Since 1998, the silent movie series at the Paramount have basically been synonymous with their organist and host: Dennis James. One means the other. Or did, until an abrupt press release from the Paramount's nonprofit owner, Seattle Theatre Group, announced a replacement musician. The news came at four o'clock Friday, before last Monday's show, where James then staged an outdoor protest in his tux--as if ready to play. (One more Monday night performance remains in the series: the 1927 Seventh Heaven, also to be accompanied by San Francisco-based Jim Riggs, on June 29.)
Speaking from South Dakota, while driving from a concert date back home to the Northwest, James says, "I invented the program. Never have I been told I'm too expensive. I have never been given a raise in 11 years." He claims he actually lowered his rates in 1998 to begin a relationship with STG that began harmoniously, then recently soured.In James' past Paramount performances, and in the 70-100 others he says he does annually, he typically chooses the movie, studies period scores, delivers a spoken introduction to the audience, then play "authentic music [using] ... the tools of an organist of the day. Not bringing in modern music or rock music."
He's a stickler, in other words, and proud of what he's accomplished with silent movie accompaniment over the past three decades--"a model for the entire world," says James. "I do this worldwide. I do this with full symphony orchestras."
But at a January meeting with STG, James continues, "The whole thing broke down. It seems there's a staff attempt to force me out of the Paramount."
STG's executive director, Josh LaBelle sees things quite differently. Though declining to discuss contracts or personnel matters, and while heaping praise on James as a musician, he says the Paramount's silent movie/live organ series "was the theater's initiative" back in '98. With a "very much underutilized organ" in the house, his mission (being programmer at the time) was "to find different and unique and low-cost programming."
James was "absolutely the first guy I went to," says LaBelle. But James, like any band hired for a gig at the Tractor, is an independent contractor with no right or expectation of future employment. This month's Silent Movie Mondays series was announced in May with the event sponsor, Trader Joe's, getting top billing. James is mentioned below with a respectful bio. Then there's a mention that for the Paramount's Wurlitzer Organ, "Over $100,000 is needed for specialized parts, materials and professional services required to complete its restoration."
LaBelle explains that much of the maintenance for the organ is done by volunteers from the Puget Sound Theatre Organ Society. "It would be a larger budget-line item were it not for the PSTOS," says LaBelle. He adds that ticket sales are "healthy" for the series, meaning 400-600 (at $12 per ticket) in a house that seats
1,400 (correction: 2,800). Which can be filled to capacity for, say, David Byrne or the touring production of Rent. LaBelle says that STG is financially stable, despite the recession: "We're only about two percent off our goal" for annual ticket sales. (STG also operates the Moore and books theaters in Portland.)
However, James claims that STG plans to experiment with newer, younger, and likely cheaper rock bands to accompany future silent movies. Meanwhile, though he won't rule out a return to the Paramount (on his terms), he's free to explore his options with the 5th Avenue Theater or Benaroya Hall. For the past 11 years, he charges, the Paramount "asserted a monopoly" on his local services. (Again, STG won't discuss its booking practices.)
James will next perform locally at Bainbridge Island's Lynnwood Theatre (with King Vidor's 1928 The Crowd, 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sun., July 5). And he expects to continue his national touring performances. Which, he says, have been adversely affected by the Paramount's disruption of his schedule. "They are then financially responsible," says James. "I do have plans for a lawsuit."
Monday Update: By phone message, James adds that, "The issue is not whether they can fire me. Of course they can." And he reiterates his desire for "compensation" for the disruption he alleges was caused in his future performance schedule.