By Published: Oct. 1, 2019

Music sheets close-upRodney Sauer bought a cultural treasure sight unseen -- a vast trove of silent film-era musical scores. Then he gave it all away. 

Rodney Sauer knew it would be a heavy lift: He’d signed up to haul 5,000 pounds of vintage sheet music in 60 large boxes from Los Angeles to his Colorado home, driving the distance alone and loading and unloading on each end.

The pianist and sometime-accordionist had looked into shipping the whole lot, but the boxes weighed more than UPS would handle. So, in September 2013, Sauer (MChem’89), bought a one-way plane ticket to L.A., rented a U-Haul and recruited five people he’d never met to convene at a storage facility between Interstate 5 and the Los Angeles River, just north of Dodger Stadium. There, in unit B749, he beheld the treasure he had purchased sight unseen and come a thousand miles to collect: Nearly 4,000 musical scores from silent film era L.A. movie theaters.

“The music is really hard to find,” said Sauer, founder of Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, one of the nation’s top performers of music for silent film. “When it becomes available, you buy it.”

The first successful feature-length sound film, The Jazz Singer, hit theaters in 1927. By 1929, silent film was passé. Most of the films are lost, as is most of the music.

Rodney with accordianSauer and his helpers, enlisted through an internet chat room for silent film fans, formed a fire brigade of sorts, relaying the music from its third-floor redoubt to the U-Haul.

Resisting the temptation to tear into the sealed 80-pound boxes “looking for the good stuff,” Sauer kept to task, bought his companions dinner and hit the road, arriving in Colorado on Sept. 11, 2013. He pulled up to his Louisville home amid heavy rain deluging the Boulder area. It would lead to historic flooding, evacuations, destroyed homes and more than a half-dozen deaths. A day later, a bridge into Louisville collapsed.

Sauer left the music in the U-Haul until the rain stopped, checking periodically to make sure the truck wasn’t leaking. Afterward, he and friends moved the boxes inside.

Over the next five years, Sauer pored over the scores, most of them from the early 20th-century Grauman theater chain, which included the Metropolitan and Grauman’s Chinese Theater (now called the TCL Chinese Theatre), the Hollywood Boulevard site of generations of glamorous awards ceremonies. Sauer digitally scanned many pieces, cataloged most and began performing some of his favorite finds.

Earlier this year, he gave it all away. “I want to use this music,” Sauer said. “I don’t necessarily want to own it.”

The lucky winner was CU Boulder, where Sauer developed an interest in silent film music after discovering the American Music Research Center’s collections, jointly held by the College of Music and University Libraries. That led to his career as a silent film music performer. He’s felt grateful ever since.

The vast trove of Grauman scores dramatically augments CU’s existing collections and transforms the university into a premier center for the study of the live music that was a hallmark of early 20th-century movie going.

The scores, most of which date from 1900 to 1929, provide a window into a vivid and stylish corner of American popular culture, and represent a major new resource for music and film scholars, students and performers alike.

With the Grauman scores now on campus, said Susan Thomas, CU music scholar and director of the American Music Research Center, CU Boulder now has “one of the most important collections anywhere.”

boxes on shelves

Joy of Feeling

As film soundtracks do today, music for silent films prompted and intensified viewers’ emotional response to the screen action. But in the early 20th century, the music was performed live by flesh-and-blood musicians — typically a lone pianist in small-town theaters, small groups in mid-size cities and, in some of the most lavish big-city movie palaces, 80-member orchestras. For patrons, the live music was as important as the films.

“It was like going to the opera, but cheaper,” said Sauer.

The Grauman scores, some of which are adaptations for film of orchestral compositions and some of which were composed for silent film use, bear descriptive names: “Storm Music,” “The Furious Mob,” “A Simple Love Episode.”

Many pieces also bear the marks and cues of long-gone musicians who worked in those early 20th-century movie houses. “Father of Zaida attacks officer,” reads one. “Dog carrying stake down path,” says another. “Fade to Mr. Martin,” says a third.

Sauer and Mont Alto have already incorporated many Grauman pieces into the group’s repertoire, which it performs at film festivals around the country and which it records for new releases of old films. (The group plans to perform for free at 2 p.m. at CU Boulder’s Muenzinger Auditorium Nov. 17, drawing on Grauman scores to accompany the 1921 silent film The Phantom Carriage, an early fantasy/horror film.)

Large set of scores on table


Sauer, who grew up in Berkeley, Calif., came to CU Boulder in the 1980s as a graduate student in chemistry. He discovered silent film music almost by accident.

A lifelong pianist with an early interest in ragtime jazz, he had founded Mont Alto in 1989 to perform early 20th-century dance music — waltzes, tangoes, the Charleston, the half-and-half, the one-step. As one gig led to another, Sauer found himself searching for fresh period music to play. Someone tipped him off to a cache at CU. It was the Al Layton collection of silent film scores.

Sauer liked the music and realized he’d stumbled into a new niche for Mont Alto. In time, the five-member group would establish a national reputation, playing at film festivals in San Francisco, Hollywood, New York, Washington and Telluride.

In mid-2013, when Sauer heard that fellow silent film music performer Robert Israel was moving to Europe and had a large collection of scores to sell, he acted fast — and without much information.

“A couple people I trusted were telling me it was a good collection,” Sauer said.

He bought it.

Israel, then living in Los Angeles, had acquired the scores in the 1990s from California Lutheran University. Earlier, in the 1970s, an unknown person heard one or more old L.A. movie houses were throwing away sheet music, tossing bundles to the curb, Israel told Sauer. The person drove to the scene and scooped them up.

California Lutheran eventually acquired the scores but found little use for them, and offered them to Israel. He kept the collection in his apartment for nearly 20 years. Tracing the scores to Grauman was easy: Many are marked “Property of Grauman’s Theatre, 3rd St. House” or “Metropolitan,” which had opened in 1923 as “Grauman’s Metropolitan.”

As excited as Sauer was to acquire them, he knew a university would be a better caretaker. CU topped his list, given his relationship with the American Music Research Center.

CU was also an ideal repository because it’s only 10 miles from Sauer’s house.

“It’ll be nearby,” he said of the collection.

A deal came to fruition early this year, and in June Sauer and helpers delivered the scores to Norlin Library, where they are already accessible for review in the University Archives.

Through digitization, Sauer hopes to make selections of the music available to musicians worldwide. He’ll work with CU to create “starter kits” of silent film music, enabling performers everywhere to obtain it — and perform it — easily.

“I would like this repertoire to be known in the same way the repertoires of operas and plays are known,” he said.

In the Fall 2019 print edition, this story appears under the title "Soundtrack" Comment? Email

Photos by Matt Tyrie (scores); Courtesy Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra

Small set of scores on table