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Sounds of 'Silents' : Vintage films are screened outdoors to the accompaniment of a musician and the chirping of crickets.

July 16, 1993|MICHAEL SZYMANSKI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Michael Szymanski writes frequently for Valley Life.

The perfect date for Rusty Frank of Woodland Hills and Bob Scheerer of North Hollywood is having a qui et picnic on a movie set, watching the sun go down, and seeing a dashing silent movie of Douglas Fairbanks or Greta Garbo, with a skilled musician playing in the background.

Since they started dating two years ago, they've attended the Silents Under the Stars screenings held outdoors at Paramount Ranch in Agoura and the William S. Hart Park in Newhall. This summer, three features and some comedy shorts will be shown.

"You can sit there and hear the crickets, and the projector clicking behind you, and after the sun goes down you watch the moon go across the sky," says Frank, a tap-dance historian who recently published the book "Tap!"

"Then," she says, "you settle down and watch these magical classics that touch me emotionally like no talking picture can."

She dresses up for each picnic in Gatsby-like outfits that might include an antique hat, costume jewelry, summer frock or beaded gown.

Scheerer, an Emmy winner who has directed episodes of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," "Dynasty" and "Fame" as well as feature films, has rediscovered silent movies through her. "It's a thrill to watch the artistry and technique of telling a story in such a clear and simple style," he says. "Some of the stories are incredibly complex and contemporary."

Hollywood Heritage organizes the programs through a committee called the Silent Society. Kari Johnson, who works for Hollywood Heritage and is director of the Hollywood Studio Museum, says some entire families come to the screenings, no matter what's playing.

"They like the informality of the setting, where they can chat and drink champagne and watch movies somewhere different than in a museum," she says. "The people who come out to the ranch are not necessarily silent film buffs."

But, Frank points out, silent movies are never really silent. "It's so important to have good music while watching them."

The music is played by Michael Mortilla, who has come to the Paramount Ranch for the past five years, since the inception of Silents Under the Stars. He drives from Santa Barbara with his portable synthesizer, two computers, amplifiers, a power generator and mixing boards to create almost any sound imaginable.

Usually, he's playing music for movies he's never seen before, and he has to second-guess the plot instantaneously. "I improvise the music as I'm watching the movie, and I have to anticipate the sounds of a baby crying or a gun shot or boat whistle as I watch," he says. Of course, Mortilla also borrows from classical music and early jazz. "I will always try to play music in the style of the time that the film was written," he says.

The bugs are his worst problem: They are attracted to the light above his keyboard. He recalls how during one 90-minute film, he kept playing even after a fire ant stung his pedal foot and left him in excruciating pain.

"I have to vacuum the dead bugs off my synthesizer after these shows," Mortilla says. "I use lots of bug spray."

A pianist for more than two decades, Mortilla was a fan of silent stars Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin even before he played an instrument. His skills at improvising increased while he worked with dance instructor Martha Graham in New York from 1979 to 1986. Now, he is composing music for short radio soap-opera comedies called "Under Stoneybrook."

"It's such a nice idea to have silent movies in such a setting. I think my wife and I would drive an hour and a half each way to come see them, even if I weren't playing," Mortilla says.

The silents at Paramount Ranch are screened in the midst of a Western town now used primarily for the television show, "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman."

Jackie Stuyver, National Park Service ranger, says, "Part of our mission is to introduce filmmaking to people and to encourage people to utilize our park, so this gives us the opportunity to reach people who wouldn't normally come to the park."

The ranch is one of the few Western sets still around for use by independent production companies. Movies from the 1920s, such as "Rough Riders" and "Jesse James," and more recent television series such as "CHiPS" and "The Fall Guy" have been staged at various spots on the ranch grounds.

Where and When What: "Silents Under the Stars." Location: Paramount Ranch, 30401 Agoura Road, Agoura. Program: "The Yankee Clipper" with William Boyd at 8:30 p.m Sunday. "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" with Harry Langdon, 7:30 p.m. Aug. 22. "Wagon Tracks" with William S. Hart, 7:30 p.m. Aug. 29, at William S. Hart Park on San Fernando Road in Newhall. Price: $6 per movie. Call: Hollywood Studio Museum, (213) 874-2276; Paramount Ranch, (818) 597-9192.

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