Dennis James Silenced

The Paramount unexpectedly shows the longtime silent-film accompanist the door.

Since 1998, the silent-movie series at the Paramount has basically been synonymous with its organist and host, Dennis James. That is, until a June 19 press release from the Paramount’s nonprofit owner, Seattle Theatre Group, announced a replacement musician for the following Monday’s show. There, James staged an outdoor protest in his tux—as if ready to play. He did not. The series concluded Monday the 29th, and STG hasn’t announced a permanent replacement for its 2010 series.

“I invented the program,” says James. “Never have I been told I’m too expensive. I have never been given a raise in 11 years.”

In James’ past Paramount performances, he’s typically chosen the movie, studied period scores, delivered a spoken introduction to the audience, then played “authentic music [using]…the tools of an organist of the day.” He’s a stickler, in other words, and proud of what he’s accomplished—”a model for the entire world,” says James. 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 the house’s “very much under-utilized organ,” he says his mission was “to find different and unique and low-cost programming” and that James was “absolutely the first guy I went to.”

While LaBelle says ticket sales were “healthy” for the June series, James claims STG plans to experiment with newer, younger, and likely cheaper local rock bands to accompany future silent movies (STG wouldn’t confirm James’ assertion).

James will next perform on July 5 at Bainbridge Island’s Lynnwood Theatre, accompanying King Vidor’s 1928 film The Crowd. He expects to continue his national touring performances, which he claims have been adversely affected by the Paramount’s disruption of his schedule.

“They are then financially responsible,” says James of STG. “I do have plans for a lawsuit.”