Playing in the dark

MoMA salutes pianist Stuart Oderman's 50 years as the one-man sound of silents.

Photograph: Amanda Berg

“I was 13 and running numbers in Newark for a man whose name I can’t mention,” Stuart Oderman recalls of his younger years. He’s obviously told this story a million times, but you can’t help but roll with him. “Let’s just say the guy’s last name begins with a Z. He was the bookie who discovered Jean Harlow—in her hotel room. Anyway, I was cutting school constantly.”

Suddenly, the story gets a lot less Goodfellas. “I was completely addicted to The New Yorker,” Oderman continues, “and I read that they were showing silent movies at the Museum of Modern Art. What a way to kill time, right? Admission was 50 cents.”

Cut to 56 years later and Oderman, 69, can now say he’s spent a lot of time in the front row. Actually, even closer: As the museum’s senior silent-film accompanist, the pianist, an amateur who trained on the job, has reached a professional plateau few can claim. MoMA will be celebrating his tenure with a special tribute, “A Salute to Stuart Oderman,” on Thursday 29, with the honoree playing along to a personal favorite, D.W. Griffith’s 1919 Broken Blossoms, starring Lillian Gish.

“'You belong in school,’ Lillian Gish told me when I met her,” says Oderman. “I was just this know-it-all kid sitting next to her. And I said, 'I want to play the piano for silent films.’ Ms. Gish walked me down the aisle and told the pianist, Arthur Kleiner, 'This is a young friend of mine. Will you be his teacher?’ He said yes.”

Oderman has fond memories of his apprenticeship, rooted in what he admits was an out-of-joint love for a particular era of filmmaking, dusty even then. “Most kids my age liked Elvis,” he recalls. “I wished I had been born earlier. Arthur was a metronome, very dramatic, very severe.” Oderman mimics a pendulum, hands chopping: “This. Is how. He was. Eins. Zwei. Drei.” He smiles. “But I owe him everything.”

As for the art of accompaniment itself, Oderman speaks with the wisdom of a seasoned jazz sessioner—one who eats at Katz’s a lot: “You are the mustard on the sandwich, not the pastrami. We’re playing in the dark. If you do your job well, they won’t notice you.”

Are there aspects to filmmaking that we’re missing out on today? Oderman laughs. “Modern audiences think an old film is Star Wars. Basic storytelling is learning how to tell a story in pictures first—like cavemen painting on the wall.” Given the success of Pixar’s WALL-E, largely silent for its first third, these lessons might not be as dated as they seem.

“It’s a little bit more work for your imagination,” says Ben Model, 46, another of NYC’s accompanists and the cofounder of the annual Silent Clowns Film Series. “But the rewards are greater. And what we do is tricky. The music should be comfortable, like an old sweater.”

Oderman concurs. Over a career that has included writing books (biographies of Gish and Fatty Arbuckle) and scoring documentaries, he’s rarely strayed from the life of the professional, content to toil on the periphery. And he’s quick to stress that he’s not retiring. “My final tribute is when I’m underground,” Oderman kids. “Gish kept going until she was 100. As far as I’m concerned, after 50 years I’m just at the beginning.”

“A Salute to Stuart Oderman” is at MoMA Thu 29.

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