The Alloy Orchestra and a History of Silent Film Music

Alloy Orchestra

If you’ve never watched a classic silent film accompanied by live music, it’s an experience like no other. It’s like going back in time and heading into the future all at the same time. And it brings those great films to a whole new generation.

During the 9th Annual Traverse City Film Festival, you have the opportunity to experience it for yourself with festival regulars the Alloy Orchestra, accompanying Rupert Julian’s silent classic The Phantom of the Opera,” playing on Sunday, Aug. 4, 3:30 p.m. at the State Theatre.

Back when silent films first began, they almost always featured live music, starting with the pianist at the very first public projection of movies by the Lumière Brothers on Dec. 28, 1895 in Paris.

Small town and neighborhood movie theaters usually had a pianist, and beginning in the mid-1910s, large city theaters began featuring organists or ensembles of musicians. Massive theater organs, like the famous “Mighty Wurlitzer,” were designed to fill a gap between a simple piano soloist and a larger orchestra. Those organs had the capability of simulating a variety of sounds, from cymbals to rolling thunder to galloping horses.

The music for early silent films was either improvised or consisted of classical or theatrical repertory music. From there, it progressed to original music with cue sheets from the movie studios that included notes about effects and moods to watch for.

The first designated full blown score was composed by Camille Saint-Saëns, for 1908’s “The Assassination of the Duke of Guise,” and by Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, for Stenka Razin. By 1915, when Joseph Carl Breil composed a mostly original score for D. W. Griffith’s groundbreaking epic “The Birth of a Nation,” it became somewhat common for big-budget films to arrive at the exhibiting theater with original scores.

Jump ahead to current day, and music is once again being composed specifically for those great classic films. Roger Ebert called Alloy Orchestra “the best in the world at accompanying silent films,” and we are very, very fortunate that they’re regulars at the Traverse City Film Festival.

Brigitte Helm in Metropolis

Brigitte Helm in “Metropolis” | Paramount

The group is composed of Terry Donahue (junk, accordion, musical saw, vocals), Ken Winokur (director, junk percussion and clarinet), and Roger Miller (keyboards).

Their impressive career began more than two decades ago on a snow-swept pedestal in the middle of Boston Commons, where they gathered together tons of junk metal, found objects, and homemade instruments. The goal was to create original music and have fun.

Now almost 22 years later, Alloy has showcased their musical magic in more than a thousand performances, visiting a dozen countries and helping to revitalize the medium of live performance for silent film.

In 1991, they wrote their first original score, for 1926’s Fritz Lang-directed film “Metropolis.” Since then, they’ve written scores for 28 feature length film presentations, including 1927’s “The Eagle,” starring Rudolph Valentino; 1922’s “Manslaughter, directed by Cecil B. Demille; and 1927’s “Underworld,” directed by Josef von Sternberg.

The Alloy Orchestra’s unusual combination of found percussion and state-of-the-art electronics gives them the ability to create any sound imaginable, from a French symphony to a simple German bar band of the 1920’s. The group can make the audience think it’s being attacked by tigers, contacted by radio signals from Mars, or swept up in the Russian Revolution.

In addition to the Traverse City Film Festival, the Alloy Orchestra has performed at the Telluride Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, Lincoln Center in New York, the Louvre, the National Gallery of Art, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and many more.

Be sure to catch this amazing group at the Traverse City Film Festival. Check out their web site and view video clips from their silent films at

Read more about the classic films playing at the 9th Annual Traverse City Film Festival.

Classic Films Fete 100th Anniversary of State Theatre

Gold Diggers of 1933

Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell and Aline MacMahon of “Gold Diggers of 1933” | Warner Bros.

In 2016, the Traverse City Film Festival‘s anchor venue and movie palace, the gorgeous State Theatre, will celebrate 100 years of showing movies in downtown Traverse City. To mark the anniversary, we’re continuing our five-year pre-party with great films from the early days of cinema.

I was born in Traverse City (to cherry farmers, no less) and saw a lot of films at the State Theatre in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as the Michigan Theater in the next block down Front Street. “The Love Bug,” “Pete’s Dragon,” and “Jaws” (the first movie where I remember actually jumping out of my seat) are just a few of the movies I saw at the State Theatre. During my high school years, some friends and I saw “Gone With the Wind” there. All 238 minutes of it.

The balcony was always closed during those years, which is no doubt why I always head straight to the balcony these days. Such a pleasure and a privilege.

During this year’s 9th Annual Traverse City Film Festival, we’re showing a couple of 100-year-old films from 1933, as well as films from 1913 and 1925. Even if you’ve seen these films before, nothing compares to seeing them on the big screen the way they’re meant to be seen. Be sure to work them into your film festival schedule. Here’s the rundown:

GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 (1933)

Thurs., Aug. 1, 9 a.m., State Theatre; Sun., Aug. 4, 12 noon, Dutmers Theater (*Free screening at Dutmers)

This Oscar-nominated classic film is based on the play “The Gold Diggers” by Avery Hopwood, which ran for 282 performances on Broadway in 1919 and 1920. The story follows three chorus girls – fast-talking comedienne Trixie (Aline MacMahon), soulful songstress Carol (Joan Blondell), and perky ingenue Polly (Ruby Keeler) – who are searching for work during the Depression. Producer Barney Hopkins (Ned Sparks) stops by and says he’s preparing for a new show as soon as he gets the money to finance it. He hears the girls’ neighbor Brad (Dick Powell) playing the piano and invites him over.

Turns out Brad is a skilled singer/songwriter from a wealthy Boston family, and he and Polly end up engaged. Hijinks ensue as Brad’s brother (Warren William) and a lawyer named Peabody (Guy Kibbee) try to discourage him from marrying a common showgirl. Trixie and Carol turn their “gold digger” charm on these two elitist gentlemen who gradually begin to fall for them. The result is a rollicking fun film with an awesome soundtrack that includes “We’re in the Money,” “Shadow Waltz” and “Pettin’ in the Park.”

TRIVIA: Various people, including director Mervyn LeRoy and choreographer Busby Berkeley, have claimed credit for Ginger Rogers’ pig-Latin rendition of “We’re in the Money.” In her autobiography, Rogers gives the credit to then Warner Bros executive Darryl F. Zanuck.


She Done Him Wrong

Cary Grant and Mae West in “She Done Him Wrong” | Paramount

Thurs., Aug. 1, 12 noon, Dutmers Theater, *Free

This musical romance directed by Lowell Sherman stars Mae West (who also wrote the film, along with Harvey Thew and John Bright) as a New York singer and nightclub owner named Lady Lou.

She’s got more suitors than you can imagine, but unfortunately, one of them is a vicious criminal who’s escaped and is headed to see his girl, not realizing she hasn’t exactly been faithful in his absence. Help comes in the form of local temperance league leader Captain Cummings (a young Cary Grant).

TRIVIA: The movie’s line “Why don’t you come up some time and see me?” was voted as the #26 movie quote by the American Film Institute (out of 100).


Wed., July 31, 12 noon; Dutmers Theater, *Free

This big-budget disaster film was made in 1913. Think about that for a moment. 1913 – 100 years ago. It’s astounding to think about how the film industry has evolved in the past 100 years, and here’s your chance to see one of the first films on a big screen.

The sweeping Italian saga chronicles the final hours in the lives of a prominent statesman, a gorgeous woman, a pagan priest, a jealous witch, and a blind beggar before Mount Vesuvius unleashes her wrath on unsuspecting people below.

TRIVIA: Extras who are “killed” by falling debris during the explosion scene, either get back up or adjust themselves so they won’t be trampled by other extras.

Phantom of the Opera

Lon Chaney in “The Phantom of the Opera” | Universal

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (with Alloy Orchestra) (1925)

Sun., Aug. 4, 3:30 p.m., State Theatre

I’m begging you, DO NOT MISS this classic film, accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra, a group Roger Ebert called “the best in the world at accompanying silent films.” There really is nothing like experiencing it first-hand, and we’re happy Alloy comes back year after year to the Traverse City Film Festival.

An early classic of the horror genre, Rupert Julian’s silent film “The Phantom of the Opera” has been fascinating audiences for almost 90 years. We’re happy to present “Phantom,” starring the great Lon Chaney as a mad, disfigured composer seeking love with a young opera singer, on a lovingly restored and hand-tinted 35mm print.

TRIVIA: Lon Chaney reportedly put egg membrane on his eyeballs to give them a cloudy look.

*Free Screenings: This year, we’re making select movie screenings at the Bijou by the Bay and Dutmers Theater free for the public. Free tickets to these select screenings will be available at the Main Box Office at 128 S. Union Street, by phone or walk-up. Tickets to free screenings are not available online.