In identifying the original Nosferatu as one of the “great movies,” the late, great film journalist Roger Ebert wrote that to see the classic 1922 German silent film was “to see the vampire movie before it had really seen itself … here is the story of Dracula before it was buried alive in cliches, jokes, TV skits, cartoons,” and, of course, many other films. One might update that list with the popularity of Nosferatu memes on social media.
Come Tuesday, Oct. 24, in McMinnville, one week out from Halloween, you can see it like it was meant to be seen: on a big screen, accompanied by live music.
It’s not the music the audience would have heard in March 1922, when the silent film premiered in Berlin. The original score, composed by Hans Erdmann for a full orchestra, has been mostly lost. Other musicians over the years have composed new scores, and a screening at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Linfield University’s Richard and Lucille Ice Auditorium will feature yet another, played on the organ by the composer himself, Dean Lemire, who is arguably Oregon’s most popular and prolific organist.
Lemire is what can happen when a child introduced to art is swept away by it and makes it their life’s work. He started on the piano when he was 5 and trained as a classical pianist with the late Mary Dunlap, a music instructor at Pacific University in Forest Grove. He is also a jazz pianist and composer, but Lemire is known primarily for his work on theater pipe organs, where he is seemingly everywhere all at once.
Since age 17, he’s performed at the Oaks Park Roller Rink. For more than 20 years, he was the organist at the Organ Grinder pizza restaurant in Portland and Uncle Milt’s Pipe Organ Pizza in Vancouver. For many years, he was the team organist for both the Portland Trail Blazers and the Portland Beavers. On top of all that, he’s entertained U.S. troops on four continents while touring with the USO. Finally, he is the resident organist and program director at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland for the Pipe Organ Pictures silent film series.
Nosferatu has a similarly colorful history, one that very nearly was nipped in the bud.
The atmospheric film, directed by F.W. Murnau, was the first and only work produced by Prana Film, a company created in 1921 to make supernatural-themed films. At the time, the primary artistic template for a popular vampire tale was Bram Stoker’s epistolary novel Dracula, published 24 years earlier. Prana didn’t acquire rights to the novel, and despite changing names and places, cutting the character of Van Helsing, and introducing the device of the vampire, Count Orlok, arriving on a ship infested with plague-carrying rats, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (the film’s full title) was quite obviously Dracula. Stoker’s estate sued successfully for copyright infringement and the judge ordered all copies of the film destroyed. Most were — except for those that had been shipped to the United States.
The film exists in several different restored versions with different scores, and it ranks an enviable 97 percent on the film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes. In 1995, the Vatican marked the centenary of cinema with a list of 45 films that people should watch, and Nosferatu is in there along with Schindler’s List, The Wizard of Oz, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Lemire was busy in McMinnville over the weekend, rehearsing on what was originally a Casavant Frères Ltée. organ acquired by Linfield in the 1960s. The 2,459-pipe instrument, which spans the length of the auditorium stage, was dedicated in 1969 as the Alice Clement Memorial Organ and has since been modified. We caught up with Lemire with some questions about artistic influences and playing organ for silent films. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I know you started playing the piano when you were 5, and lots of kids start fiddling around on the piano or drums or guitar, but they don’t necessarily go on to make it a part of their lives. How did that happen?
Lemire: I’d already been around the piano a lot. My dad played music by ear, and we had a player piano with hundreds of rolls. I listened to every kind of music as a kid, and my dad also had an organ in the house. But my wild moment was when I was like 10. I went roller skating at Oaks Park and I heard a theater organ there, which is a big Wurlitzer pipe organ. That same year my dad took me to the Paramount Theatre in Portland, where they were having a concert on the Wurlitzer theater organ, and I got to hear this magnificent instrument in the venue it was designed to play in.
You took piano lessons with a Pacific University teacher, Mary Dunlap?
She was able to kind of keep up with me. When I wanted to go into more jazz, she said, “No, you’re going to learn this and learn this.” Finally, she relented when I was 12 and put Rhapsody in Blue in front of me and that changed my life. That was a beautiful bridge from classical to jazz.
When did you jump to the organ?
I couldn’t reach the pedal board when I was 7 or 8, but I learned it at home when I was 10. Then something happened in fifth grade. I went to a Catholic school, they were in need of an organist, and they found out that I played. So I’d get out of school and they’d have me play Mass. It got around town there was this kid who could play. Most notably, there was a mortuary that had a pipe organ nobody could play. So I got to. They’d call me out of school, and it was great. Here’s this fifth-grader going to these different funeral homes and they pay him to play these different organs.
I gather you know quite a bit about silent film. How do you look at Nosferatu in that broader context? It’s a foreign film, really.
The way it’s filmed, it’s German Expressionism. The Germans were a little bit ahead of us and they were quite inspirational to a lot of people, like Alfred Hitchcock. If anybody has seen Nosferatu but they haven’t seen it on a big screen, they have to see it on a big screen. You don’t have any blood and gore, you won’t see any of that. The word I’d use is “creepy.” It has this creepiness more than shock value. That’s why it’s a perfect deal for a church-type organ.
You’ve written scores for more than 100 silent films. How do you do that, how do you approach a film?
Each score, I change a little bit, because each organ is different. Basically, writing a score starts with empathy. You have to understand what’s going on in the movie. There’s a lot of improvising, because there’s times when you don’t want to be playing anything. Sometimes, silence is better.
You also play at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland. What kind of organ do they have?
It’s a traditional Wurlitzer theater organ. Just to educate people a little bit, it was invented specifically to accompany silent films. They’re recognizable by that horseshoe-shape console. They’re ergonomically made to be easier to play and to play quickly
When will audiences hear you next at the Hollywood?
My next film is going be Thanksgiving weekend. It’s not posted on the Hollywood Theatre site yet, but it’s going to be The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. That’s another horror film. You gotta go to that one. It’s really good!
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror will be screened at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 24, in the Richard and Lucille Ice Auditorium in Melrose Hall, 900 Baker St. SE, on the Linfield University campus in McMinnville. Tickets are $10 and may be purchased here.