Character Study: Piano Man of a Silent Screen

July 6th, 2013

Asked if he needed water, he said, “No thanks, I’ve got my cough drop.”

Before every movie he plays, Mr. Sterner, one of the last remaining silent-film accompanists, pops a lozenge, which often winds up outlasting the film because Mr. Sterner’s attention is so focused on the screen.

Lozenge popped, theater filled, lights dimmed, “The Pleasure Garden” flickered on, a Hitchcock silent feature in the theater’s festival of them last week. Mr. Sterner banged out a jaunty melody as a flapper danced on-screen next to the opening credits. For the next 90 minutes, his playing helped tie the mute scenes together, with distinct musical themes that developed along with their corresponding characters and plotlines. His indefatigable fingers provided a musical mirror to the mood and action — whether punctuating a picked pocket, a pratfall, a punch or a pistol shot.

Afterward, Mr. Sterner took a bow to hearty applause and greeted a line of devotees.

“He’s one with the screen,” raved one of them, Steve Friedman, a photographer and a Buster Keaton buff who has been a fan of Mr. Sterner since first seeing him play a Keaton festival in 1991 at the Film Forum on West Houston Street, where Mr. Sterner is the longtime house pianist.

No, Mr. Sterner told a curious moviegoer, he was not improvising completely from scratch, nor playing a memorized score. The way it works, he said, is that he typically watches a film in the theater, taking notes on a legal pad. Then he comes up with a few simple melodic themes — one jaunty, one romantic, one sinister, perhaps — to improvise upon. Then he memorizes it all.

“I’m not a pianist, I’m a piano player. I’m a hack,” he said earlier in the rent-stabilized apartment he has inhabited since 1979 on West 71st Street in Manhattan. “I need to play well enough to be part of the film.”

He sat at his faded Baldwin upright with its broken pedals. Above it hung a photograph of Laurel and Hardy, next to an air shaft window where an air conditioner wheezed on and off.

Mr. Sterner’s own life has a madcap, old-fashioned feel of a silent film. It has been a seesaw show business life through Yiddish theater, Broadway, television commercials and more.

He grew up in the Pelham Parkway section of the Bronx and occasionally worked in his father’s Wonder Drugs store on East 23rd Street, which burned in a fire that killed 12 firefighters in 1966.

He took piano lessons and fell in love with show tunes from watching early cartoons, and by borrowing scores from the public library, which may still be missing a certain copy of Jule Styne’s “Gypsy.”

He attended Bronx Science and then City College and was working as a pianist and actor in the early 1980s — he recalled the time he played “the front of a camel” in a Middle East-themed Broadway comedy called “Oh, Brother,” at least until it closed after three performances — when a friend at the old Thalia revival house persuaded him to accompany a short “Koko the Clown” cartoon, and then “Flesh and the Devil,” a 1926 silent feature with Greta Garbo.

A former hoarder, he turned his apartment into a bunker of items and notes from his life in show business, before finally clearing it a couple years ago of nearly everything except the stack of papers on his piano: his self-composed music and cue sheets for more than 300 silent films.

This includes the 13 Yasujiro Ozu films he played last month at the Film Forum. The theater has been known to schedule films around Mr. Sterner’s availability, and after the success of the 2011 silent film “The Artist,” he was playing there every Monday night until the run was interrupted by Hurricane Sandy last fall.

He is scheduled to play “The Unknown” with Joan Crawford and Lon Chaney there on Aug. 26 and “Speedy” with Harold Lloyd on Sept. 29.

In between, Mr. Sterner makes money as an actor and singer, and loses some of it at Friday night poker games, on lottery tickets and Atlantic City trips.

“I was born too late,” he said. “I would have loved to have lived in the ’20s and ’30s, and this is the closest I can get to that. When I play a Buster Keaton film, in a way, I’m working with him, or with Lloyd or Lon Chaney. I’m performing with them.”

E-Mail: character@nytimes.com

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