Sam McManis roams the region to find where you want to go

Discoveries: Silent movies at Lodi's Harmony Wynelands

02/26/2012 12:00 AM

02/27/2012 4:03 PM

LODI – Silent? I think not. My cilia were doing the Charleston inside my eardrums all night, as the likes of Stan Laurel flickered across the big screen and pipe organist Dave Moreno punctuated each frame with just the right aural accompaniment.

Silly me, I had assumed silent movies meant literal silence. Isn't that the way it worked in the homage to this bygone era, "The Artist," which figures to make a big noise at tonight's Oscars telecast?

But a sojourn to the big blue barn at Harmony Wynelands for its periodic Silent Movie Night sets you straight and provides a real feel for how it was back in the day.

Credit Bob Hartzell, owner of the winery, and Moreno, silent movie buff nonpareil, for that. Hartzell bought the hulking three-console organ and pipes, which made its debut at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco in 1921, and built the barn to house it. Moreno raids his vault of more than 200 silent films and gives voice to the action by playing snippets of songs from the era.

Yeah, at crucial plot points when Moreno really gets revved up, pushing all manner of levers and buttons and finessing the ivories, it is (to paraphrase another Oscar contender tonight) extremely loud and incredibly close. Yet no one in the packed crowd at the latest showing of four short films (two-reelers, in the vernacular) minded.

As moviegoer David Whyte observed, "You get used to the loudness because you get so into watching the movie."

Whyte, as with many in attendance, is a silent fan. Stockton physician Joe Serra and wife Dorothy say they enjoy both the simplicity of the plot and the attention viewers must pay to discern exactly what the mute thespians are trying to convey. Devin Landreth of Lodi is a regular, too, and not just for Harmony Wynelands' sublime zinfandel.

"It's nostalgia," he said. "Well, I shouldn't say nostalgia because I wasn't there the first time. But you know what I mean."

Then again, for people like Audrey Lachendro of Lodi, the movies are just a sideshow. The star, in her eyes, is Moreno, a Carmichael resident who has played at Harmony for four years and also plies his art at the Ironstone Winery in Murphys.

Moreno, nattily dressed in a midnight-blue satin shirt and yellow checked vest, is the consummate showman, peppering his performance with corny jokes between films, including a friendly swipe at Lodi. After opening with a peppy rendition of "Hooray for Hollywood," Moreno told the crowd, "We have a raffle. Last time, second prize was a weekend in Lodi. First prize was not having to go to Lodi at all."

Rimshot, please.

Actually, Moreno could have provided his own. The pipe organ can mimic almost any instrument you could imagine, from a Spanish marimba to orchestral oboe, from glockenspiel to tuba. Want special effects? Moreno can offer up sounds like a doorbell, bird chirps and a steamboat whistle.

But his playing is neither willy-nilly nor over-the-top. The sanctity of the feature film is paramount.

"I support the film; I'm the human soundtrack," Moreno said. "I watch the film several times before I come up with the appropriate music. I make sure the music is from the same time period as the film. In the silent days, they sent you a suggested list, like a score. Or they'd tell you what type of music went with a certain scene. They called that a cue sheet.

"During its heyday, when silent films were coming out one right after another, the organist didn't really have enough time and they'd have to do it cold. They got into trouble with that. I read about an organist back then who was playing an Army marching song for soldiers walking around (on screen). Everyone (in the audience) was laughing. He finally realized it was the German army up there."

This night, with Laurel mugging as a wily prisoner in a 1918 film called "No Place Like Jail," Moreno launched into "I'm Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover." OK, so the song was written in 1927, nine years after the film's release. That's mere quibbling; the tune fit the scene.

The thing is, Moreno never lingers on a particular song. Just as the action is quick-cutting on the screen, Moreno segues from song snippet to sound effect in an eye blink.

"I like to get here early so I can sit where I can see him move his hands," moviegoer Lachendro said. "I'll watch him as much as the movie."

Lest we forget, the movie is a draw, too, said Hartzell, who runs the winery with his wife, Linda, and son Shaun. (Shaun, by the way, took the Silent Movie Night as inspiration for the winery's newest label, Pipe Dreams.)

Hartzell, 77, fondly recalls the childhood pleasure of listening to a pipe organ at a movie house in his native San Rafael. So he bought the old Castro organ in 1986 and hooked up with Moreno a few years ago.

"There's a surprisingly large following of silent movies," Hartzell said. "It's not often anymore you can get a big belly laugh from a movie. Well, this is it."

Laughter did, indeed, echo around the old barn as that scamp Laurel outsmarted the prison warden. At times, it almost drowned out the organ.


About This Blog

Sam McManis has covered travel and recreation at The Sacramento Bee since 2011, criss-crossing California to report on interesting, humorous, unexpected and sometimes truly strange stories. When he's not driving all over the state for work, Sam likes to run on the many mountain trails California boasts. Reach him at or 916-321-1145. Twitter: @SamMcManis

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