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Silent film accompanist Ben Model fills Mills

October 20, 2023

Growing up, while other children were watching Sesame Street, Ben Model was watching Charlie Chaplin features. By the time he arrived at film school, he had already watched most of Chaplin’s films, as well as most Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd films.

Model’s love for silent films continued well after school, remaining a constant in his life and the focus of his career, as he currently works full-time as an archivist, historian, professor and touring silent film accompanist.

Last night, the College was able to host Model as he joined the Cinema Studies department in the Mills Hall screening room to play live piano alongside Douglas Fairbanks’ 1920 film “The Mark of Zorro.”

The room was filled with students, Brunswick residents and Maine film enthusiasts for 90 minutes of action that was far from silent, as Model played piano without stopping from before the film started until the final title card.

At various points in the film, the audience burst out laughing or erupted in applause, reactions that would have been typical for a silent movie audience in the genre’s heyday.

“Audiences in the silent era were never silent,” Professor of Cinema Studies and event organizer Tricia Welsch said. “They didn’t have to be quiet until the movie started talking and you had to listen to the dialogue. During the silent period, there was live music everywhere.”

While some audience members were familiar with silent movies, it was many people’s first time experiencing live accompaniment to a film.

“It was so cool to have a live performer and to know that he was improvising from this mental musical bank,” audience member Julia Starck ’26 said. “It just made me appreciate the score more because I could sense the care he was putting into it.”

Model’s style of piano has evolved over the many years he’s been active as an accompanist. As time has gone on, he’s drawn from the idea that a good accompaniment gets out of the way of the film, focusing on instead adding to what’s on the screen. While Model mostly watches the screen to guide his performance, the audience’s eyes are often glued to Model.

“It was cool to see him watching and taking it in, especially during the dramatic moments,” Starck said. “It just added another layer of craftsmanship to the movie.”

Earlier, in one of Welsch’s classes, Model spoke about his mentors in silent film accompaniment.

One of these mentors was Lee Erwin, an organist who accompanied silent movies in the 1920s. Erwin taught Model a lot about accompaniment, particularly pushing him to adapt to modern conventions and convert his previously static setup to an electric one.

Model now uses a customized software called Hauptwerk to perform alongside his electronic keyboards and a pedalboard setup. He stands his piano bench on four bed risers, which he says puts him at the perfect height to press the pedals and play both keyboards.

Model also looked towards William Everson, an archivist and educator, as a mentor. In college, Model played for his classes, accompanying two to three of his screenings a week.

“[Erwin and Everson] were people who saw my interest and passion and said ‘yes’,” Model said.

One of Model’s lasting impacts is the Silent Comedy Watch Party, a free weekly live stream he started in March 2020 alongside his wife Mana Allen and friend and film historian Steve Massa. Every Sunday at 3 p.m., Model and crew would set up the live stream in his Manhattan living room and screen silent comedies with live accompaniment.

As the pandemic went on and live touring was no longer an option, Model continued the live streams for two years before scaling back and moving to every other week and eventually the current timeframe of one stream per month.

“He started offering [live streams] for people’s sheer pleasure and enjoyment just to lift people’s spirits,” Welsch said. “He still performed live for people who could come in and watch and so forth.”

The watch party still has an effect on watchers, with Welsch being one of their biggest fans.

“Ben is my personal pandemic hero—capital P, capital H, Pandemic Hero because of his generosity of spirit and his really high quality offerings every week,” Welsch said. “And he just kept on doing it.”


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