Experience cinema as you would have nearly 100 years ago

Image above: Poster for Buster Keaton’s silent film The General; Donald MacKenzie

While Chiswick Cinema is showing the latest releases with the most spectacular special effects, a couple of miles down the road in Brentford, The Musical Museum is showing films as they were nearly 100 years ago.

Famed for their Wurlitzer organ, the museum has invited Donald MacKenzie, the renowned organist from the Odeon Luxe cinema in Leicester Square, to come and accompany Buster Keaton’s silent romantic comedy The General on Sunday 13 February.

Buster Keaton’s cinematic masterpiece centres on his two loves… his gal, Annabelle Lee and his locomotive, the General. This spectacle of the silver screen premiered 95 years ago in February 1927. The train wrecking scene cost $42,000 – the most expensive single shot in the history of the silents.

I find it quite amazing that in these days of digitally remastered sound, surround sound and suchlike you can still go and see a bloke at an organ recreating the atmosphere of the film’s thrills and spills live, just as an audience would have experienced it almost a century ago.

How does someone choose that as a career? Donald MacKenzie started playing music to films at the age of 14, finding it quirky and interesting. A musically gifted child who got his first professional job at 14 playing the organ at church, he has now been playing the organ to audiences at the Odeon in Leicester Square for 28 years, entertaining people before the films start.

He travels widely accompanying silent films, often in cathedrals, and has a repertoire which includes Phantom of the Opera, Nosferatu, Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! and Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid.

“I love the freedom of expression in improvisation” he told me. “The film is the manuscript. You haven’t got a musical text to follow.”

He watches a film several times to get it into his head and takes his cues from the screen.

He was very lucky, he told me, growing up in Paisley, to have been able to borrow films from the Scottish film archive, which the local music society played on a 16mm projector.

The Musical Museum in a former church houses the private collection of the late Frank Holland, enhanced and added to over the years by enthusiasts and opened to the public in its current form in 2008 with the help of a National Lottery grant.

Its collection of working instruments, displays and interactive exhibits tell the story of how music has been recorded and reproduced, from mechanical inventions to the present day. Its prized possession is the Mighty Wurlitzer theatre organ in the concert hall.

Donald is a regular performer at the Musical Museum. Tickets for The General, at 2.30 on Sunday 13th February, are £17.50 and include a glass of prosecco. Book through the website: www.musicalmuseum.co.uk/whats-on or call them on 0208 560 8108.

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