As founders of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Stephen Salmons and I are so pleased and surprised the festival has lasted twenty-five years! We’re proud that our hard work and that of our successors has paid off so well in keeping the art of silent film alive.
Neither of us had run a business before, let alone create a film festival. We had no plan after our first festival in 1996 to necessarily do it again. In fact, we called it the Silent Film Festival until the fourth event when we realized we had better insert “San Francisco” and begin numbering them.
We faced a lot of fears creating the festival. Most terrifying was living up to the glowing half-page article in the San Francisco Chronicle that promoted our first event in 1996. We’ve always wondered why we created a film festival when both of us consider ourselves somewhat introverts! But over the years, we learned to confidently negotiate deals, give press interviews, and ask people for donations.
When we think back on all the films we presented, our favorite memories usually involve the ways we tried to make shows extra special for the audience and attract people who might not know anything about silent film, such as when we had Guide Dogs for the Blind help introduce the Rin Tin Tin film The Clash of the Wolves or Merola Opera Program singers perform before Carmen. We’ve had tango dancers perform before The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and created books of Little Billy Rhodes’s poetry to hand out before The Sideshow. We even gave away a large inflatable shark before Douglas Fairbanks’s The Mystery of the Leaping Fish—if you’ve seen the film, you’ll understand!
We worked hard to make sure the musical accompaniment enhanced and never overpowered the films. Specific musical collaborations we treasured include Michael Mortilla’s haunting score for the brutal Russian film Po Zakono (By the Law) that involved him plucking the piano strings by hand and the Bay Area musicians we engaged who, even though they had never scored silent films before, came up with brilliant accompaniments, like Cascada de Flores who played for the Mexican film Tepayac and the musicians from the Ali Akbar College of Music who accompanied Shiraz from India.
We also have fond memories of some famous people and their relatives who helped make the shows extra special, from Fay Wray, who spoke at The Wedding March, to Buster Keaton’s granddaughter Melissa Cox, and Terence Stamp who was interviewed before William Wyler’s Hell’s Heroes by board member and the director’s daughter Judy Wyler Sheldon.
The festival also gave us access to rare experiences. We’ve been allowed inside archival nitrate film bunkers and been able to screen rare silent films on a flatbed. We’ve climbed the wall behind the Castro stage when the Wurlitzer organ was still installed to see the room holding its musical instruments and air bellows. We sat in a dressing room backstage at the San Francisco Symphony when Stephen gave a presentation there before a performance with Chaplin’s City Lights. We’ve even held some Oscar statuettes over the years!
There are so many people we’ve met through the festival. Dedicated board members and volunteers who have given so much of their time, money, and hard work to making the festival what it is today. Our archivist friends and musicians who’ve collaborated with us to make the films live again. And of course, we remember most the special moments we had watching festival audiences enjoy the films, bringing so much of themselves to the experience of “live cinema.”
MELISSA CHITTICK is a founder of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and served as its executive director from 1992 to 2005.