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Silent movies are alive

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Dear Friends,

When I saw the Philadelphia Inquirer feature story about a silent film organist from Pennridge High School, I knew that you’d want to know all about him. Brett Miller, a 17-year-old junior, has become famous. He and his father, Scott, built a portable keyboard that Brett takes to movie theaters when he plays for silent films.

If you do a search (musicalpromise.com), you’ll find tons of fascinating things about Brett and his brother, Evan, who plays the ukulele.

I asked Brett about the portable organ keyboards he and his father built. “About five years ago, we started with two keyboards but added a third so we could create additional sounds,” he told me. “My organ keyboard is rather like a ‘Frankenstein’ organ.

Here are a few thoughts reporter Stephanie Farr wrote about him: “When Brett Miller first saw a live organ accompany a silent film …the 1925 version of ‘Phantom of the Opera’ at the University of Pennsylvania’s Irvine Auditorium … he was stunned.

“Oh, I want to do this,” he thought to himself. “I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I want to be a film accompanist.”

He was 10.

“Miller estimates he’s since accompanied more than 60 silent films at locations from the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville to the Lowe’s in Jersey City. By connecting the organ to a laptop and then to the theater’s sound system, Miller can replicate 41 sounds from church bells to violins.

“As leading man Douglass Fairbanks swashbuckled his way through the 1926 film “The Black Pirate,” Miller created the auditory landscape. An exploding ship sounded like a barge horn. A snare drum accompanied a man walking the plank. A festive feast was loud. Lingering love was soft. Sneaking was staccato. Fire was legato.

“The best compliment I can get is ‘I forgot you were playing’ because it’s my job as an accompanist to completely disappear,” he said. “Miller often feeds off the audience while performing. It’s one of the reasons he encourages people to boo, hiss, and cheer during the films.

“It’s an experience that’s really audience participation without them even knowing,” he said. “It’s really customized to whatever audience is in the house so it will never be the same.

“Miller, who is quietly confident and has an encyclopedic knowledge of silent films, said his audiences include everyone from first-timers to silent-film buffs. The questions he gets asked most are: How did you develop the score, and how did you play that long?

“I always say that playing is an easy thing. you just kind of sit there and move your fingers. But the music thing … I like to tell them … I like to use original scores.

“Miller also plays piano and various percussion instruments. He’s a member of the Garden State Theatre Organ Society and the Philadelphia Young Artists Orchestra. He also plays for his church and is heavily involved in his school music program. Miller wants to pursue a career in music education one day while continuing to promote silent-film accompaniment.

“I see myself continuing this, especially since it’s a dying art. I know I’m one of the younger ones, so I’ll definitely keep it alive.”

Brett and his brother also raise money for juvenile diabetes. He told me that a close family friend has juvenile diabetes and the two brothers wanted to focus the public’s attention on finding a cure.

Here are Brett’s performance dates for this year: June 22 in Phoenixville (“Jaws” a pre show); June 28, Atlantic City Boardwalk Hall at noon; Oct. 27 in East Greenville (Silent Movies) Halloween event; and New Year’s Eve (Dec. 31) in Trenton.

“I like to make the silent films come to life,” Brett Miller concluded. “I want the public to see them…support them … it’s part of America’s culture. Come see and hear the silent movies … it’s an event!”

Did you see the obituary about Donald W. VanArtsdalen of Doylestown? It was a major story because VanArtsdalen was a well- known federal judge in Philadelphia and a decorated World War II veteran. He was 99 when he died.

Born and raised in Doylestown, he graduated from Doylestown High School before matriculating at Williams College. But VanArtsdalen left in his junior year to join the Canadian Army to fight in World War II.

America had not yet entered the war at the time. After the U.S. entered the war, VanArtsdalen transferred into the U.S. Army and joined the newly formed First Ranger Battalion , also known as “Darby’s Rangers.”

He was part of four beach landings in Algeria, Sicily and Anzio. VanArtsdalen fought in Tunisia leading to the defeat of Gen. Erwin Rommel’s German Afrika Korps. VanArtsdalen was awarded nine medals and citations, including a Bronze Star for valor.

After his military service, without a college degree, he enrolled at Penn’s Law School. That surprised me. Can you imagine a prestigious university admitting someone to its law school without an undergraduate degree? VanArtsdalen’s credentials obviously spoke volumes.

He was a Bucks County district attorney before becoming a federal judge in 1954. Three major cases in his career while on the federal bench stand out. The first involved the building of the Blue Route; the second concerned the $8.5 billion merger of ConRail with CSX Corp; and in the third case, VanArtsdalen sentenced six Philadelphia homicide detectives to prison for conspiring to brutalize suspects and witnesses, which violated their civil rights.

Judge VanArtsdalen was also an active athlete. He and his wife were founding members of the Bucks County Ski Club and the Buckingham Racquet Club. They enjoyed horseback riding, swimming, traveling, and boating. The judge was a windsurfer and swam even in old age.

In 1966, when I became a Bucks County commissioner, I vividly remember Donald VanArtsdalen. He was a giant of a man, both mentally and physically.

And now to the silent movies and Brett Miller.

Sincerely, Charles Meredith

By the way … during World War I, my mother’s two older sisters played movie theater pipe-organs for the silent movies in Reading. One of them, Ruth Keller, became a jazz pianist. The other, Minnie Keller, was an organist who played for Eugene Ormandy, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. When I was a kid, I remember turning pages for Aunt Minnie’s organ recitals. She also played at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Small world, eh?


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