Hurricane, where he'll perform music during a screening of the 1925 silent movie version of "Ben-Hur," the historical drama set in ancient Rome.


It's a return to days of old, when orchestras were employed to play for the silent movies.


"There was an orchestral score for the movies and there were organ cue sheets," Foppiano said. "In the bigger, deluxe theaters, the organ would play along with the orchestra during the movies. And then, after so many showings, just the organist would play."


Foppiano said because organists had cue sheets rather than full sheet music scores, they had latitude with the music. It also requires special proficiency.


"I discovered I had a knack for it," he said.


Performing for a movie requires a lot of stamina. In the case of "Ben-Hur," the movie lasts two and a half hours. Even with an intermission, that's a lot of continued playing time for an organist who likely is accustomed to playing four or five hymns during a church service.


"But the biggest challenge is that as you are playing, you have to be able to watch the screen and control the organ as an instrument," Foppiano said.


"My biggest trick is to know the film and to know what's coming next."


Kansas City church organist and choir master Scott Foppiano likes to pull out all the stops with his repertoire which includes both the sacred and the secular. Friday he will accompany the silent film verson of "Ben Hur."


If someone rings a doorbell in the movie and the music cue comes late, the moment falls flat.


Not only is Foppiano familiar with "Ben-Hur," he owns the film version and is bringing it with him.


"Ben-Hur, in my opinion, is the finest silent film ever made," he said of the original version that starred Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman. "It personifies everything they talk about in the golden age of film. It has a cast of thousands. It is an absolutely stunning film."


Foppiano also has performed music to silent dramas such as "Phantom of the Opera" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" along with Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton comedies.


As far as Foppiano is concerned, silent movies are the best.


"I'd rather see an old black-and-white film than anything coming out today," he said. "They have more integrity. The scenery is real. They build entire cities and towns; it's not computer-generated."


To prepare to play with a film, Foppiano said he prepares cue cards of music and watches the film carefully.


 "You can't go into these cold," he said. "You have to capture the dramatic moments, the amorous, sad and action moments. There are certain sounds I go for. In 'The King of Kings' scene, when they show Mary's face, there's an ethereal, soft, angelic sound I go for."


The chariot race alone requires special stamina.


"It goes on and on," Foppiano said. "I remember the first time I saw it, thinking, 'Is he ever going to beat this guy?' "


"The energy is unreal. You're at the edge of your seat. To be honest with you, you sort of lose track of the organ. You are focused on the screen and thinking ahead."


For a film as epic as "Ben-Hur," Foppiano said he actually feels physically tired afterward.


"When I take my hands off the keys, they're almost numb for several minutes," he said.


This will be Foppiano's first visit to Forrest Burdette, and he said he's eager to see the church's pride and joy, a Harrah Symphonic Organ.


"This one is a monster and I'm really looking forward to it," he said.         


Contact writer Monica Orosz at or 304-348-4830.


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