The Sound of Silents

Special to Times

From the banning of plays by the Massachusetts General Court in 1750 to the opening of the city’s first theater in 1792 to the rise and fall of Scollay Square as a hub of refined and then not-so-refined center of entertainment, Boston has had a long and tumultuous relationship with theater.

As the Victorian age gave way to the early 20th century silent films began entertaining Bostonians in movie houses, many just a short walk from Beacon Hill. Movie palaces such as the New Palace Theatre, the Star Theatre, the Theatre Comique, and the Scollay Square Olympia showed silent films accompanied by a pianist, news reels, and Vaudeville comedy acts.

The movies of the silent era were pioneers for subsequent motion pictures, serving as precedents for some of our most beloved film genres including horror, film noir, and of course, classic Hollywood. But whether melodramatic or funny, silent films had a herculean task to overcome; they had to tell stories without dialogue. As Norma Desmond famously lamented in the 1950 classic ‘Sunset Boulevard’: “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!”

These days it can be difficult to convince anyone to watch a movie without sound. For most of us silent films conjure up impressions of flickering grainy images that telegraph slapstick or corny narratives with little to offer our modern-day entertainment sensibilities. But if you turn down the lights, pull back the curtain, and look again, you’ll see just how these historic treasures can offer more thank you think to keep us entertained and captivated.

As an homage to silent film and Boston’s long-gone theaters, the West End Museum is presenting an unforgettable theatrical experience when members of the New England Film Orchestra combine the magic of film with the power of music as they perform live scores in-sync to two films highlighting the lives of Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth, the latter with a generally unknown and ominous tie to Boston.

The first firm is an early silent short by Thomas Edison from 1915 entitled ‘The Life of Abraham Lincoln,’ which spans the famous president’s life from his marriage to his assassination. The second, ‘The Man in the Barn,’ is a speculative docudrama from 1937 that presupposes that John Wilkes Booth didn’t die by gunshot while trapped in a burning barn just days after Lincoln’s assassination, but rather escaped to live another 38 years.

The program takes place on Friday, Aug. 25, at 7:30 p.m. in the community room at the “Hub on Causeway” at North Station and provides a rare opportunity to turn back the clock and experience some of Hollywood’s greatest treasures with live music – the way they would have been experienced when they originally premiered.

Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at the West End Museum website ( or on Eventbrite.

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