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Not What You'd Call a Big Band

The Teeny-Tiny Pit Orchestra enlists audiences to provide the sound effects for silent films.

March 07, 2002|SUSAN GREGG GILMORE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sporting a black suit and red beret, the conductor greets his audience and then tosses a plastic whistle to a rather hip-looking woman sitting on the second row. The members of the orchestra have already taken their places on the floor and are beginning to tune their instruments.

The sounds of the toy piano and pixie harp, tropical birdcalls and a homemade rain stick begin to fill the room. Contorting his 6-foot-1 frame behind a 2-foot-tall trap set, the bandleader signals for the lights to dim; and "The Great Train Robbery" begins to quietly flicker on the screen above his head.

Scott Paulson and his Teeny-Tiny Pit Orchestra for Silent Films promise moviegoers an out-of-the-ordinary cinematic experience during a performance Sunday at the Knitting Factory. This pit crew on pint-sized instruments creates live musical accompaniment for rarely seen films. The Knitting Factory, known for showcasing the experimental and avant-garde, should provide the perfect venue for this blend of the novel and the orchestral.

Paulson's brand of G-rated fun, a sort of modern-day morphing of Captain Kangaroo and Spike Jones, is always lively and at times wonderfully chaotic. Everyone has a part. Even the musically challenged are handed bubble wrap and dime store kazoos to play along. But all the noisy toys and audience participation cannot hide the fact that this madcap ensemble is reinventing an art form first mastered by the solo organist, who some 90 years ago provided the only soundtrack for a moving picture.

The Band Began as Part of an Outreach Program

What began as part of a children's outreach program at UC San Diego's Arts Libraries, where Paulson is outreach coordinator, has developed a very adult, near-cult following, with midnight performances on a number of Southern California college campuses.

Both founder and conductor of the Teeny-Tiny Pit Orchestra, Paulson never considered himself an artistic risk-taker. But he's all too familiar with the politely puzzled looks. He got them on his other project too--the popular toy piano concert series.

"Sometimes I'm not taken very seriously by my peers," says Paulson, who also plays oboe for the San Diego Chamber Orchestra. "But I'll live, and I'll certainly have the last laugh." In truth, he's on a secret mission--to introduce children and adults to all types of music without their being aware of the lesson.

Some 30 years ago, it was Saturday morning cartoons, not silent films that intrigued Paulson. The bonks, splats, and clanks of a favorite Looney Tunes episode were music to his young ears.

So when he discovered a treasure trove of silent films lying neglected in the UCSD library archives, he began experimenting with the same kind of musical drama he had loved as a cartoon-addicted kid.

Soon after, he debuted the Teeny-Tiny Pit Orchestra for Silent Films (also on occasion known as, Paulson unashamedly discloses, the Teeny-Tiny Pit Orchestra for Cocktail Parties).

Paulson Plans to Add Some Dramatic Films

Later this year, he plans to introduce a dramatic film such as "Carmen" or "The Phantom of the Opera" into the orchestra's lineup, but he knows his audiences prefer the 10-minute comic shorts. "They love to use all the over-the-top sound effects and just freak out a bit," says Paulson.

But laying out the soundtrack for even a very short film is more involved than merely pulling toys from a toy chest.

First, Paulson watches the film, some of which are almost 100 years old, to ensure its viewing quality. Next, he plays it in slow motion, carefully scripting the characters' actions. Man kisses woman. Woman hits man. Man falls down. Train approaches.

Then, he surveys his instruments, sound effects tools and noisemakers, some 300 in all, choosing as many as 150.

Man kisses woman. Balloon squeal. Woman hits man. Slapsticks. Man falls down. Slide whistle. Train approaches. Air can.

Finally, he pulls his orchestra together based on the needs of the film, the musicians' availability and, inevitably, on how much gas money he has to offer those perpetually underpaid professionals. "One of us has to be the heavy," Paulson admits, "the one responsible for keeping the narrative flowing between film changes, page turns and the unexpected--like when we become so engrossed in the movie we forget our cue."

At Sunday's performance, the audience will be treated to the premiere of Albie Hewlett's "What's the Hold Up?", a romantic comedy about a man's frustrated attempt to pop the question.

Charmed by one of the Teeny-Tiny Orchestra's early performances, Hewlett shot his own silent 8-millimeter film, specifically for Paulson to interpret.

"It's very exciting to see my story line from another creative perspective, explains the young filmmaker. "Sound completely transforms the visual experience."

As for Paulson, he knows that if a film flops or the audience turnout is light, he has just the right toy or tool or odd piece of plastic to imitate the sound of roaring applause. "Musicians," he says, "really did lose a great gig when the talkies came along."

*

The Teeny-Tiny Pit Orchestra for Silent Films, Sunday, 7 p.m. at the Knitting Factory, 7021 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Doors at 6 p.m. $5. (323) 463-0204.

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