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JAUNTS : Pianist Adds a Modern Touch to Old Movies : Michael Mortilla uses keyboards and computer equipment to embellish silent films shown on an outdoor screen. Mother Nature's show is a bonus.

July 14, 1994|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You can go to a movie theater any time, but it's not every day that you can sit under the stars in a mountain park and watch a silent film while the crickets chirp.

That is, if you can hear the crickets. One of the best parts about seeing the film classics at the Paramount Ranch near Agoura is hearing the fancy keyboard work of Michael Mortilla.

Mortilla, 40, is a rarity. He has garnered a worldwide reputation for his ability to provide the musical accompaniment to silent films. You can see him in action at 8 p.m. Sunday when the melodrama "The Night Cry," a 1926 film starring Rin Tin Tin, is shown on the outdoor screen.

The film is the first of two to be shown this summer by the National Park Service and the Silent Society of Hollywood Heritage as part of their "Silents Under the Stars" program, begun six years ago at the re-created Western town. The second film, "Manhandled," starring Gloria Swanson, will be shown Aug. 21 at 7:30 p.m.

Mortilla, who lives in Santa Barbara, has provided the musical accompaniment for the films since the program began. Some fans come to hear him as much as to see the classics.

The astonishing thing about Mortilla is that usually he is seeing the film for the first time, improvising on the spot, without a clue as to the plot.

"That gets a little tricky," he said. "You never know when the gun will go off, or if the gun will go off, or whether the man is the hero or the villain."

Mortilla does a lot more than simply tickle the keys. He brings a series of keyboards and computer equipment so that he can push a button and go to a whole range of sounds--piano, flute, oboe--or special effects, such as a dog barking or a gunshot.

"A lot of quick thinking goes on," said Mortilla, a composer for theater and dance as well as a UC Santa Barbara faculty member.

The silent films are shown in the open-sided building known as the pavilion, which was built by Paramount Studios to house large props during the 1920s and 1930s when the movie ranch was in its heyday.

The ranch itself is nestled in the mountains. Until the late 1940s, its canyons, oak groves, streams and rolling grasslands provided the backdrop for the movies made by the studio.

The National Park Service took over 300 acres of the ranch in 1981, re-creating some of the Western sets where the television show "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" is filmed.

Audiences at silent movies can explore the Western sets at the ranch before the films begin, or they can picnic on the grounds. Some moviegoers say that part of the program's appeal is watching the sunset and the moonrise over the hills, breathing the cool mountain air and hearing the birds and crickets, and maybe a coyote.

For Mortilla, all that nature stuff can be a headache.

He has to deal with moths that flicker around his lights, and other pesky insects such as the fire ants that attacked his foot during a performance.

He takes it all with a sense of humor. After all, he is quick to point out, the original purpose of the early silent film accompanist was to cover the sound of the projector.

In the last six years, he has accompanied at least 125 films. His most famous silent-film stint was to provide new scores for 12 restored Charlie Chaplin films for Los Angeles-based Film Preservation Associates.

Mortilla is a self-taught musician who nonetheless worked closely with dance great Martha Graham in New York City during the 1980s.

He served as composer and accompanist for Graham's company and collaborated with her on the PBS special, "In Performance at the White House."

On Sunday he'll be a world away as Rin Tin Tin takes to the screen.

Details

* WHAT: "The Night Cry," a 1926 silent film, the first of two films in this summer's "Silents Under the Stars" program.

* WHEN: Sunday, 8 p.m.

* WHERE: Paramount Ranch in Agoura. (Take the Kanan Road exit off the Ventura Freeway, go south .75 mile. Go left on Cornell Road, 2.5 miles.)

* HOW MUCH: Tickets are $6 ($5 for Silent Society of Hollywood Heritage members). Popcorn and soft drinks are available.

* FYI: Bring a flashlight.

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