William Lewis has accomplished a lot for an 18-year-old. He has performed puppet shows at the Children’s Fairyland and the quirky annual Driveway Follies Halloween bash. He played piano and sang at both Buena Vista Winery and the Sebastiani Theater in Sonoma. And he sang a solo in the film version of composer Gordon Getty Jr.’s opera. Goodbye Mr. Chipswhich recently premiered in New York.
And as Lewis explains on his LinkedIn page, “Before all hell broke loose, I was a regular organist at the Grand Lake Theater.”
On May 8, the classically trained pianist, organist, composer and puppeteer will make his live debut at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, accompanying the short film The child journalist at the piano. Now celebrating its 25th year, the Festival, which runs from May 5 to 11, offers 29 programs, “from Buster Keaton to Brazilian experimentalism, from French melodrama to German horror”.
A graduate of the Oakland School for the Arts, where he majored in musical theatre, Lewis is also currently in rehearsal for the OSA production of the musical. In the woods, where he will play the double roles of the stepmother, the prince of Cinderella and the wolf. It sandwiches the silent film concert between the six musical performances. In addition, he also participates in two student showcases and works on a hand puppet version of Hans Christian Anderson. The tinder box, including script writing, set construction and puppet building. He said he hoped to launch the production at the annual Fairyland children’s puppet fair.
He may be young, but Lewis is already one of Oakland’s most prolific performers, with a love for puppetry, film and theater.
“I have to run like a maniac,” he said in a phone interview for which he took the time between rehearsals, standing in an alley behind his school.
Lewis’ interest in silent films began at the age of 10 when he watched them on television. He started playing to accompany them on the piano at home. A huge fan of Sherlock Holmes, he went at age 11 to see a live-accompanied screening of the 1916 film about the detective, and the effect was immediate.
“It was fantastic and I was thrilled,” he said.
By then Lewis was too shy to approach the musician who had composed and performed the music, Connecticut-based Donald Sosin, who has been creating and performing silent film music for fifty years and performing at major festivals.
But two years later he saw Sosin perform again – this time accompanying Charlie Chaplin’s 1916 film The Pawnbrokerin a program of the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra.
“I thought, oh my god, it’s Donald Sosin!” he said. This time he braved the approach of the musician, who graciously gave him a backstage tour, put on a classic Mickey Mouse silent film and urged him to play the piano.
“I was struck first by Will’s unique appearance — he dresses very fashionably and a bit old-fashioned,” Sosin told The Oaklandside. “He was very enthusiastic, knew silent films well, had a creative imagination and he wanted to learn. It is unique.
Many months of coaching followed, mainly via Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Will is one of the youngest I’ve met who is seriously interested, and a musician and performer good enough to get in there and figure things out.”
Acknowledging that there probably aren’t a ton of teenagers interested in silent films, Lewis explains his attraction to them, as a composer and pianist.
“It’s like regular movie music, but without the inhibitions,” he said, citing the dialogue as an example. Describing the process as a “full outpouring of art”, he also weaves together various themes, using improvisation. Composing scores entirely of his own music, he says he “strives to create music that is both passionate and above all historically appropriate”.
Lewis is sad that some people view silent films as “culturally a joke”, poking fun at them while ignoring the beautiful art behind them. He laments the fact that it could be a dying art.
Sosin’s mentor was singer-songwriter William Perry, who produced the Emmy-winning PBS series. The silent years in the seventies. Hosted by Orson Welles and Lillian Gish, Perry and his program are often credited with helping to revive interest in silent films.
Sosin agrees there has been some decline in screenings of the genre, pointing out that New York’s MOMA, Brooklyn Academy of Music and Museum of the Moving Image no longer hold regular screenings, but he doesn’t. don’t attribute this to a lack of interest. , but to the many home streaming options that are now available, including TCM Silent Sunday evenings. And while he admits “silent films don’t fill big spaces” in mainstream theaters, the festival scene is thriving and the genre is being seriously taught in colleges. Before the pandemic, Sosin had years where he performed 100 shows, all over the world.
The San Francisco silent film festival is the largest in North America, he said, and he likes that they are dedicated to providing the best impressions, even doing their own restorations. He loves the enthusiasm of the crowd: “eight hundred to a thousand applaud and cry together – the energy feeds on itself”.
Sosin will perform, with Frank Bockius, on the feature film Penrod and Sam. Lewis’s film is on the same poster, and although Sosin has not yet seen or heard the score, he is delighted with it, in addition to seeing Lewis star in In the woods.
“I’ve never seen him perform as an actor-singer,” Sosin said.
Playing The child journalist, Lewis will defy WC Fields’ warning to “never work with children or animals”. The film’s “Baby Peggy”, Diana Serra Cary, was a silent film star at the age of 19 months and starred in over 100 short films and numerous feature films by the time she was 5 years old.
“She was so cute, and a great little actress, it’s crazy!” said Will. His wish for the audience is that they enjoy the film’s light frivolity.
With high school graduation looming, Lewis is uncertain about his next steps, given that his talents lie in many artistic fields.
“I don’t know if there’s one thing I can do brilliantly; I suspect I will always be a part of everything,” he said.
He plans to take a year off and plans to apply for a job at the famed Bob Baker Marionette Theater in Los Angeles.
Donald Sosin has some thoughts about his mentee’s future. “He’s still quite young – he should go out and do it all!”