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50 years of fright: Organist Dennis James celebrates his career at IU Auditorium



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Dennis James in 1974 IU Archives Buy Photos

Halloween after Halloween, the cape-donning Dennis James has returned to IU and introduced audiences to silent movies accompanied by organ music.

This year marks his 50th anniversary of “Dennis James Presents Halloween.” James will accompany the 1926 silent film, “The Phantom of the Opera” with the IU Jacobs School of Music Student Orchestra at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 26 at the IU Auditorium. Since his first show five decades ago, James has performed world-wide as a music preservationist.


"Phantom of the Opera" was the first film Dennis James performed for. It was made in 1925.  Courtesy Photo Buy Photos


James said he came up with the idea for doing the first IU show when talking to his then-roommate, Steven Fink.  

Both James and Fink lived in Wright Quad their freshman year. The two met one night when Fink waltzed into the gigantic shared lounge and heard James playing the piano. 

“He was playing all these old popular songs that I thought no one else but me listened to,” Fink said. “I introduced myself and told him I liked his music. That’s when we became friends.”

The two shared a mutual love for older music. They would live together their last three years at IU, driving around the country, attending concerts and dragging their girlfriends along to the Village Inn Bar for sing-a-long Friday nights.

James was inspired by a performance from silent film accompanist, Gaylord Carter, which prompted James to create his own show.

By securing the cooperation of the organ department, and agreeing to split the ticket sales revenue 50-50 with the organ department, James got the go-ahead to produce his first show.

“We thought it’d be such a hoot,” James said.

He and Fink set up and promoted the original performance. Fink said James is a natural-born entertainer.

“It was a lot of fun, that show," Fink said. "It went a lot better than anyone could expect. We had a great time together.”

The visiting conductor for the student orchestra, Danesha Hayden, is a graduate student at the University of South Carolina. As a 6-year-old, his dad took him to see James accompany a silent film, and it inspired him to pursue music. Now they perform together.

“It’s really kind of fun to have a guy in his 20s, whose an emerging professional conductor, and here we go doing my own student project together,” James said. “It’s really sweet.”

James said throughout his world touring, professional musicians often tell him how he inspired their careers.

“It shows the impact you have and don’t even know it,” James said. “I’m 68 years old now, and it’s a rather wistful, fond part of the career.”

To help commemorate James’ legacy at IU, Bloomington-native artist, Joel Washington, will unveil his portrait of James at a backstage reception after James’ performance.

Washington, who works as a custodian at the Indiana Memorial Union, first saw James perform in 1987.

“I really admire what he’s doing,” said Washington. “It started here, but now he’s done it worldwide.”

Washington said James is a slightly different subject from many of his paintings. But the portrait will still contain Washington’s trademark bold colors and pop-art influence.

“I let the colors take over in this painting and convey what I saw in the mood of his music and the subjects of his films,” Washington said.

One fateful day, while performing for a service, French organist Louis Vierne suffered a heart attack and his body crashed on the keys, making the organ roar nonstop. James said he will play until he meets the same fate.


Dennis James at the keyboard of the Mighty Wurlitzer in Sept. 2007 at the Coleman Theater in Miami, Oklahoma, where he played the score for Clara Bow's 1927 film “It.” Courtesy Photo Buy Photos


“I intend to keep coming back to IU and I hope the moment comes – later rather than sooner – that indeed I collapse over the organ in the middle of a performance,” James said. “I think that would just be a way to go out.” 


David Brinson contributed reporting to this story.

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