Small World

The mighty James

"I get so dedicated to what I'm doing, it's like obsession," Dennis James says. "People use that word 'obsession' on me a lot."

People have a reason. James hosts the popular Silent Movie Mondays at the Paramount Theatre—continuing next week with a screening of Hitchcock's 1929 Blackmail—and accompanies the films on the Mighty Wurlitzer organ. He is indisputably a rare breed of performer, and he's very enthusiastic about it.

When James talks, which he does before every screening at the Paramount, it's with an effusive delight that sounds like he's been biting his lip all day just waiting to tell you everything. Happy cackles punctuated each tidbit of a recent conversation, which included everything from his acquaintance with silent legend Lillian Gish to the secret sound effect responsible for the ominous creaking door on the old Inner Sanctum radio thrillers (it was a squeaky spring on an office chair, by the way).

The Inner Sanctum organist, an aging silent-movie accompanist in James' hometown of Philadelphia named Laurence "Melody Mac" MacLain, took the curious young man under his wing. James affectionately recalls learning the irreplaceable old-school techniques as "a late-19th-century/early-20th-century training to do an obsolete job."

That background took him to a film studies minor and an organ performance major at Indiana University during the social unrest of Vietnam—which, ironically, gave a bit of cult popularity to his first performances, including a 1970 screening of the Lon Chaney classic The Phantom of the Opera.

"My show was treated as a sort of a hippie comic relief, and that's why they came out in droves," he remembers with pride. "We had to hold the opening of the show about five minutes because the marijuana smoke obscured the screen. I started playing, and the movie hit the billowing smoke and never made it to the screen—it was that thick."

You have to admire James' passion, and you also have to secretly wonder exactly how much sand he's had kicked in his face. It can't have been the coolest thing in the world to be fanatical about something that would make your grandma's eyes sparkle.

"I think any of us could be called a geek at some point," he offers. "I was so absolutely enthralled with [organ playing] that I'm sure that somebody looking at me called me a geek, but I didn't care. I was really busy. I was churning up a career."

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