Buster Keaton, right, in "Steamboat Bill, Jr."by Gary Hawkes
Coastal Journal contributor
UNION — For almost 20 years, the Union Historical Society has presented silent movies as part of the town’s Founder’s Day celebration. On Saturday, July 21, the Buster Keaton classic “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” was the feature film, with musical accompaniment provided by pianist Doug Protsik.
“Steamboat Bill, Jr.” is a quintessential example of the silent movie genre, replete with slapstick, sight gags, and the portrayal of the young hero as a “fish out of water,” who overcomes adversity to save the day and win the girl. Made in 1928, it was the last movie in which Keaton had full creative control.
While such movies may seem quaint and even corny by today’s standards, one must realize that many of the techniques used were groundbreaking at the time they were made. Watching a movie such as this allows the viewer a chance to see the genesis of many of today’s film techniques, including stunt work and special effects.
A necessary component for an evening such as this is the presence of a pianist to provide musical accompaniment to the action on screen. Doug Protsik, a well-known midcoast proponent of “old-time music” (his description), returned to Union to once again fill that role.
Doug Protsik at the piano.Protsik has spent many years researching the techniques used by silent-film accompanists, including study and conversation with the person who accompanied these films in Union when they were new, the late Danny Patt.
It is a daunting task to sit at the piano and realize that you will now be playing for the next 70 minutes without a break. Protsik’s approach is to assemble a series of short musical vignettes for each of the characters. Having committed these to memory, he watches the movie intently as he plays, with only a page of text notes on the piano rack to remind him of what is coming. This quasi-improvisational approach is authentic, and enhances the action on screen quite well. Protsik feels it is his duty “to try to help people understand what is going on, without being a distraction.” Protsik observes that “many of the same techniques used in silent movie music are still used today,” albeit in a more controlled setting than a live performance.
Protsik has an excellent command of the musical vocabulary of the era, including ragtime, honky-tonk, blues, and barrelhouse styles of playing, as well as the requisite tremolos for the more dramatic moments of the action. He is also not above using the occasional musical quip, such as a snippet of “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms” whenever Keaton’s love interest appears, and “Popeye the Sailor Man” when Keaton appears on deck in laughably inappropriate naval attire. While occasionally letting his musical thoughts get ahead of his fingers, Protsik was fully up to the job, and provided an excellent accompaniment.
The Old Town House in Union is a fitting venue for such an undertaking. Originally build in 1840 as the town’s meeting house, it was used throughout the 1920s as a silent movie house as well. The Historical Society has spent much time and effort restoring the building, preserving much of the original charm of a bygone era. Even the piano, surprisingly well maintained, is an artifact of the era. The one welcome change to the historical accuracy of the evening was the use of digital technology to project the movie.
The audience of almost 100 people were treated to a special evening, and went away smiling. The Union Historical Society is to be congratulated, and should consider making this more than a once-a-year event.