When I learned of John Muri's recent passing I was hit with a flood of memories covering the past eleven years. John was not only an idol of mine but more importantly a dear friend. While John's passing at 94 was not to be unexpected, his legion of friends and fans had hoped he would live on past 100.
The Silent Film Society of Atlanta's (SFSA) esteemed Court Composer had been a familiar figure to members and guests since our first season back in 1990. I first met John after he had accompanied a screening of "The Cat and the Canary" in midtown Atlanta. I was amazed at this octogenarian's talent and energy in accompanying this horror classic. Meeting John afterwards was equally enjoyable. He was gracious, articulate and had a wonderful sense of humor.
During the first half of the SFSA's existence we had no access to piano or organ at our first two venues. During this period John would have his organ performances recorded at a midtown studio, while accompanying a videotape version of our upcoming screening. We would then play his recording at the screening, with John in attendance those nights. While this system worked at that time, it was not as wonderful as having John play live for our screenings, which happened for the first time in 1995 when he accompanied "Metropolis." John's performance amazed delighted the packed theatre that Sunday afternoon, and John was accorded his first of many standing ovations for his SFSA performances.
During John's tenure with us, he graced SFSA screenings with his music about fifteen times, with about six of those being live performances which delighted those fortunate enough to be in attendance. Longtime friend David Shepard, who worked with John during their days at Blackhawk Films during the 1960s, was always impressed by the way John held audiences in the palm of his hand both during and after his performances. John was always reluctant to speak after his performances, but once he started talking, he would regale audiences with his articulate, thoughtful comments delivered in his strong, distinctive voice. Of course, John's impish sense of humor always found its way into his comments, evoking peals of laughter from appreciative audiences.
John's second performance accompanying "Metropolis" in 1998 was memorable for many reasons. Not only was it a magnificent performance, but John accompanied the entire film in the dark, his keyboard lit only by the light from the screen. During the setup of the screening that night, we had forgotten to furnish John with a piano light. Professional that he was, John never missed a beat and once again provided a grateful audience with a mesmerizing musical score.
John's performances for "Steamboat Bill, Jr." in 1998 for our first SILENT HEAVEN festival was a tour de force, as was his performance for "The Scarlet Letter" which was his final performance for the SFSA during our next festival in '99. His score for "The Scarlet Letter" left the audience in awe. Seastrom's film, coupled with riveting performances by Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson, was met at every turn with John's magnificent music. Little did we realize that evening how special John's performance would be, given that it would be his final performance.
However, if I had to pick my favorite John Muri performance (as difficult as that would be, given that they were all wonderful, especially his breathtaking performance accompanying Griffith's "Broken Blossoms" at the High Museum....) it would have to be his accompaniment of "Seventh Heaven" at our first SILENT HEAVEN festival. John was under the weather earlier that week, and we were not even sure if he would be up to playing for the festival. But John, ever the trouper at 91,insisted on playing. It was clear that night that John was not up to his usual feisty self. I was concerned as he sat down and started to tentatively accompany the film. But the longer he played, John seemed to gain strength, and his music reflected this as it became more energetic. Before long John was back in true form. At the climax of this Frank Borzage romance, as Charles Farrell climbed the several flights of stairs to a waiting Janet Gaynor, John's music likewise rose in melodious fashion building to a crescendo as the cinematic lovers are finally reunited. I don't think there was a dry eye in the house as the film ended. John Muri had woven his musical magic once again...
That was John Muri the artist, the SFSA's Court Composer, the living legend who accompanied silent films over a period of 75 years. A Hammond, Indiana teenager who started playing professionally at 17 in 1924, only to lose his livelihood with thousands of other organists when cinema's silent era ended a few years later. John continued his music in other venues, as well as continuing his education with two masters' degrees and a doctorate. John then carved out a career as a highly respected educator. He rode the nostalgia wave in the 1960's, returning to accompany his beloved silent films, during the last thirty years of his long and productive life.
However, John Muri, the friend, was equally entertaining. During the final decade of his life, John was full of wonder, humor, kindness, and as a 'senior citizen,' still very much a child at heart. He reminded me in many ways of my maternal grandfather, who was also a kid at heart.
John always found things to occupy his time whether it was reading the New York Times, learning Chinese, playing with his two cats or going out to lunch with his friend, the director of the SFSA. John loved to complain that his cats were taking over not only his favorite chairs, but also his life. I used to tease John by telling him an easy way to solve this problem: open his windows (John's place was on the second floor) put the cat food on the window sill, and when they jumped up on the window sill to eat the food, push the cats out the window. John would roar with laughter whenever I'd suggest this. "You're a fiend without a heart!" he would laughingly say to me.
I think that's what I'll remember most about John Muri: his spirited sense of humor. "A little traveling music, Professor..." John would say to me, quoting the Jackie Gleason line as we left for lunch in my car. John almost always seemed to me to be in a good mood. He seemed to let no dark clouds obscure his view of life. I don't think John would want any tears shed for his passing, though many have been shed because he has left this mortal plane. John lived a long and fruitful life and would want us to celebrate that, especially his music, and so we shall.
John Muri used to wince whenever I referred to him as a "living legend." He would eye me mischevously and say "You know what a living legend is?" pausing before delivering the punchline. "The back end of a horse..." he would say and then roar with laughter......
Copyright 2001 by William D. Eggert, all rights reserved.
John Muri photo courtesy of CATOE - http://www.catoe.org
Return to Articles and Essays page