Bill Rowland doesn’t just like silent movies. He adores them. He collects them. He plays music during them.

Most of the time, that’s Rowland you will find at Circle Cinema sitting in the dark in front of the screen and playing the intricate theater pipe organ to accompany the on-screen action for the monthly silent-movie series.

For a quarter-century, he’s been commanding such organs — filled with an orchestra’s worth of instruments — using his hands and feet in front of a collection of switches and knobs.

He can make that organ respond with a whisper, or with a roar.

“It is truly amazing,” said Rowland, who has performed accompaniment for about 250 different silent films in nearly 800 performances.

That would be performances at Circle Cinema, as well as at area assisted-living centers and for silent-movie programs that the American Theater Organ Society has been staging for three decades.

“I know I am not typical because my interest is in the early silent movies,” Rowland said when asked about his favorite films, before adding: “Remember, the movies were never really silent because they always had accompaniment.”

For this recurring series of stories, we asked Rowland about all of his movie favorites — and his answers focused on his silent movie favorites.

What is your favorite movie of all time and why?

“The General” starring Buster Keaton. It’s entertaining, and it’s one of only a couple of silent movies on the American Film Institute’s top 100 movies. It’s a masterpiece in the way that it combines comedy and serious drama, and it’s so funny that it transcends time.

What is the funniest movie you’ve ever seen and why?

“Wrong Again” starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. It’s always hilarious to see a horse put on top of a grand piano. It never fails, every time I see it with a crowd, there are always gasps from the audience.

What is the movie that scared you and why?

I’m not a scary-movie guy. I remember when I was a kid when the scary movie would come on Saturday night. I would have plugged our portable TV in in my room earlier in the night, and I would fall asleep every time before it came on. Every time.

What is your favorite movie experience, maybe one you saw as a kid, or with friends in summer, or a midnight movie, and what made it so special?

“Cool Hand Luke,” mostly because it was one of my first dates with Linda. I had a date with this gal, going to meet her with her family at the drive-in, and that gal has been my wife for 50 years. The memories of me and my bride are exceptional, and when I saw the movie again fairly recently, it was pretty good, too.

What’s the best movie you’ve seen in the past year, and why?

“Stan & Ollie” (the 2018 biopic about a late-career reunion between Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy). I liked it because it was historically accurate for the most part.

At the theater: where do you prefer to sit, and what are your refreshments of choice?

Sitting (and playing) at the console of the organ, front and center! No refreshments, they make my fingers sticky.

What old movie would you love to see on the big screen, either again or for the first time?

I have seen a lot of silent movies, but there are certainly many more that are long gone that were not preserved. It would be something to see “Hats Off” because that would be the Laurel and Hardy film that is so long-lost that I don’t think it has ever been found. I’ve only heard about it.

What is the movie that makes you cry, and why?

I can’t name just one. Lots of them do. I am sentimental.

What upcoming movie are you looking forward to seeing?

“Her Night of Romance,” a 1924 romantic comedy starring Constance Talmadge and Ronald Colman, which is the “Second Saturday Silents” feature on Aug. 10 at Circle Cinema.

Do you have a favorite movie star or director whose movies have many times made you go to the theater because you like that person’s films so much?

For both questions, it’s the same answer: Buster Keaton.

Michael Smith


Twitter: @michaelsmithTW