To the charmingly avuncular Frank Buxton fell the honor of emceeing the Founder's Presentation centerpiece screening of Georg Wilhelm Pabst's Diary Of A Lost Girl (1929), selected by San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) founders Melissa Chittick and Stephen Salmons.
"We are all here for several reasons," Buxton explained, "certainly for our love for silent films and the great music that accompanies them and the unique opportunity to see these films as they were meant to be seen—on a giant screen with appropriate music, wonderful prints, and to share the experience with 2,000 like-minded souls. But we're here also because of the vision of the two people I would like to introduce.
"In 1994, they had the dream to present silent films properly: 35mm prints, correct speed, correct aspect ratio, and with live music. They hooked up with what was then called the Lesbian and Gay Film Festival here at the Castro—they're still going strong!—and presented the 1918 Ernst Lubitsch film I Don't Want To Be A Man (Ich möchte kein Mann sein). [The audience laughs.] Appropriate. It was sort of the Victor/Victoria of its age. With Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer organ. What a way to begin! It was a great success.
"The next two years were taken up with all the necessary things that it takes to build an organization like this—fundraising, networking, beating the drums—until finally in 1996 they presented the first San Francisco Silent Film Festival, a one-day event (one day!) with three films: Gretchen the Greenhorn (1916), Lucky Star (1929) and the fabulous Ben-Hur (1925). Stephen told me yesterday, 'Gee, I'd like to see those again.' We can't go back. We only can go forward, Stephen!
"It was their foresight, their passion, their energy and their ability that established this wonderful event. They not only got it going, but kept it going during its first struggling years. They ultimately turned over the reins to the incredible people who run it today; but, by then, the festival became internationally recognized for its presentations, its scholarship and its mandate to help and honor those who are finding and preserving the films of the silent era. You see the results here every July.
"So the real reason we all are here today is because of two people. You wouldn't be here, I wouldn't be here, we wouldn't be here without them. I'm honored and proud to present to you the founders of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and we're going to give them an award of recognition: Melissa Chittick and Stephen Salmons."
The audience erupted into a thunderous standing ovation as Chittick and Salmons took to the Castro stage, where Chittick claimed the podium while Salmons—true to his comic training—mugged in the background.
"Thank you so much," Chittick beamed. "One of the questions I get asked a lot—apart from why we don't fix the Castro Theatre bathrooms—is why did we start a film festival? When Steve and I started we had no money, no contacts in the film world or even in the Bay Area community. I had a film degree from UC Santa Barbara and Stephen had been making 8mm silent films since he was a kid. When I moved to San Francisco in 1990, I knew that I wanted to do something with my film degree. I applied for some jobs here and there and found it was pretty hard to break into the field. So I ended up starting graduate school at SF State thinking that I might eventually teach.
"Once a week I would volunteer for the Red Vic Moviehouse in the Haight. I got along with Gary Aaronson, one of the founding collective members of the Red Vic. Remember Gary? He was an amazing person. He was always looking for programming ideas so I asked him why he didn't show silent films? He said that they didn't do very well. Nobody came. We batted the idea around for a while and then he asked me, 'Well, why don't you do it?' And I suddenly thought, 'That's a good idea. I'll do a festival of silent films.'
"You have to be an organized person to run a non-profit so I set about gathering a board. About the time I was working on Union Street as a bank teller and I met a guy named Stephen Salmons who was a framer. He would come into the bank to make deposits for the store. He was quiet and kind of shy but I knew he kind of liked me. [Stephen nods his head affirmatively.] We talked about film a lot so eventually I asked him if he would be a board member?
"Right away we got into one of our first fights. I received a board acceptance letter from Steve written in crayon. I had forgotten that Steve used to be a stand-up comedian. I told him that he had to understand that I was really serious about making this a solid organization. So Steve and I got together and we started working. Using a Nolo Press book, we read that it was necessary to set up a nonprofit to earn nonprofit status. We were still working full-time so we would work during the day and he would come over to my one-bedroom apartment and work until about 11:00 or so at night. We had to learn how to do everything. We did market research. We did a business plan. We made budgets and cash flow, even though we didn't have any money. And we started gathering an advisory board.
"I remember how naïvely brazen we were. I contacted people in the film community who ran other film festivals to say that we were a new festival in town, that we hadn't done anything yet, but we wanted to introduce ourselves. Most people in the film community were very nice, but some not so. There was one local bigshot who told us point blank that our idea would never work and that we should get out.
"Eventually we met with some great results with Steven Gong from the Pacific Film Archive—now with the Center for Asian American Media—and they were encouraging even if they might not believe that anything would happen. We started having volunteers and they would climb the four flights of stairs to my one-bedroom apartment and worked out of my very small kitchen, because that's where the database was. They dubbed it the data-kitchen because that's where the database was. For mailings, we would have volunteers on the bed stuffing envelopes.
"Lots of people wanted us to hurry up and put on an event. They said, 'Why don't you book it at the Roxie? Why don't you just show 16mm films? Ditch the musicians.' But we had the dream to show these films in the highest quality way so that people would take them seriously and not think they were scratched, jerky motion old-fashioned things. We didn't want to start our festival at the Castro Theater because it was so expensive for us; but, we needed to do it right. The Castro Theater was—and still is—the only place in the Bay Area with the right equipment to show silent films. So we had to learn how to fundraise in order to afford it.
"Steve and I have talked since that it's actually been good that we didn't have the money to start the festival on our own because that caused us to reach out and involve the community. It was terrifying at first to ask people for donations. We never did something like that before and so when we did sometimes we'd need a beer or something like that.
"After we had our first event at the Lesbian and Gay film festival, we finally had our first festival. I remember the press we actually got. It ranged from "like we need another film festival" to getting a 3/4 page article on the front page of the Datebook in the San Francisco Chronicle. Steve and I were freaking out about that. Here we were, working out of my apartment, and we get this giant article in the San Francisco Chronicle! But that's something about admitting your dream in public. Once you tell people about it, you have to do it because it would be way too embarrassing not to.
"Our first event seems kind of tiny now but it was amazing for us. It went really well; 1,800 people attended. I think the thing that was best for me is still something I'm not tired of (and that's not what you think it would be). Of course I love seeing a silent film projected correctly on the big screen and accompanied by excellent music; but, that's not it. The best part for me was seeing a theater packed full of people watching the silent film program that I produced. There were many times every year that I would sit in the front of the theater over here and watch just you the audience watching the film.
"After that the festival really started to grow. We met an influential man named Richard Meyer who became a board member and helped introduce us to some really wonderful people who became board members, people like Jean Sheldon, Frank Buxton and David Smith who took the fundraising and prestige to another level.
"Then over the next years we worked really hard to grow the organization and make the festival be even better. Do you know what it's like to produce a film festival like this? Think about it! Every show is a special event. First you need to find the films. They don't come from distributors. Then you need to find out if they're in good condition. Musicians and orchestras need to be arranged. And since these films don't come with press kits, all the photos and historical information needs to be researched....
"Imagine what it's like to have 10,000 people needing tickets. It took so much to organize that Steve and I had to spend the night before the festival on the office floor in sleeping bags. That's how driven we were. I think that's the thing about founders; you are driven. It used to pain me when I'd see other festivals produce silent programs because I wanted to do it so badly myself. I don't know where that drive comes from, but it seems like something outside yourself; like something is working through you. I look back and it doesn't really seem like me....
"After all that, you probably wonder why we left. We were taught one of the biggest successes a founder can have is to let the organization grow beyond them. Then you find out if it's important to other people or not. Obviously, this one is. Steve and I have always kind of compared it to having a child. I gave birth to it and then Steve came along and helped me raise it. We'd say, 'Oh, now it's in kindergarten, or high school' or whatever. But now our baby has graduated from college and has landed a really promising career job.
"We are so thankful to the people who took it over and are running it today. ...They have taken what we've created and made it even better. Most importantly, they've kept the tenor of the event: taking silent film and musical accompaniment seriously and adding so much more. Literally more days, more programs, a better website, and now we have a great blog and we're on Twitter! As Steve and I have been sitting in the audience watching this festival, we've been saying, 'Oh, that's a program we would have produced.' ...We're just as proud of them as if we'd produced them ourselves.
"But I want to tell everyone here that—if we can do this—you can do whatever you dream of too. At first people will think your idea is crazy and that you can't do it; but, if you keep working on it, more and more people will join you and then you'll start noticing success and more and more people will jump on and that's how you build your dream."
Then—refuting the common cliche that there's never enough time to thank everyone—Stephen Salmons pulled out a list of names from his coat pocket. "There's a story," Salmons advised, "behind each and every name on this list regarding their contribution to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and—if you ever have 200 or 300 hours to spare—I'd be happy to tell you all of them. Each and every one of them on this list deserves an ovation of their own; but, ladies and gentlemen, I respectfully ask that you hold your applause until the end. Are you ready?" Taking a deep breath he then proceeded to deliver a rapid-fire thank you to each and every person who has helped the festival over the years. It was a stunning recitation of gratitude that filled the cheering Castro auditorium with joy and delight. Melissa returned to the podium to conclude their remarks by thanking everyone who has helped the festival live up to the motto: "True art transcends time."
Cross-published on Twitch.