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Organist brings ‘Caligari’ to life at Stambaugh

Organist Clark Wilson has performed throughout the United States as well as Canada, Australia and England.

Next week, he will perform for the 15th year at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, accompanying a screening of the silent version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

But one organ the East Liverpool musician hasn’t played is the E.F. Skinner organ up the road from him at Stambaugh Auditorium in Youngstown. That will change Sunday when he provides live musical accompaniment for the 1920 silent horror film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”

“The last time I saw Stambaugh was back in the early, mid-’70s when the place was really down in the mouth and the organ was unplayable,” Wilson said. “It’s certainly had a wonderful renovation … When you’re playing a Skinner, you know what you’re getting into. They’re all variations on a theme, and it’s a very good theme.”

Wilson fell in love with the organ as a young child and attended an organ society convention in Chicago, which was the first time he saw a silent film with live accompaniment.

“It was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen,” he said. “It was alive. I wanted to do something like that.”

At the time, those kinds of presentations were a dying art form, but Wilson has lived long enough that those experiences are back in vogue.

“What’s old is new again,” he said. “Twenty-five, 30 years ago, churches and concert halls wouldn’t have been caught dead showing a silent film. Now the art form is old enough to appreciate it for what it is.”

He also believes the silent films shown on Sunday nights on the cable channel Turner Classic Movies has cultivated a new audience for the remaining films created during the silent era.

Wilson has created scores for more than 75 silent films, and plenty of research goes into each one.

“No one worth their salt would just sit down and play and see what happens,” he said.

The first step is to look for a copy of the original score or cue sheet. None exists for “Caligari.” Without the original, Wilson started going through his library of music, looking for melodies that would be appropriate for the era and fit the theme and mood of the action.

“Caligari” presents some unique challenges. The German horror film directed by Robert Wiene tells the story of a hypnotist, Dr. Caligari, who kills people using a man with the sleep disorder somnabulism to commit the crimes for him. It’s considered one of the leading examples of German Expressionism.

“‘Caligari’ is a very angular film, a very bizarre film,” Wilson said. “The makeup, the set are so impressionistic. The way it’s acted and directed, the way the story unfolds and looks, you can’t just play tunes for this. It requires some bizarre music and bizarre effects. There’s more creating sounds, blips and bloops, than there would be in any sort of romantic story. The other movies popular at Halloween have a bit of the romantic thing going on. This one doesn’t.”

Wilson believes first-time silent movie watchers will be as smitten with the experience as he was decades ago.

“A live performance with an organ score is a wonderful thing. You can see silent movies on DVD and so on, but it’s a whole different thing being in an auditorium with a live audience and a live organ score.”

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