Dennis James began his career as a prank. According to him, he suggested the idea of accompanying a silent movie on the pipe organ to his roommate as a joke but, in the nature of pranks, the event kept getting bigger and bigger. He said he printed pieces of paper that merely said “The Phantom is Coming” in reference to “The Phantom of the Opera” — the movie he showed at his first show Oct. 31, 1969.
His performance to Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. at the IU auditorium Wednesday marked the 55th year James made the trip back to Bloomington where it all began.
“I ran around and I would tape them (the pieces of paper) underneath the toilet lids in all the dorms,” James said. “I would paint it on the sidewalks, just ‘The Phantom is Coming.’ I only announced what the Phantom was the day of the show, so everybody was all primed, ‘What is this Phantom, who’s coming in?’”
The answer was revealed Oct. 31, 1969, the day of James’s first show. James’s advertising strategy had paid off — he said 4,200 students attended that first show, far more than the 400 he had expected. He shared the profit with the Organ Department, who had rented the IU Auditorium for him. Even with only half of the box office profits, he said he was able to pay for a year’s tuition.
James said the auditorium sold out in the following years, forcing people to sit in aisles. Since the first show, “Dennis James Hosts Halloween” has become a Bloomington favorite, with patrons dressing up in Halloween costumes to watch the movie screen at the auditorium every year.
James said over the 55 years he has been playing for silent movies, his favorite performance is “La Boheme”. With the same source material as the opera, James said the producer originally intended for the Pucchini songs to be played as the background music, which was not allowed due to copyright issues. James said he enjoyed finally being able to show the movie as originally intended, since a change in copyright status meant the Pucchini songs could finally be played in the background, fixing movie history.
IU Auditorium Executive Director Maria Talbert said many people work together to pick their seasonal shows.
“It is a team approach on the part of a few members of the IU Auditorium staff and community partners and audience members,” she said. “We spend time seeing what is out there and available.”
However, she said James’s show has been an IU tradition for many years.
This year, a new tradition appeared to be taking shape. For the second year in a row, students from the IU Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance joined James on the stage to present a classic mystery radio show. The cast was equipped with props to mimic noises which would occur in the show but the audience usually would not see, as on radio, one can only hear.
These included plastic bags which were crunched up to mimic the sound of footsteps, an old-fashioned telephone whose receiver was picked up and replaced in front of a microphone and a glass of water which was drunk by an actor to mimic the sound of drinking. The audience found this last sound particularly comical, as actor Brian Alexander Davis made a refreshed “Ahh” sound when finished drinking.
“I thought this would be a great way to do something different from what we usually do,” said professor of Practice, Acting and Directing Jenny McKnight, who directed the students. “There’s something really unique and fun about it that I wanted to be part of.”
The main feature of the evening was James playing the organ along to a night of Sherlock Holmes themed movies, with Buster Keaton’s “Sherlock, Jr.” as the main attraction. The movie is a cinematic touchstone, as the central concept of a man entering a movie has played into several other comedies, as James said at the show.
Now the show is over, James said he is thinking of the next performance. At an audience Q+A, he threw around ideas from Tarzan to Zorro, as long as there was a radio show that could work with them. James said he will continue to play as long as he is able, wanting to make every audience a part of his tradition.