Shelf Life | Newberry

Shelf Life

“Shelf Life” is a podcast about the humanities–and the humans behind them. Each episode features a new conversation with the Newberry staff, fellows, and other readers who bring the Newberry’s world-famous collection to life.

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Gigging the Film

Silent-film organists could “gig the film” or “Mickey Mouse” it (play in ironic contrast with the images on screen or in ham-handed correspondence with them, respectively). But the most successful found the harmonious middle between the two. We talked with musicologist Kendra Preston Leonard about these musicians and why women, in particular, were so central to the art, culture, and values surrounding silent film.

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Gigging the Film by Shelf Life, from the Newberry Library

Show Notes

0:53 What were the average American’s entertainment options in the early twentieth century? How did silent film fit into the menu of options?

3:39 At this time, was film seen as high-brow compared to other forms of art and entertainment?

5:10 How much of an impact did music have on how audiences experienced movies? What was the relationship between music and image? (Music selection: “Fairy Flirtations” by Victor G. Boehnlein; performed by Ethan Uslan.)

7:24 How much freedom did organists have when it came to determining musical accompaniment?

9:49 What kind of celebrity did these musicians have? Did they rival the actors on screen in attracting audiences to the movies?

11:45 Was musical accompanist a gendered occupation? Why did women have an advantage over male performers?

14:38 Performing on stage could be a vehicle for social mobility for women.

16:11 How did having women musicians help movie houses market themselves?

20:47 How did musicians train to become musical accompanists for film?

23:07 Kendra discusses the career of Rosa Rio, one of the most well-known cinema organists of all time.

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