Hanging out with Adam Swanson is the closest you’ll ever come to time travel.
The local musician, who has been a regular performer of ragtime music in the Diamond Belle Saloon most of his life, is a history book of ragtime music and early 20th century film. Swanson’s love of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, along with a love of playing piano in the Diamond Belle, led him to Fort Lewis College, and it is what has fueled his return to Durango and anchored him in town. Durango is his home, save for performance engagements that happen on the regular around the country.
Swanson’s latest musical venture in addition to Saturday nights of playing ragtime and honky-tonk piano in the Belle is a monthly performance of providing a live score to classic silent films shown in the Henry Strater Theatre. In the early days of cinema, films’ music was played live and in-house. One Sunday a month the theater will show films just as they were screened a century ago; silence from the screen and the score played live by Swanson from a piano in the theater.
This Sunday, Swanson will play along to Harold Lloyd’s short “Get Out and Under” and the feature “Safety Last.” There’s a local connection, as Lloyd lived in Durango for a short time in the early 1900s.
“It’s a tribute to Harold Lloyd” said Swanson. “And lo and behold, some time in the early 1900s, Harold Lloyd lived in Durango and went to junior high school here and lived in a little house with his grandmother on Third Avenue. So, this is really appropriate for Durango.”
If Swanson had his way, Hollywood would still make silent films, and theaters across the nation would come complete with accompanied musician or full band playing along to the action. Sadly, that’s not the case, however, Swanson does what he can to put you in the way-back machine to deliver you a theatrical experience reminiscent of the times of the golden age of Hollywood.
“Most of these feature films all had scores that were written specifically for the movie and would have been played by theater orchestras in the pit in a big movie theater,” he said. “Now, not every movie theater had that luxury, and so sometimes, a piano player or even a theater organist would improvise a score to go along with the movie, which is mostly what I do, especially since I’m just playing piano.”
Swanson saying he’s “just playing piano” is about as modest as you can get. That’s like Buster Keaton or Lloyd, who did a lot of their own action work, saying hanging off a building is “just a stunt.” Swanson is a gem of a player, hunched over the piano working the keys furiously; for these films, he’ll look over some of the original cue sheets from the film, while also improvising for whatever the action on the screen calls for.
To add to the time-machine nature of the event, a 1935 Packard limousine, which at one point was owned by Lloyd and is still in the area and owned by Tom Duke, will be parked outside the theater.
Swanson’s love of old films, scoring autographs of old film stars, collecting old sheet music and playing music along to silent films sets the man up to be a historian of American pop culture; however, Swanson sees himself merely as a musician who is fond of history.
“I have a master’s degree in historical musicology, the study of music history and culture” he said. “But most of what I do is not anything I learned in school. I decided after a couple of years in graduate school that my time was better spent as a performer. That’s what I’m doing.”
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.