When Don Kinnier was 9, his father purchased a spinet organ. Soon after the instrument’s arrival, Kinnier approached it to take a closer look. Like so many young children around new, shiny objects, he had one thought and one thought only on his mind.
He wanted to touch it.
Kinnier’s father saw that familiar glimmer in his son’s eye.
“He just kind of looked at me in his amusingly stern way and said, ‘If you intend to touch that, you will take lessons,’ ” Kinnier said.
So he did, alongside the rest of his family. In college, his love for the instrument blossomed further when he discovered the theater organ, complete with all the bells and whistles necessary to bring a motion picture to life.
Kinnier, an accomplished silent film accompanist, will perform Friday at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. He will accompany “Ella Cinders,” a 1926 comedy starring Colleen Moore that riffs on the classic tale of Cinderella.
“The male comedians — (Charlie) Chaplin and Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton and Charley Chase — that whole bunch, have kind of taken over as far as silent films to accompany,” Kinnier says. “There were a number of female comedians who were in the films that were absolutely as good or better than some of the men. So I thought, let’s give a fair shake here.”
Moore’s cartoonish expressions give Kinnier plenty to work with as he creates a musical landscape to complement the film.
“It’s a hoot and a half,” Kinnier says. “She was just made for the camera, because she does stuff with her face in closeup that is just hilarious. She has almost a rubber face.”
When Kinnier was a student at Drexel University, he got permission to play the pipe organ inside the auditorium on campus. A few students from the school’s electrical engineering department heard him playing and asked Kinnier if he would check out an organ they helped rebuild at a theater in Lansdowne.
The instrument was unlike anything Kinnier had played in his classical music studies.
“I fell in love with this thing,” Kinnier says. “It had sound effects. It had auto horns and fire sirens and it had everything you needed to play a silent movie, which I basically knew nothing about at the time.”
His classical training gave him a strong musical backbone, but he knew the genre wasn’t a perfect fit because he wasn’t a natural at sight reading. But he had a good ear and a knack for improvisation — two skills that serve a musician well in the world of musical accompaniment.
The first film he accompanied was “The Phantom of the Opera.” Kinnier uses the same basic motifs for individual characters during his accompaniments, which he will keep consistent throughout performances. But he can tweak the overall feel or sound of a show depending on his audience. For instance, an older audience might want to hear “The Phantom of the Opera” with a spooky and somber score, but an auditorium of rowdy college kids might enjoy it more as a comedy.
Kinnier will typically work out the character motifs prior to a performance, but a fair amount of each accompaniment is still left up to improvisation.
These days, Kinnier performs in various types of venues, from churches like Trinity Lutheran, to good old-fashioned theaters like the Colonial in Phoenixville or the Appell Center for the Performing Arts in York. He’s also played at retirement homes and villages, too.
He says interest in the art of organ accompaniment varies greatly depending on one’s location. He knows the advent of streaming services have contributed to a decline, now that audiences can cue up any silent movie they want with a few clicks.
But for Kinnier, there’s nothing quite like watching a silent film in a packed theater, delighting in a shared experience with hundreds — or even thousands — of others.
“You miss out on that shared experience that you have when you’re in with an audience, and that’s a big deal,” Kinnier says. “That makes a huge difference. ... I’m all for theater.”