The sound of silents

When you make your living playing the piano, you take any gig you can get. Myron "Mike" Schiffer '51 can even list "silent-film pianist" on his résumé.

Schiffer, who plays nightclubs around the Berkshires in Massachusetts and leads a jazz ensemble, first accompanied a silent film while a student at Kenyon. When Paul Newman '49 started the Kenyon Film Society in 1949, one of his early projects was a screening of the classic silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

"I was known on campus as a piano player, and I worked three nights a week playing in clubs, so I was recruited and was happy to give it try," Schiffer says. The score arrived only two days before the screening, but it didn't really matter because Schiffer couldn't read music. So he improvised. "I was arrogant and brash and just did this very impressionistic performance," he remembers.

Schiffer's interest in music began at a young age in his hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. His early memories include playing for the family during their after-dinner routine of cigars and brandy. His parents were attentive to his musical education in other ways, taking him to the symphony and big band concerts. Encounters with pianist Vladimir Horowitz and jazz legend Duke Ellington at an early age made a profound impression on Schiffer and set him on the path of musical improvisation.

After a stint in the Army during the Korean War, Schiffer worked for a toy manufacturing company in Cincinnati before moving to New York City to seek his fortune in music. It was tough going, but he managed to earn a living as a professional pianist.

In 1967, he moved to western Massachusetts, where he has enjoyed a rewarding career as both a solo and ensemble jazz pianist. In addition to performing in clubs, he plays for private parties and corporate functions, as well as in educational settings. "I used to work as much as three hundred nights a year," he says, "but there are fewer and fewer clubs offering live entertainment nowadays."

Schiffer didn't accompany another silent film until 1978 when the Pittsfield, Massachusetts, library sponsored a screening of none other than The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. "I gave a very similar performance to the one I did at Kenyon, only this time there was a little more continuity," Schiffer recalls. "During the Kenyon performance, it took so long to change the reels that people took their kids home and then came back!"

Schiffer had other chances to accompany silent films in the following years, including Buster Keaton films like The General and The Cameraman. "I have played them both three or four times, and I really love them," Schiffer says. "Keaton was not only a comic genius, but he was a brilliant filmmaker as well."

Other well-known films that Schiffer has accompanied include City Lights, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Metropolis, Nosferatu, and The Phantom of the Opera.

Now semi-retired, Schiffer is enjoying doing some of the things he previously didn't make time for. He indulged his love of jazz with a trip to Havana, Cuba, in December 2002 for the Havana International Jazz Festival. But he expects to continue his silent-film work. He recently attended the New York State Writers Institute Film Series in New York City, where he performed for four Charlie Chaplin short films.

"The Gold Rush is perhaps the most widely known of all the silents, and a couple of years ago, I saw the 'new' edition for which Chaplin included scenes that had been cut from the original and added some dialogue, commentary, and sound effects, including a score," says Schiffer. "The 'purists' were really upset about this, but I thought it was a great way to salvage acomedy masterpiece for contemporary audiences."

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