This Piano Man Is a Silent Film Throwback - 27 East

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This Piano Man Is a Silent Film Throwback

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As a part of a Holiday Open House and Member Appreciation Day on Saturday, Sag Harbor Cinema show Laurel & Hardy shorts with live accompaniment by pianist Steve Sterner. COURTESY THE ARTIST

As a part of a Holiday Open House and Member Appreciation Day on Saturday, Sag Harbor Cinema show Laurel & Hardy shorts with live accompaniment by pianist Steve Sterner. COURTESY THE ARTIST

The poster for Laurel and Hardy's 1929 film

The poster for Laurel and Hardy's 1929 film "Big Business."

A poster for the 1927 Laurel and Hardy film

A poster for the 1927 Laurel and Hardy film "The Battle of the Century."

Laurel and Hardy in the 1929 film

Laurel and Hardy in the 1929 film "Big Business."

A publicity shot of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

A publicity shot of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

Poster for the 1930 Laurel and Hardy film “Brats” (directed by James Parrott).

Poster for the 1930 Laurel and Hardy film “Brats” (directed by James Parrott).

author on Dec 10, 2023

By his own admission, Steve Sterner isn’t a big fan of modern technology.

“People with their cell phones, doodling all the time, I don’t do any of that,” says Sterner who prefers his land line to the cell phone, which he uses only for the most rudimentary of purposes — “to make phone calls and get phone calls by holding the phone to my ear.”

Though he may not be typing on his cell phone with any regularity like most of humanity, there is one keyboard that Sterner is an admitted fan of — the piano.

In fact, Sterner has developed a well-earned reputation as a musical accompanist for silent films from a century or more ago. As the regular pianist for the Film Forum, the famed repertory movie house on Houston Street in Greenwich Village, he can frequently be found sitting at a piano in the dark, playing along to the flickering black and white silent action on the screen. He has also performed at the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Moving Pictures in Astoria, and other prestigious venues.

“Sometimes, I’ll play 19 films in a month,” said Sterner. “I’ve had nothing in November or December and I have just one in January. So it’s very spotty. It depends if there’s a festival of Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton films.”

Luckily for those of us who live on the East End, Sterner’s availability this month means that he’s free to travel and on December 16, he will be coming to Sag Harbor Cinema where he will provide the piano accompaniment for a program of four Laurel and Hardy silent shorts —“Sugar Daddies” (1927), “The Battle of the Century” (1927), “Big Business” (1929) and “Brats” (1930). The program is one of several events happening at the cinema on Saturday, the first ever “Holiday Open House & Member Appreciation Day.”

“Hopefully, people will enjoy it,” said Sterner, who will perform on a Steinway piano that has been donated to the cinema by siblings Andrea Harum Schiavoni and Albert Harum-Alvarez, from the home of their parents.

Playing piano for silent films is definitely a niche occupation. For Sterner, it all began in the early 1980s when he was approached about playing along to the 1926 silent film “Flesh and the Devil” starring Greta Garbo for a screening at the Thalia Theatre, an art house on West 95th Street in Manhattan.

“The first time I was asked, I said, ‘No, I’m not an improviser,’” said Sterner. “But the guy who asked said he couldn’t find anyone else, and that if I didn’t do it, he would … and he wasn’t a pianist.”

So Sterner agreed and a career was born. After playing the Thalia Theatre for a few years, Bruce Goldstein, Film Forum’s repertory artistic director, brought Sterner on board there and he’s been playing along to the silents now for close to 40 years.

All things considered, It seems that Sterner could not have found a more appropriate professional calling, though he admits he was probably born in the entirely wrong era.

“I’ve always felt I was born too late,” concedes Sterner. “My favorite era is the ’20s and ’30s. I love the stars, the music, the clothes. I suspect in a previous life I worked on the Warner Bros. lot — or I was a dog. Dogs love me.”

And believe it or not, he’s not the only one of his ilk out there playing along to silent movies of the early 20th century.

“It’s not just me. There are others in New York, including Ben Model, who does a silent series,” said Sterner. “And one of the best is Donald Sosin. He is a virtuoso.”

Sterner is fairly modest about his own musical talents and he explains what it takes to be successful in this decidedly narrow line of work.

“I’m not a great piano player, but my strong point is I compose the right music for the right kind of film,” Sterner said. “My job is not to get audience to say, ‘Wow, listen to him play.’ My job is to enhance the film. The music should make a sad scene a littler sadder or if it’s funny, make you laugh a little harder or longer.

“I try to embellish what the film is trying to say.”

When asked how music for silent films is composed — that is, whether it was written down by the original filmmakers or, conversely, is made up by whichever pianist is playing along, Sterner explains that back when they were still making silent films, there often were scores written for them.

“Or they used classical music for scenes and the conductor of the orchestra would have cue sheets saying, for instance, in this scene, play Schubert’s ‘Erlkönig’ until the scene changes,” said Sterner. “I don’t do that, as a rule. I like to follow the film as it’s going on and accompany it as the scene is playing out, so my eyes are on the film, which is why I play wrong notes. I want to follow it closely.”

Sometimes, Sterner will use popular songs of the day that offer clever references to the action, songs like, say, ‘Ain’t She Sweet,” but mostly, he writes his own original music to play along with the films.

“It’s easier for me,” he said.

Sterner also makes sure to screen the films in advance of playing in front of a live audience.

“I did it once when I made it up on the spot and I’ll never do it again,” he said. “If I’m going to play a film, I’ve got to screen it and take copious notes about the action.”

One way in which technology has improved Sterner’s life is the fact he can now preview films on his home computer in the comfort of his own apartment.

“I used to have to go to the theater to screen films. It was hairy,” he said. “It was an empty theater, a projectionist showing the film just for me and just one time. I had to copy down as much action as I could, then go home and think of the themes I needed.

“There are two to eight themes in each film, depending on the plot and number of characters,” he explained. “So I would write my themes and practice in a lot of different keys, because if you play it all in one key, the audience falls asleep.”

“I was a music major in college and I know that different keys evoke different feelings,” he continued. “I practice in a lot of different keys and sit down and start playing to see how I want to do it. Now that we have computers and these films are online, once I do that I can watch it again.”

While it would seem that a short silent film would be easier to accompany than a full length feature, Sterner says that is not the case.

“For comedy shorts, they are tough because there is so much action in 10 or 20 minutes,” says Sterner. “In a longer film, there is a lot more time to see how it works out.”

Whether short or long, Sterner is an avid fan of advancing the silent era in all forms. He’s a proud member of Sons of the Desert, an international Laurel and Hardy appreciation society.

“It’s a worldwide organization with chapters in Europe, Asia and Mexico,” said Sterner. “ It was founded here in New York and the chapters are called ‘tents’ and named after all their films. The Way Out West tent is in Los Angeles. I’m a member of the founding tent in New York and we’re the only tent that hasn’t got a name of a film.”

Extending the love of silent-era films to the next generation is also a goal for Sterner. In the city, Bruce Goldstein has instituted Film Forum Junior, a Sunday morning cinema program designed specifically for children, often featuring Sterner at the piano.

“Every session includes a silent film. Some kids love it, some don’t,” said Sterner. “Bruce Goldstein is very sophisticated. He says kids should be exposed to films like this. I’m thrilled when the theater is filled with kids who love it and laugh their heads off at Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd, who were geniuses.

“For a lot of these kids, if there’s no special effects they’re not interested. But the bottom line is, a lot of these films were great films and still are,” he added. “How can you say Shakespeare is dated? or Moliere? or Arthur Miller?

“Chaplin, Lloyd, Keaton … people will see these films in 200 years and they’ll still be great.”

Steve Sterner performs a program of four shorts at Sag Harbor Cinema on Saturday, December 16, at 6 p.m. including the Holiday themed “Big Business,” in which Stan and Ollie go door-to-door attempting to sell Christmas trees in Southern California. The screening will be free for Sag Harbor Cinema members and open to all public.

Other Member Appreciation Day activities at the cinema on December 16 include: complimentary Dreamy Cocoa and cookies, courtesy of the South Fork Bakery; the annual Santa virtual visit from the North Pole and free popcorn to anyone who donates a children’s toy, gloves or hats — items which will benefit Hampton’s Community Outreach.

The Green Room will open early at 4 p.m. and will host holiday movie trivia, plus members will receive a complimentary drink and bar bites provided by Sen. A whiskey tasting seminar with The Macallan in the Lounge is open to the public, but requires registration, and live holiday music from Jack Marshall will start at 8 p.m.

For more programs focused around the community, Sag Harbor Cinema will reintroduce its “Local Produce” initiative with a screening of “Merry Good Enough,” an independent film produced by Long Island local, Krista Minto, on Sunday, December 17, at 5:30 p.m. The bittersweet holiday comedy is a dark(ish) comedy about a dysfunctional family whose mom disappears on Christmas Eve, and the lengths one daughter must go to bring her family back together again. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Minto, the lead actress Raye Levine (an East End resident), writer/director Caroline Keene and will be moderated by co-star Sawyer Spielberg (Levine’s husband).

Sag Harbor Cinema is at 90 Main Street. For more information on all events, visit sagharborcinema.org.

Sag Harbor Cinema Member Appreciation Day Schedule, December 16

1 to 3 p.m. — Virtual Santa with complimentary cocoa and South Fork Bakery cookies.

4 p.m. — The Green Room opens early.

4 to 5:30 p.m. — Holiday Movie Trivia at The Green Room.

5 to 7 p.m. — Complimentary bar snacks and a holiday cocktail with your member card.

5 p.m. — Complimentary Whiskey Seminar and Tasting with The Macallan. RSVP Required, 12 guest limit. Event in The Green Room Lounge.

8 p.m. — Live Holiday Music in The Green Room

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