Nate Butler At The Silent Movies

Aug 26, 2023 | 2023 Articles, Mallory Moad, Movies

by Mallory Moad

“I’ve been a fan of silent movies since before I ever saw one.” Those are the words of well-known local entertainer, Nate Butler. One of his many passions, Nate began reading about classic cinema when he was a kid. His fascination with old movies and their history began when he got his first library card at the age of seven, and he’s been soaking up information like a sponge – and generously sharing it – ever since.

Fast forward to March, 2022. It was then that Nate began putting all that knowledge and enthusiasm to creative use with a new monthly presentation, Nate Butler At The Silent Movies. On the first Saturday of every month (with the exception of this coming October), VISTA Theatre at the Fresno Music Academy & Arts (That’s in the Tower District) becomes a movie house like no other in Fresno. It’s here you can see iconic silent films from the 1910s and 1920s, featuring actors such as Harold Lloyd, Lon Chaney, Rudolph Valentino and Louise Brooks. The first half-hour of each show consists of cartoons, anything from Bugs Bunny and his pals to Fractured Fairy Tales. But wait – it gets better. In keeping with the tradition of silent cinema, Nate accompanies each film on piano, live. The end result is a unique, family-friendly experience that is a kick in the pants!

Nate Butler, hard at work and loving it

VISTA isn’t the first place Nate has produced his silent movie shows. “In a way, my silent movie series pretty much began by accident.” He had been playing piano during happy hour at the original Full Circle Brewery location, where DVDs of silent movies were projected on an empty wall during the afternoons to add atmosphere. “One day I suggested I play piano along with the movies, because I’d always wanted to try that.” The owners liked the idea, and the first movie he accompanied was the grotesque German expressionist piece, The Man Who Laughs. Although no one remembers the exact date, Nate figures this was sometime in the middle of 2009.

Allison Waller, House Manager

As this one-of-a-kind performance became increasingly popular, word began to spread. By 2010, Nate’s newest endeavor was in demand, and soon he was accompanying silent films at two different locations, with two shows a month. Because one of them, Revue Cafe, was an all-ages venue, Nate chose to show films that were more family friendly there, saving the more adult-oriented choices for Full Circle. Twice the number of movie screens, twice the number of films, twice the madness! “And then, of course, everything came to a halt in 2020,” Nate explains. As a result, he didn’t show any of his beloved silent films for two years. When the time felt right to bring the silent movies back, Nate approached Debi Ruud and John Alden about staging the event at their Fresno Music Academy & Arts VISTA Theatre. “I’ve got to give kudos to Debi and John for letting me continue to do this,” he says with gratitude.

Although it may sound like a simple job – show up and play piano while the movie rolls – that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s a one-man operation that requires from three to five hours of preparation, and Nate does it all himself. “No one else chooses the movies, edits the videos or does anything else in connection with the event.” It’s a labor intensive process, but for Nate, it’s a labor of love.

Nate begins by choosing the movie. Sometimes it’s one of his favorites, sometimes it’s a film that has been suggested by friends. With the use of video editing software, he assembles the whole evening’s program which includes cartoons, a short documentary segment on the film or featured actors, an intermission segment and a video epilogue and end credits. Then comes the music.

The audience enjoying a short documentary about legendary actor, Harold Lloyd

“I sit down and watch the movie and make notes of where the music should change and what songs I should play to best accompany the visuals.” He draws from his wide repertoire of songs but surprisingly, doesn’t use a keyboard to complete this task. “I do the selection process in my head. I know the songs that I play well enough to just let them play in my head while I watch the movie.” He then prints out his notes and uses them as a guide when he’s performing live with the film.

I’ll bet you thought he just sat down and banged out random melodies as the movie plays, didn’t you? Not quite, but you wouldn’t be completely wrong, either. “When I’m performing, anything can happen. I might choose to spontaneously change the music I’d planned or even get lost in my notes and have to improvise until I find my place again.” Occasionally, there won’t be enough time for Nate to score a film in his usual way. That’s when he relies on what he refers to as “mood sheets,” lists of songs that correspond to various moods or situations such as action or romance. “This method is much more stressful to perform live, because I’m totally winging it. But it often yields interesting or even magical results.”

Nate Butler’s tools of the trade: mood sheets and a keyboard

The music in the early days of silent cinema had a kind of jangling, frenetic sound and was frequently used as a device to telegraph to the audience what they should be feeling at any given moment. This technique is still in use today, and it doesn’t sit right with Nate. “I choose music I believe will complement what the filmmaker has already put on onscreen, not pummel the audience into submission.” Because Nate’s repertoire is so vast, the songs he chooses for his silent movies are all over the map. You might hear contemporary pop songs, a Scott Joplin rag, or a show tune or two. Part of the fun is recognizing a song, even if it’s only a brief segment. It could be a snippet of a Billy Joel, Queen, or Frank Sinatra hit, but it’s always appropriate and effective.

Once all the pieces are in place, it’s showtime!

On any given night, the audience at VISTA could number anywhere from a dozen people to over forty. Nate’s silent movie series has developed a following of devoted fans, some of which have been attending since the days at Revue Cafe, creating a feeling of community and camaraderie with plenty of hugs and handshakes. Newcomers are welcomed warmly and soon become immersed in the festive spirit of the evening. Bob and Ida attend almost every show and, according to Bob, have been “coming since the beginning.” It’s not out of the ordinary for Bob to greet the crowd with an enthusiastic “How’s everybody doing tonight?” Pepper DeLano-Doty attends almost every show and has been a follower since the Revue Cafe days. Frequently accompanied by her son Trevor, Pepper likes the positive energy the event generates. “I’ve always liked how happy everyone is to be there. It always feels like an occasion.” Trevor describes the crowd as kind and gives credit to Nate – “an amazing piano player”- for setting an example with his friendliness.

Fresno Music Academy & Arts resident feline, Elvis

Nate has always had the ability to establish rapport with any audience. With his meticulously produced silent movie shows, he is sharing his love of a genre that is dear to his heart, in a way that allows the crowd – regardless of size – to feel it, too. By breathing new life into an old art form, he is giving us a precious gift to enjoy.

My name is Mallory Moad and I believe positive energy is more contagious than the flu.

Nate Butler At The Silent movies takes place at Fresno Music Academy and Arts, 1298 N. Wishon Avenue, on the first Saturday of every month (with the exception of this coming October – don’t forget that). Doors open at 6:30 pm, cartoons start at 7:00, feature film begins at 8:00. Admission is “pay what you want” and snacks are available for purchase during intermission. All ages are welcome.

For scheduling and other information (Don’t forget there’s no show this coming October), visit Nate Butler At The Silent Movies on Facebook. If you’d like to become a sponsor, give Fresno Music Academy & Arts a call at 559-207-3833.

Photos by Mallory Moad.

Mallory Moad is a visual/performance artist, vocalist in the jazz band Scats on The Sly and a proud Central San Joaquin Valley native.

1 Comment

  1. What a wonderful article! Thank you! I know about these and for some reason unknown to me I have not attended! I need to! And plan to


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.