NICK DANLAG – Staff writer
Joshua Stafford says playing the organ is like painting the air with music.
“There’s nothing quite like hearing those first notes out of the Massey (Memorial Organ) every summer,” Stafford said.
Stafford is the director of music at Riverside Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, Florida and, at Chautauqua, is the director of sacred music and holds the newly established Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist. Some of his responsibilities include playing the instrument at religious services in the Amphitheater and performing for the community.
At 2:30 p.m. Sunday in the Amp, Stafford will play the organ over the silent film “Safety Last!” a 1923 romantic comedy starring Harold Lloyd. This film features one of the most iconic images of the silent movie era: Lloyd’s character dangling from the hand of a clock tower.
Stafford improvises the performances. To prepare, he will watch the film around five times and think of different themes for different characters and which scene to emphasize.
He said some scenes are simpler than others — like playing “Bridal Chorus” during a wedding. But some are more complicated, like when multiple characters are on screen and Stafford mixes the different themes together.
“I find comedies to actually be the toughest of the silent movies to play because your timing is so much,” Stafford said. “You have to be so precise with timing if you want to get that slapstick moment just right.”
During the performance, he also plays off the crowd. During the iconic scene with the clock, Stafford plans to parody the iconic rings from the Miller Bell Tower.
“Safety Last!” was chosen because it is family friendly and its hour-and-a-half runtime fits well into Chautauqua’s program schedule. Stafford said it does not have racially insensitive themes, which plague many early silent movies.
This will be the first time he will be performing “Safety Last!” but he has played many silent movies over the past eight years and has been playing the organ at Chautauqua since 1999.
“Obviously as a 10-year-old kid, making loud noises was pretty rad,” Stafford said.
Now, he brings joy to children and families through the organ. A couple of years ago, he played a Buster Keaton short for around 500 elementary school students in the Performing Arts Center of San Luis Obispo in California.
“Hearing the howls of laughter at this movie from the ’20s, it was so great,” Stafford said.
Stafford hopes Chautauquan will enjoy his performance, too.
“I want the music and the movie to become one,” Stafford said. “At first, it’s a novelty that you’re watching someone improvise this movie, but eventually you sit back into the movie and let it wash over you.”