1. The occupations of spirit medium and cinema musician intersect in significant ways, and it is no coincidence that women began performing in public as spirit mediums and film accompanists (often called photoplayers) at the same time. Both professions were ones in which women could not only fully participate, but were thought by many to be better suited than men for the work at hand. The highly gendered educations and expectations of middle- and upper-class American women in the nineteenth century, intended to prepare women for domesticity, were, ironically, the very accomplishments they needed to succeed as professionals in the early twentieth century as mediums and silent film accompanists. (Leonard 2018b) The sensitive nature assumed of women by spiritualists in America and Great Britain contributed to the idea that women were inherently better conduits for spirit communication and selecting appropriate music for film. (Gutierrez 2009, 4) The fin-de-siècle code of morals that held up accomplished women—that is, those properly trained for domestic responsibilities, which included music-making—as respectable models provided mediums and cinema accompanists with considerable power in determining the ethics and practices of their workplaces. (Cruea 2005, 190) The physical practices of these professions allowed for both embodiment and disembodiment on the parts of the women who performed, and this liminal state created new kinds of influence and the capacity for taste-making in heretofore concealed ways. Finally, the public interest in new technological developments was essential for the creation of the cinema musician and assisted mediums in attracting those who wished to mechanically verify their activities. Ultimately, the emergence of mediumship and film accompaniment as respectable entertainment-industry professions, in which women’s participation was unexpectedly allowed and even vehemently supported, created a sphere in which women shaped the way filmic supernatural entertainments developed.

Conventions of Womanhood

2. Female mediums and cinema musicians used pre-existing social conventions regarding “true womanhood” to imbue them with both authority and competence in their chosen vocations, and relied on progressive beliefs and shifting attitudes to turn the restrictions or limitations of those conventions into means for developing their respective arts independently. In Susan Cruea’s 2005 article “Changing Ideals of Womanhood,” Cruea examines Barbara Welter’s 1976 scholarship on “true womanhood” and demonstrates that the ideals identified by Welter were in constant flux, changing to meet new societal demands. Welter documented the ways in which middle- and upper-class white women growing up in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century in America were expected to attain what Welter calls “true womanhood,” which “sought to assert that womanly virtue resided in piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity.” (Welter 1976, 21) Women who were “true,” as displayed through their speech, dress, accomplishments, religious habits, education, and general decorum, could be entrusted with a home’s spiritual life and maintenance of its economics, hygiene, and servants; the raising and teaching of children; and the ability to positively influence those around them in regard to taste and the appreciation for the arts, primarily those of the established Western European canon and its legacies. Cruea accepts Welter’s findings on these issues, but also provides evidence for “women’s increasing involvement in the moral and cultural welfare of their communities,” and that the tensions between “true womanhood” and women’s professional needs and desires prevented the strictures regarding women’s activities to be as rigid as Welter might have believed. (Cruea 2005, 193–94)

3. While in the nineteenth century the true woman was not, generally speaking, allowed employment outside of teaching, nursing, or religious work, the women of the early twentieth century experienced more freedom in career choices and opportunities that still allowed for them to maintain their status as morally upright. These new professions and the assumption of true women as guardians of morality became symbiotic: women needed work that would not compromise their reputations, and emerging forms of entertainment needed employees whose presence bestowed an atmosphere of respectability on the endeavors. Cruea notes that women entered into “the cultural realm through publishing, performance, and participation in public rituals.” (Cruea 2005, 194) Both movie theaters and spiritualist séances fell into the categories of performance and participation in public rituals, both of which took place within the entertainment industry. In the case of performing as spirit mediums, as Molly McGarry writes, women “appropriated the characteristics that had been used to deem women unfit for public life—piety, passivity, and purity, and transformed them into ideals of spirituality.” (McGarry 2008, 44) Cinema musicians did much the same, becoming the symbol of a superior movie theater and turning “women’s music” into the sound of the cinema. As a result of this employment in the entertainment industry, mediums and photoplayers had the opportunity to influence public taste and expectations in their specific areas of entertainment, and to contribute to the broader concept of the supernatural entertainment in general.

4. In the early twentieth century, more than half of all spirit mediums in the United States were female, and, particularly after the United States entered the Great War in 1917 and many all-male cinema orchestras were disbanded, it is likely that the majority of cinema accompanists were women. (“Abandon Orchestras” 1918) The spiritualist movement allowed middle- and upper-class white women to have a voice in religious and other matters as yet unaddressed by Progressive Era maternalist politics. As Seth Koven and Sonya Michel document, maternalism “promoted the private virtues of domesticity while simultaneously legitimating women’s public relationships to politics and the state, to community, workplace, and marketplace.” (Koven and Michel 1990, 1079) Women seeking careers as spirit mediums or cinema musicians benefitted from this duality. Women had long been keepers of supernatural practices and knowledge; one need only look, though, at the history of cunning women to see how this information was used against women. The relatively broad acceptance of spiritualism at least as an entertainment if nor as a religion among the white middle and upper class made it safe in both theater and parlor for women to participate in activities that might have been deadly only decades before. (Natale 2016, 1) In much the same way, female musicians—mostly keyboardists—had been the designated performers and keepers of specific kinds of music. While some women in art music had careers as singers, pianists, and violinists, proper, well-to-do women did not take up careers in popular music. Music composed for women, including parlor songs and short, characteristic pieces meant to musically describe specific things or ideas, had been relegated to the home: its practitioners did not perform this repertoire in public or for pay. In her forthcoming Women, Music, and the Performance of Gentility in the Mid-Nineteenth Century South, Candace Bailey traces this tradition of restricting the music-making of the middle and upper classes. Bailey describes the apparent dichotomy between socially acceptable professional women musicians who participated in the western European art music tradition and those for whom playing outside of the home was inappropriate as being rooted in structures of misogyny and male control of female creativity and self-reliance. (Bailey 2019) “Divas”—professional female musicians with substantial fan followings—such as singers Adelina Patti and Jenny Lind, pianist Fanny Bloomfield Zeisler, or violinist Maude Adams received accolades for their performances of opera and concertos, but women who performed more popular musics professionally in public in the late nineteenth century were, as Beth Abel Mcleod writes,

initially associated with “low-brow” entertainments, such as vaudeville and burlesque; in addition, the average nineteenth-century theatergoer suspected that many actresses were prostitutes. [….] Contemporary magazine and newspapers sought to reassure readers of the “normalcy” of female artists, and did so by describing their traditional marriages and family lives. (Macleod 2015, 2)

Female cinema musicians rejected the complete control of men both in taking on jobs in theaters and in creating their own musical accompaniments to film.


5. Neither the spirit medium of the 1900s nor the photoplayer would have had the opportunity for careers without the technological advances of the late nineteenth century. Although mediums had been practicing as entertainers in America since the Fox sisters’ founding of the form in the middle of the century, new technology helped revive flagging interest in spiritualism. With the coming of greater—but not exact—public understanding of electricity and other natural phenomena, Americans sought quantifiable systems of belief. The desire for such understanding often overlapped with long-standing non-scientific beliefs that refused to die. As Gutierrez has documented, many people believed that electricity was conducted differently through men and women. Women, being “naturally weaker” and “more excitable” overall, were therefore negatively charged. This made them more appealing to spirits than men and explained why so many more women practiced as spirit mediums. (Gutierrez 2009, 53) As interest in electricity grew in the public, spectators began to see women spirit mediums as almost mechanical, their actions being made possible by the electricity provided by the spirits possessing the mediums’ bodies. (Natale 2016, 38) In order to encourage audience interest, mediums used readily available machines like phonographs to demonstrate the presence of spirits and eventually sought to prove their credibility through the many mechanical devices invented to trace electrical, spiritual, and ectoplasmic currents. (See Fig. 1-1.)

Fig. 1-1. A spirit medium displays glowing ectoplasm that suggests her ability to conduct electricity.

6. At the same time, the rapid spread of moving picture technology created the need for cinema musicians. Although a few early film critics believed that music and sound detracted from the experience of watching motion pictures, most industry figures had come to an agreement in the 1910s that music, sound effects, and sometimes the performance of voices were crucial elements of successful movie shows. As the popularity of movie theaters grew, so did the need for accompanists and for musical instruments suited to the cinema. Women who played the piano and organ easily found employment in theaters, as did those who could quickly learn to handle the many varieties of electronic instruments developed for moving picture accompaniment. Carrie Hetherington, a classically trained musician, helped invent and sell the American Photo Player Company’s Fotoplayer, a mechanical instrument that incorporated a player piano, a violin, whistles, and various percussion instruments. (See Fig. 1-2.)

Fig. 1-2. A Fotoplayer

[Hear Joe Rinaudo play “Ghost Parade” on the Fotoplayer here.]

With the Fotoplayer or similar instruments, theaters could boast of being the most technologically up-to-date venues for the world’s newest form of mass entertainment.

7. Audiences for the movies were enormous, and managers and owners responded by increasing their use of technology throughout their theaters. Organists playing enormous Wurlitzer organs rose from the floor on hydraulic lifts; performers using the Fotoplayer or similar instruments had interludes between reels of film or between films in which they gave featured solos for the audience; and photoplayers used a mix of pre-recorded sounds with live playing to create a mosaic of music and effects, all carefully selected to match the movement and emotion on the screen.

8. The technologies used by (and on, in the case of “test” mediums, who tried to prove their mediumship scientifically) women in these professions were crucial in providing them with work. They permitted women to undertake specialized performative jobs at a time when most new technology remained firmly in the hands of men and male-dominated institutions. Women’s use and promotion of new technologies clearly enhanced their performances and contributed to their professional successes and influence.

Piety, Purity, Submission, and Domesticity

9. Both spirit mediums and photoplayers were subjected to the same social standards as other middle and upper class white women of the period. However, as performers, they were scrutinized with extra intensity. Because they were in the public eye, mediums and cinema musicians had to demonstrate their true womanhood through their professional work. This could be a burden on top of their other responsibilities, but could also have a positive effect on their careers, and, broadly speaking, women in both fields became signifiers of morality in the entertainment industry, widely considered to be corrupt and degrading.

10. The ways in which mediums and photoplayers exhibited their true womanhood differed somewhat, but their practices were always designed to lead audiences to the same conclusions: that these women were representatives of morality and that their participation in their chosen spheres of entertainment imbued those spheres with propriety for their audiences. Photographs of spirit mediums depict a number of tropes that denoted visible means of identifying true women. Images of spirit mediums from the 1910s and 20s show women in conservative, often white, dresses, with their hair up. They wear clearly corseted dresses; many spirit appearances tried to convince séance sitters of their authenticity by letting the sitters feel their hips, proving that they were not wearing corsets. (See Fig. 1-3.) They wear no apparent makeup and, in an attempt to emphasize their youth and innocence, frequently wear large bows redolent of the nursery in their hair or on their clothes. Some mediums went barefoot, ostensibly to show that they had nothing hidden in their shoes, but in many cases really in order to untie knots or open locks when they were bound up prior to a séance.

Fig. 1-3. In 1909, a medium wears conservative dress and her hair up as she demonstrates techniques of her trade.

11. In addition to asserting their morality through the theoretical argument that only women practicing the principles of true womanhood could be mediums, women’s performances at their séances often emphasized feminine traits. The semiotics of these physical gestures assisted mediums in gaining the trust of their audiences and of putative believers. Among female mediums, the young and those who had experienced lengthy and/or serious illnesses were favored as innocent and sensitive conduits for spirit communication. McGarry has documented that young girls “held a privileged and foundational place in Spiritualist practice.” She continues

at a moment when their childhood dreamscapes of night visitors should have been fading into the decidedly unfanciful realities of work and marriage, Spiritualism offered a different vision. As mediums, girls in particular occupied a privileged place as intermediaries between this world and the next at the very moment when their possibilities for power, speech, and imagination were fast diminishing. (McGarry 2008, 28)

12. Older women who were frequently ill or prone to swooning were also considered to be prime candidates for mediumship. Mediums Minnie Harris Wallis and Edward Walter Wallis, for example, noted that women who tended to faint were more suited for “trance mediumship,” in which the medium falls to sleep for a time and regained consciousness having obtained messages from the dead. While at one point sickly women would have been ensconced in the care of a male doctor, rest home, or other limiting convention or institution, as mediums they could escape patriarchal limitations: “For many Spiritualists, small-group communalism took the place of institutionalized religion; alternative healing replaced male-dominated medicine; and the voices of priests and ministers were drowned out by those of the spirits themselves,” states McGarry. Women who found their way into spiritualist circles rather than hospitals and sanatoriums were participants in a social movement that allowed them to deny “basic categorical binaries the distinctions between men and women, science and magic, life and afterlife, the past and the present. They repudiated the power of experts and the necessity of mediating hierarchies at a time in which these forces were taking on a renewed cultural importance.” (McGarry 2008, 19) This gave them agency where none had existed before, permitting them to make decisions about their own lives and bodies.

13. Acquiring the trappings of the elite classes also signified true womanhood status and the moral authority it bestowed. Women wishing to become “speech mediums” were encouraged to take elocution lessons, a popular pastime for ladies of the middle and upper classes, so that even if the spirits with whom they conversed did not speak English well or have thick accents, the medium would always be able to communicate clearly with her audience in a pleasing voice. (McGarry 2008, 158-9) Mediums were further directed to avoid “promiscuous” séance groups and to avoid communicating with vain, sinful, and negative spirits, just as they would avoid having interaction with such people in their everyday lives. Instead, they were expected to converse with only the dead of their own class or above. (McGarry 2008, 161) By presenting themselves as genteel and non-threatening true women, spirit mediums relied on communal expectations for proper ladies to ensure that they created and maintained good reputations even while they broke societal taboos.

14. Demonstrating these attributes of true womanhood helped overcome potential controversy about mediums’ physical activities while in their trance states. As Judith R. Walkowitz has written, “trance conditions legitimized a wide range of ‘bad behavior’ on the part of women, allowing them to engage in a subtle subversion—but not repudiation—of the ‘separate sphere’ construction of ‘true womanhood.’” (Walkowitz 1988, 9) A woman of good standing in the community who began each séance with hymns was certainly not behaving poorly if, when she was under the control of the spirits, she was flirtatious and sat in the laps of the male séance attendees; nor was the true woman betraying her upbringing and ideals if she wrote of intimate details while in a trance.

15. However, spiritualists had to be very careful in walking the line between spiritualist beliefs and the code of true womanhood. Julian Holloway has written that despite free love being a frequent tenet of spiritualism in the nineteenth century, “spiritualists wished to project a respectable image for the movement wherein spirituality and sexuality must be diametrically opposed.” Thus, mediums “continually negotiated an empowered/powerless duality” in which they had to be unquestionably moral individuals, even as their performances were “infused with and achieved through embodied relations, performance, and affectual sensations.” (Holloway 2006, 183) Laurence Moore has found that when opponents of spiritualism suggested that mediums were unnatural or that mediumship was improper for women to participate in, spiritualists responded by claiming “successful mediumship grew from the cultivation of specific traits that in the nineteenth century defined femininity.” Indeed, the “success of spirit communication depended on the ability of mediums to give up their own identity to become the instruments of others. Self-sacrifice and passiveness were among the things that made for the moral superiority of women over men.” (Moore 1975, 202–3) A guide for mediums from 1910 warned would-be practitioners that they must come to the faith honestly, for otherwise they may make contact with dangerous, dishonest spirits or—worse—make no contact at all and be taken for a fraud. (Wallis and Wallis 1976, 47)

16. Modeling the behaviors of true womanhood also protected female mediums against skeptical men looking to spend time with young women for prurient reasons rather than because they believe in spiritualism. “Women who are truly pure and intuitive,” wrote one early guide for mediums, would know when “lecherous hypocrites” sought them out for immoral pleasure and would know to turn them away. (U. Clark 1863, 184) Wallis and Wallis stressed that mediums should strive for the same attributes that all women did in hoping to attain “true womanhood.” They were to be “high-souled”: to cultivate compassion and pious belief in spiritualism; to be pure in belief and behavior; to keep records of their professional activities; to create safe and welcoming spaces for their clients and see to the needs and wants of that space and its inhabitants; and serve others before themselves. (Wallis and Wallis, 49)

17. While the true woman was expected to have a basic education and be literate and numerate, a formal education was not considered necessary for spirit mediums. Many mediums However, mediums who read widely and were up-to-date on current events, gossip, and popular culture had an advantage over those who did not. Mediums were to be “developed,” to use the language of the day, not educated. Indeed, the believability of a medium often rested on her lack of known or formal education: to be known to speak or write well and in multiple styles suggested cunning rather than authenticity on the part of the medium. McGarry has observed that “little girls were seen as ripe for mediumship in part because of the cultural assumption that they were passive, guileless, and incapable of producing feats of skilled speech or writing through normal means,” and any (known) advanced schooling cast doubt on their truthfulness in claiming to communicate with the dead. (McGarry 2008, 32) The wise medium, though, was well-informed on a wide range of topics that would assist her in giving convincing performances. Writing in 1920, Hereward Carrington described mediums using popular assumptions about their lack of skills or education to deceive séance sitters: “The medium often assumes a certain ignorance of events and languages, etc., so that when these events are given through the ‘spirits’ at the séance, they will have the appearance of supernaturally imparted information.” (Carrington 1920, 62)

18. Mediums needed to be able to recite large portions of the bible and hymns, as these sources confirmed for many audiences that the mediums were both honest believers and passing on messages from religious spirits to their families. Families often found solace in receiving biblical scripts from deceased loved ones. For audiences committed to spiritualism as a religion, spirit mediums who sang hymns from the spiritualist repertoire assured families that their departed ones were indeed happily enjoying the spiritualist afterlife, known as the Summerlands. Mediums also used their educations in penmanship, literature, and languages to help convince audiences: a spirit medium who could write in different handwriting styles and languages constituted proof that the she was in contact with multiple entities. Mediums who were ambidextrous were even more convincing; those who could write with both hands at the same time demonstrated contact with multiple entities simultaneously. It was also crucial for mediums to read the local newspaper, especially the obituaries, in order to gather information on the recently deceased and their mourning families. Trade publications gave mediums additional information their clients assumed they would not have. (Farrington et al. 1922, 14–15, 196) Mediums who could refer to a spirit’s close friends, business associates, and recent life events were highly persuasive performers.

19. Mediums’ undisclosed skills in the arts also helped convince audiences that the dead physically guided them. Spirits who had in life been able to draw or play musical instruments used untrained mediums in making portraits of sitters’ loved ones and playing music. Spirits particularly liked to play the guitar, the violin, and percussion instruments, if accounts of séances are to be believed. Even spirits who were not musical in life were likely to shake a tambourine if the medium made one available, or strum the open strings of a guitar or other string instrument. Numerous mediums took dictation from famous dead writers and composers, drawing on their own educations while presenting themselves as lacking any knowledge of literature or music. English spirit medium Rosemary Brown, who claimed to have had very little musical training but was in fact the pianist daughter of musical parents, wrote dozens of pieces dictated to her by Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, Franz Schubert, and other composers. (Parrott 2001)

20. Women also used what they had learned from household training in their performances to solidify their reputations as mediums. Domestic science, in particular, helped mediums develop and perform physical effects during séances. They knew how to use lemon juice and bluing to create invisible messages that they alone could make legible. They borrowed cheesecloth, gelatin, and other kitchen supplies to make ectoplasm. Having basic sewing skills meant that it was easy for women to design and make clothes from which it was easy to escape, ghostly shrouds to wear, hidden pockets in which to conceal supernatural artifacts, and figures that resembled spirits. (Warner 2008, 245) Women who were expected to engage in child and elder care and so had a basic understanding of anatomy and the placebo effect performed convincingly as healing mediums. Those who knew how magnets worked developed ways of moving items without touching them. The 1915 book Secrets of Clairvoyance: How to Become an Operator provided mediums with the means of making writing magically appear on a slate, make colored smoke appear and disappear at will, and to create fire they could handle with bare hands, all from everyday materials. (Secrets 1915, 37–38) The author of Revelations of a Spirit Medium specified the recipes for unguents mediums could use to walk safely—albeit briefly—on red-hot iron bars and other tricks. (Farrington et al. 1922, 98)

21. Spiritualism allowed women to be independent, to speak out, to travel, to associate with others who held beliefs like their own. By demonstrating that they too followed the path to and practiced the various aspects of true womanhood, they benefited from a social model that could have limited their activities and suppressed their activities. The case is remarkably similar to that of female musicians. Women used the gendered education and training allowed them as means with which to rise to the top of the profession and remained there in a position of unique power.

22. Contemporary sources positively compared the status of the professional cinema musician with those of schoolteachers, nurses, stenographers, and executive secretaries, and women working as film accompanists made, on average, twice that of a stenographer and 20-25% more than public high school teachers. (“Union Scale” 1921; “Letter” 1920; “Trade Notes” 1920) Like mediums, photoplayers were expected to exhibit true womanhood. Again, image played a role in establishing a photoplayer’s morality. Photoplayers also tended towards conservative dress and hairstyling; a 1925 article in American Organist jokes about the bobbed-hair trend among women organists, suggesting that it is a distraction. (“Modernity Complete” 1925) The stock image of a woman dressed in long sleeves and skirts with her hair up became a stereotype for cinema players nationwide and persists today. In the large, ornate theaters dubbed “motion picture palaces,” where photoplayers were celebrities and a large part of the draw for audiences, women dressed in fashionable evening gowns or other clothing that communicated their elite status. (See Fig. 1-4.)

Fig. 1-4. Celebrity photoplayer Rosa Rio at the Mighty Wurlitzer

23. Period articles, directories, advertisements, and testimonials about and of female photoplayers include information on their church or synagogue memberships, jobs, or activities, signifying their piety. The criteria used to judge women is epitomized in this short article from The American Organist from September, 1918, that lists the subject’s church and civic activities and her good taste:

One of this Chapters [sic] busiest members is Miss Wilhelmina Woolworth, our present secretary. As organist and musical director of All Souls’ Church, Watertown, she is continually busy with her chorus choir the weekly service list at this church being well arranged and appropriate in the selections used for both choir and organ. In addition to her church duties Miss Woolworth is a very active member of the Watertown Morning Musicales Society, taking some part in most of its monthly concerts, and is also organist of the Olympic Theatre, Watertown, where she plays a three manual Austin organ. In this field Miss Woolworth displays both skill and good taste in “playing” the pictures, a most desirable accomplishment not invariably found in the “movie” palaces. (“Central New York” 1918)

The periodical also emphasized the value of other aspects of true womanhood, such as a willingness to work hard: “An organist who enters the portals of cinema house leaves leisure behind—no more afternoon siestas,” wrote the American Organist. “An organist who sits down and plays ninety minutes without interruption has done more actual playing than most church organists do in a much longer period. An organist who plays twenty-eight shows per week works harder than one who plays two services and one rehearsal and who does not practice regularly.” (“Photoplay Accompanying” 1919.) The periodical—an influential one among cinema musicians of all kinds, not just keyboard players—followed its own criteria closely when evaluating cinema performers. In his review of her playing, American Organist writer Roy L. Metcalfe describes Kathryn Flynn of the Florence Theater in Pasadena, California, as “a vigorous worker, never relaxes her attention, [and] uses a great deal of excellent music.” (Medcalfe 1925) Jessie Gunn, whose true womanhood had landed her the position of chairman of the hospitality committee of the Woman Organ Players Club of Boston, was hailed as a model organist in her position at a cinema in New Bedford, MA (“Woman Organ Players” 1926); a review of Vera Kitchener noted her sense of purpose, diligence in preparation, duty to the picture, and dedication to her work. Miss Esther Staynor, a cinema organist in Spokane, WA, is heralded for her devotion to practicing: “in fact after playing her 7 hours a day she lingers for an hour or two of practice after the audience has gone home.” (“News and Notes” 1922)

24. The social paradigms for moral purity for female photoplayers were very similar to those for mediums. Theater managers and the performers themselves both used them to construct the nascent cinema as a morally healthy place of entertainment. As I have written elsewhere, women were often hired as film accompanists at the piano or organ for the sake of a theater’s propriety even before managers seriously considered their musical abilities. (Leonard 2018b) A woman accompanist was viewed as an imprimatur of morality and cleanliness in a cinema, and women were often hired as film accompanists at the piano or organ for the sake of a theater’s propriety even before managers seriously considered their musical abilities. A properly “accomplished” pianist—in which “accomplished” broadly signified the gender (female), class (middle or above), and relative musical skill (a basic facility with the instrument and the ability to read music) of the performer—was a boon to any establishment wishing to distinguish itself as a proper place of family entertainment. As R. H. Pray observed in July of 1914, a theatre with a “slovenly outward appearance,” and posters that were “of a vulgar and suggestive type,” where music, “furnished by a piano and violin, gave vent with a tin-pan crash to all the ragtime pieces that were known as popular by the young people [mostly men and boys] who visited the place” was put out of business as soon as “a large, neat and commodious building,” with a “pipe-organ, as fine as any church in the neighborhood could boast of, was installed, and good music beside this was also furnished in the way of an accomplished [female] pianist” opened in the same neighborhood. (Pray 1914, 102)

25. Tasteful piano or organ playing of limited virtuosity was a marker of domesticity and a proper upbringing, and thus also part of true womanhood. Photoplayers displayed this training by selecting for film accompaniment music that was of classical origin and morally appropriate; that is, music that did not, like many claimed of swing and jazz, inflame lust, celebrate the discarding of traditional gender roles and behaviors, or promote or glamorize other misdeeds. The presence of appropriate music in the movie theater, like the woman who made it, was intended to convey morality and social uprightness. Writing in 1919, the American Organist wrote, “The work of the organist in the cinema field is equally important with that in the churches so far as cultural influence goes: possibly it is even more important, when we consider the freer reign and broader audiences of the former. Just how any healthy influence can be organized in support of this vital work is still a process very much in the dark.” (Webbe 1919, 113.)

26. Cinema musicians were expected to play music that had an obvious connection to the scenes shown, and were expected to draw from the classical canon; to rely too heavily on popular song or jazz was to corrupt the picture. “This thing about playing ragtime in all theatres is rot,” wrote agent Sidney Steinheimer, who frequently advertised for “organists of high-class ability” who could bring a “better class” of music to the picture palaces. (Steinheimer 1919, 301) The musical education of middle- and upper-class American women had prepared them especially well for this kind of work. While only a handful of women trained and were successful as concert musicians, almost all women of these classes received musical training in which the Western art canon and a body of music known as “parlor songs” made up the curriculum.

27. The cultivation of musical and other artistic talents, such as elocution or writing and painting, was an essential part of a young woman’s education. Such abilities were meant to be practical in nature, rather than fulfilling on a personal level. As Petra Meyer-Frazier has documented,

American girls—or, to be more specific, white middle- and upper-class girls—of the nineteenth century learned to play the piano. It was an expected social skill and was considered a necessary preparation for courtship and marriage. The music they were expected to play was, by and large, of the parlor song variety. (‘Parlor song’ is a term used to connote popular piano-vocal sheet music from the nineteenth century intended for home use.) The songs are melodically and harmonically straightforward and short, three to five pages. (Meyer-Frazier 2006, 46)

Such music was intended for in-home use, with groups of friends singing or performing privately for one another. Parlor songs were also frequently instructional, teaching young women how to achieve “true womanhood,” the process through which they became prepared and suitable for marriage and motherhood by addressing courtship rituals and behavior. Songs commented on the proper way for men to ask for a date, acceptable activities for courting couples, and other topics in social etiquette. E. Douglas Bomberger has further observed that the editors of The Etude magazine, among others, believed that “salon music was a step in developing taste just as pedagogical music was a step in developing technique.” (Bomberger 2004, xiv) Salon music thus served as a threshold for women in performing more sophisticated works. Women also contributed a significant amount of music to the magazine, some of which was then used in cinema accompaniment.

28. Through their study of the piano or voice, cookery, and keeping household accounts—both in prose and in numbers—women were thought to have attained states of piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity, all of which, as Meyer-Frazier notes, gave women authority in “nurturing children and instructing and guiding religious morality.” (Meyer-Frazier 2006, 47) This authority contributed to the ability of women to take on the roles of arbiters of morality and taste as spirit mediums and photoplayers; the repertoire women learned prepared them to succeed as musicians as well. As Julie Hubbert has written, the classicization of moving picture music came about under the leadership of European-trained cinema composers and orchestra directors such as Samuel L. Rothafel (later Rothapfel) and Hugo Riesenfeld, but the highly gendered training of female pianists in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries clearly also played a role in this process. (Hubbert 2011, 22) Women whose upbringing had included traditional piano lessons and who had been taught song and opera repertoire and short, descriptive, characteristic pieces that worked well in cinematic accompaniment were especially well prepared for the work. Such pianists also often had a repertoire of popular songs at hand, as music publishers marketed these for women to play at home. It is ironic that women accompanists, initially hired for their gender and the social signifiers it conveyed, were uniquely qualified as cinema pianists and, later, organists, partly because of the gendered treatment to which they had been subjected. Rather than being limited in their music-making careers because of the gendered restrictions to their repertoire, they instead had learned a repertoire of music perfect for film accompaniment at their disposal. (Tick 1986, 327) (Chapter 2 discusses this repertoire and its use in the cinema in greater detail.)

29. The same gender essentialism that paradoxically helped create women as the ideal cinema accompanist by hindering their careers as concert musicians carried over into their critical reception as musicians. Here women were both hailed as indispensable to the success of moving pictures and labeled as “girls,” a revealing term that speaks to their relative place in the hierarchy of power and influence within cinemas. In an issue of Motion Picture Magazine from March 1914, Stanley Todd, a regular commentator on music for the cinema, described women as more emotional and passionate players, making them appropriate accompanists for film. Film, he claimed, needed performers with three essential skills found primarily in female accompanists: technical skills, a sensibility about romantic and dramatic repertoire, and a willingness to put the success of a picture before personal ego. Reporting from Denver, he noted that the

theatres are large, the entrances dazzlingly brilliant, and like as not you will find a wonderful pipe-organ, ready in an instant to change its song of sadness to paeans of joy. It is in Denver, too, where a mere slip of a girl presides at the console of one of these, great instruments, and each night plays, with her heart and soul, to the finest of screen projections. [….] In this way, music lends its valuable aid in interpreting the gamut of emotions, which only the picture can bring into play with that subtle power that has been one of its secrets of success.  (Todd 1914)

A theatre manager noted that good playing could bring in audiences for even poor pictures: “I’ve got a little girl in front of that music box that can shake out more ragtime a minute than any two others. The way that girl can hammer the ivory is marvelous.” (Anon. 1914a) Some critics derided the “hammering” aspect of cinema players, but they could not deny the need for capable performers.

30. Clarence E. Sinn, who edited the “Music and the Picture” column for Motion Picture World, also hinted that female performers, because of their suitable taste in music, could elevate both a picture and the audience, culturally speaking. “Your remark that the character of your music depends on the taste of your public is well put,” he wrote in response to a female organist’s query about what to play for certain pictures. “But I think that we should cultivate that taste so far as possible. [….] When your audience likes a better grade of music, give them the best you can.” (Sinn 1914) Many managers found that a thoughtful, competent female pianist would draw in bigger and (socially) better audiences than many male organists or ensembles who were more interested in displaying their technical skills and less interested in the art of playing to the picture. Reporting on the success of the Madrid Theater in New York City, Motion Picture News noted that the “musical program of the Madrid is entrusted to Miss Lillian Greenberg, who is a graduate of a Leipsic [sic] conservatory of music. She has made the incidental music accompanying pictures a matter of neighborhood comment.” (“His Three Rules” 1914b) That women were “entrusted” with the musical accompaniments in a movie theatre, including newsreels, shorts, and feature films, suggests that while they may have been looked upon as “girls” lacking in experience and wisdom, they were nonetheless responsible for crafting the tone in which audiences received news, enjoyed humorous animations, and understood drama and action on the screen.

31. Evidence in the form of letters from female accompanists to the popular film magazines’ columns on photoplay music; published accounts of their scoring suggestions; reports on performance practice by critics; and reviews of accompanists across the United States all testify to the extent to which women were the arbiters of musical accompaniment in the cinema. Accompanist Alice Smythe Jay’s suggestions for scores appeared in multiple issues of Motion Picture News (Jay 1916, 1917); in 1921 she patented her own invention for creating piano rolls for individual films and started a business to record her own selections and improvisations for movies. Kitty Meinhold, a cinema orchestra leader and violinist who programed all of the music for pictures for her employer in upstate New York, published her suggestions for scoring historical pictures. (Meinhold 1915, 1917) Carrie Hetherington began by offering score suggestions in magazines and later invented the American Fotoplayer, an automated accompaniment instrument (shown in video above). Hazel Burnett, who performed for both cinema and live theatre as an organist and pianist, created unique scores using clippings from The Etude and Melody magazines, pieces from music collections including Albert Ernst Wier’s 1913 The Ideal Home Library, hundreds of character and salon pieces, and short works by Amanda Aldridge, Carrie Jacobs Bond, Esther Gronow, and Mae Davis, as well as Mendelssohn, Grieg, and others. Burnett was a local celebrity accompanist in Austin, Texas, where the theaters at which she played—the Majestic (now the Paramount) and the Aztec—had seating capacities of at least 750 and held at least three showings per day, suggesting that thousands of people heard Burnett’s film accompaniments every month. Accompanists Claire H. Hamack and Adele V. Sullivan used cue sheets as the starting point for their scores, but frequently departed from the suggestions on the cue sheets and substituted works from their own collections. Hamack’s music collection, held by the American Music Research Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, also includes original themes composed by Hamack for films. Sullivan used selections from salon music albums, concert works, and pieces from the musical theater stage to accompany movies. (Leonard 2018) (See Fig. 1-5.)

Fig. 1-5. Substitutions made by Claire Hamack in a cue sheet (American Music Research Center, University of Colorado at Boulder)

32. When the United States entered the war in November 1917, women were afforded additional opportunities as cinema musicians as male musicians went to war. In August of 1918, The Film Daily reported that the state of Wisconsin ordered “a general suspension of all orchestras,” noting that this was “being done as a war measure to release every available man for war work. The theatre managers came to a decision last week and will hereafter retain but one man in each house to furnish music.” (“Abandon Orchestras” 1918) Moving Picture World reported similar measures in Missouri, where “Musicians Must Work or Fight.” “Every professional musician who is not engaged in connection with legitimate concerts, operas, or theatrical performances,” read the act, “will be forced to enter other vocations to go to the front.” (Beynon 1918b, 1120.) As men left the cinemas, women entered them in even greater numbers than before, taking up positions as piano or organ accompanists, instrumentalists, and orchestra leaders. Women helped create the soundscape of war movies: reviews of women’s performances for motion pictures provide documentation of their use of art music for war films. Cora Tracey, a contralto employed at the Strand theatre in New York, performed Victorian art songs in English to footage of troops in Europe (Beynon 1918a, 399-400); Maleta Bonconi, a violinist in the Strand orchestra, offered contemporary art music by European composers Hubay and Drdla. (Beynon 1918b, 1120-1) Women composed instrumental works and songs about the war specifically to be performed in cinemas as accompaniment for feature films, short films, cartoons, and newsreels. (Leonard 2019) From within the profession, Vera Kitchener, a highly regarded cinema organist, promoted photoplaying as an “excellent field for feminine activity,” and, as a member of the American Guild of Organists, helped convince other members of the value and respectability of the job. (“Miss Vera Kitchener” 1923, 173)

33. After the war, their professional positions solidified, women stayed on to develop original accompaniments for other films as well. They created scores and cue sheets for themselves as individual accompanists and as the leaders of cinema ensembles and improvised and composed new music for accompaniment. Cinema organists Edith Lang, Mary Tower, and E. L. Bowman in Boston; Mildred Fitzpatrick, Helen Searle, and Gertrude Bailey in Chicago; Vera Kitchener and Ruth Barrett in New York; Katherine Flynn in Pasadena, California; May Mills in Omaha, Nebraska; and dozens of other women in cinema accompanist jobs were positively reviewed by The American Organist between 1918 (the year the publication commenced) and 1929 (the year it ended coverage of live cinema music) for their original film scores. Theodora Dutton (Blanche Ray Alden), Patricia Collinge, Irene Varley, and Alma Sanders all published music for accompanying films. When the men who became the celebrated film composers of the early sound era went to the movies as children, it is likely that many of the film accompaniments they heard were those by women.

34. Just as mediums had used the knowledge they gained from their gendered educations to develop successful performance skills and materials, so too did female photoplayers. Both mediums and photoplayers used the social construction of the true woman as a moral figure to make their professions eminently respectable during a period when public opinion often condemned female performers in non-elite arts. The books and other materials they read, the music they played, and the activities they participated in under the rubric of becoming true women in domestic settings became resources they relied upon professionally and that helped them succeed in their careers. The shifting industrial, financial, and moral landscape of the period—described as an era of “incredible contradictions” by jazz historian Mitchell Newton-Matza—also contributed to the success of mediums and cinema accompanists. (Newton-Matza 2009, xiv) During the 190s and 1920s, women joined the workforce in greater numbers than before, and 73,000 women were employed as musicians or music teachers in 1920. (“Vintage” 2013) The post-war financial boom, the regulating of the industrial work week to forty hours, and the wider availability of technology for both household work and amusement all led to increased demand for entertainment. Youth culture developed a significant amount of influence over the entertainment industry, encouraging interest in live theater, including séances, and cinema, and in adjacent areas, including sheet-music publishing, recordings, and live bands.

Dis/embodiment and Bodily Absence

35. There were, however, drawbacks to sustaining the true womanhood paradigm as a performer, even as it changed to accommodate different models of life and work. For women who took up professional careers in the 1910s and 1920s, the expected submission of the body and mind to the larger task at hand made the work of mediums and photoplayers nearly imperceptible in their own performance spheres, leading to contemporary and present-day ignorance of their effect on supernatural entertainments, particularly in film. The demands of true womanhood meant that despite the public nature of their work and the fact that their physical presence denoted morality, photoplayers and mediums had to make their individual selves secondary or even tertiary to the primary spectacles of their performances. While they evinced their piety and purity through their spiritual activities and modest behavior and demonstrated their domesticity through their abilities to play music and create welcoming spaces for entertainment, they were nonetheless independent working women, and had to play down that independence in order to assuage public fears of and assumptions about white middle- and upper-class women in the workforce. This meant assuming or being forced into the same kind of bodily inconspicuousness such women outside of the commercial workplace experienced during this period: that they should be essentially unseen except in certain domestic settings or activities, should be decorative but not ostentatious, and should restrict their gestures and movement to acceptable norms as dictated by society. While the growing role of dance and the changing fashions of the 1920s allowed for some leeway among mediums and photoplayers, many women in these professions were nonetheless judged by more conservative standards.

36. Although the physical presence of the medium and photoplayer lent their respective entertainments the air of morality, their independent and performative use of their bodies remained problematic. The primary way in which both mediums and photoplayers manifested their submission was through metaphorical disembodiment. Although women in both professions remained physically present and often in full view of their audiences, their bodily agency was abnegated by the requirements of their work. Mediums who stayed at a table during a séance and those who were closed up in “spirit cabinets”—often just areas of a room that had been curtained off, rather than the elaborate boxes meant to restrict movement that are cited in the “scientific testing” of mediums—gave their bodies over willingly to spirit use or even full possession. In doing so, they submitted their bodily autonomy to the control of the spirit(s) they channeled, allowing the spirits to use the mediums’ bodies as tools for communication, movement, and touch. The spirit who inhabited a medium’s body or took control of her voice was the focal point of a séance, and therefore commanded the attention of the audience over and above attention to the medium herself. Even in séances where mediums became physical with the séance sitters, stroking or caressing them, sitting in their laps, allowing or encouraging them to touch the medium’s body, or otherwise interacting with them physically, it was the spirit that was in control, using the body as a prop. The actions of the spirit were what mattered in these supernatural entertainments; all else was superfluous. The body itself did not matter: the presence of the spirit did.

37. Likewise, cinema musicians were assigned the role of being the unseen conduit of equally unseen music in the service of the visual medium of film. Although at some of the large motion picture palaces the musicians became celebrities in their own right, the vast majority of cinema musicians were tucked away out of view of the audience, leaving sound as the only evidence of their presence. Pianists and organists had to see the screen and had to be visible enough that the audience knew that there was a woman present, but they were shunted to the side of theaters or the wings of the stage, where they were camouflaged by curtains or consoles. Ensembles, too, were situated far to the side of the screen or placed in a small pit, usually located far below the stage so as to be virtually invisible. Logistically, part of this placement may have been meant to ensure that the audience had a clear view of the screen from all vantages in the house, but multiple theaters built for all-male orchestras placed the musicians front and center without destroying sight lines. Women musicians in particular were conceived of as transmitters and reproducers of music composed and/or selected by men, even when that was not the case. As Macleod documents,

women’s potential as composers was not nurtured with the same seriousness as their playing ability.  The words creative and reproductive were frequently invoked to distinguish the composer from the interpreter, the general assumption being that it was of more value to create than to interpret. Fannie Bloomfield-Zeisler’s teacher, Leschetizky, expressed an extreme version of this belief when he said that immediately after an orchestra plans a piece of music, the room should be darkened and a picture of the composer displayed on a screen, which the audience could then applaud. […] Well into the 1900s, the periodical Musical American regularly featured articles that solidified the idea that women were incapable of musical composition, with titles like “Women Composers’ Limitations” and “Women Composers: Walter Damrosch Doubts If They Will Ever Achieve Greatness.” (Macleod 2015, 62–63)

As such, they were, like mediums, often reduced to props or automatons through which the messages and creations of others were transmitted to audiences. Only in a handful of cases were the women themselves credited with and commended for the original creative work they did as accompanists for the silent film, and they were exceptions.

38. Cinema organists were further disembodied by their own industry by the emphasis placed on the instruments in the cinema. Numerous reports in American Organist that mention women in cinema jobs describe the instruments—make, model, number of manuals (keyboards), and other features—installed in the theaters, ignoring the performer’s musical selections, playing abilities, or other artistic issues. The AGO, at least, was more interested on keeping current with what theaters had what kinds of organs than who was playing them and how. We know, for example, that Gertrude Dowd played a Wurlitzer at the Albee Theater, that Grace Madden played a three manual Moeller at Loew’s Brevoort Theater (“General Notes” 1927, 210, 212), and that Josephine Whitney of New York played a Miller instrument at her job at an unnamed theater (“General Notes” 1920, 222), but the American Organist did not deem it worthwhile to discuss their musical selections, accompanying philosophies, or recent activities, all of which it did when it profiles male performers.

39. Women who played in ensembles were widely considered novelties. Their appearances in cinemas were publicized, but press coverage of women in instrumental or conducting positions in theaters generally focused on how unusual the woman or women in question were, focusing on costumes, for example, in all-women’s orchestras, or on how such women maintained both performance careers and their home life. An article on the film The Good Little Devil, for example, essentially classified an all-woman orchestra as a “stunt” (an event or element of an event designed to be a curiosity and create marketing excitement) for the film’s premiere: “The large stage of the Belasco Theatre was crowded with floral decorations, where were seated a large orchestra, comprised entirely of women, who rendered appropriate music that harmonized with the picture.” (“Belasco” 1913) No names of the performers were given, and no music was identified. Another news story in The Film Daily told of a similar stunt, in which, while showing films that included information on the role of women in the military, the cinema owner “has made arrangements for a showing of the picture at one of the big Broadway houses and during its run the entire staff of the theatre will be composed of women, including the publicity staff, orchestra, and attendants.” (“Rapf’s” 1918)  Again, no specific women were mentioned. The conundrum of women’s dis/embodiment in the séance and the cinema meant that even as women were championed as the most appropriate people to serve as mediums and photoplayers, their actual labor was relatively invisible.

40. Society and even their own professions supported female mediums and photoplayers as being suitable for their jobs, but did not actually pay much attention to their work. Critical reviews of photoplayers are scarce, and while spirit mediums were often in the press, period sources describe the physical appearance and family background of the mediums, also citing famous people the medium had contacted or had as sitters. Some descriptions included the medium’s process—going into a trance or a cabinet—and practices, such as contacting a spirit guide, channeling the voices of spirits, or doing cold readings of objects, but they only rarely mentioned the performance as a performance. Instead, contemporary media reported on séances as they did fires, graduation ceremonies, and news of other events: with apparent facts, but no criticism or analysis. Mildred Fitzpatrick, one of Chicago’s busiest and best-advertised cinema organists, was reported merely to have “played on the pipe organ,” at a show (“Tribune to Give” 1920), just as Mrs. Wilson, a spirit medium, was described simply as to have “obtained [information] clairvoyantly” (Lethem 1920) and Mrs. Lena Z.’s séance included “the usual phonograph solo and singing of songs by mezzo-sopranos and bassos,” after which Mrs. Z paced the floor, guessed the author’s first name, and made several predictions.

41. Because of the lack of critical structure, mediums and film accompanists were able to develop supernatural entertainments as they saw fit rather than trying to fulfill expectations. They did not have to offer new or thoughtful interpretations of works audiences already knew, or live up to the spectacle of nationally known professionals in their fields. Instead, drawing on their own experiences, beliefs, and expertise, mediums and photoplayers could invent their arts as they went along, and could continue to develop those arts as technology and tastes matured and changed. Mediums and cinema accompanists selected their own music for performances, and the connections they made between subject matter and music led to permanent musical significations of the supernatural that were adopted by composers and performers regardless of gender.


42. Séances and the scoring of films were jobs in which women, working under similar conditions, had critical input. Individuals in each profession helped shape the expectations for performances in these fields of entertainment, creating tacit standards and expectations for both séances and the musical accompaniment of moving pictures. Because women in both fields functioned first as authenticators of morality, they were able to develop the creative aspects of their work autonomously; at the same time, this meant that their influences on supernatural entertainments have been unrecognized from both popular and scholarly points of view. Close study of the power dynamics and practices of the séance and silent cinema, however, reveals that women working as spirit mediums and photoplayers selected their own sonic and musical accompaniments to represent the presence of the spirits in both the séance and on film. Female mediums chose the hymns they used, the tunes the spirits played and on what instruments, the records the spirits selected for the phonograph, and any other sounds used by the dead to communicate with the living. Photoplayers did the same: even in cases in which films were shipped to theaters with cue sheets, the women in charge of creating the scores for films edited or ignored such suggestions, relying on their own knowledge of what music and sound effects would work best to accompany the action or mood onscreen. Together, mediums and photoplayers developed a set of sonic and musical signifiers for the supernatural and supernatural entertainments.

43. There is little question that many of the musicians who rose to prominence as composers for Hollywood movies in the early sound era had at some point attended a film in which music influenced by the séance was used to signify the supernatural. In numerous cases of music for the silent spirit film, it was female mediums who had originated the sounds and music, and female photoplayers who used, elaborated on, or further developed that material into scores for a wider public. Although there were more musical works for the cinematic supernatural published by men, women accompanying spirit films were in charge of making the selections for their scores, and applied their aesthetic judgment in deciding that those works were representational enough of the medium’s art to communicate the right atmosphere or setting to an audience. As music magazines and journals began to publish more works by women, those chosen to appear in print often referenced areas in which women had dominion—including the nursery, the schoolhouse, and the séance. In addition, because women, when encouraged to compose, were encouraged to do so in the style of the short, characteristic, technically moderate manner of the works that had been prescribed as appropriate for them to play, their works were frequently selected by female photoplayers as appropriate for cinema work: short, easy to learn, and well-suited for setting a mood or describing a time, place, or character. In Chapter Two, I examine individual pieces of music used in séances and cinemas, and analyze the sounds of the spirit in the theater.


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