“The days are passed when the activity of the trap drummer was a gauge of his usefulness, but effects, when they are novelties, work in well.”
March 24 1917 Moving Picture World
I’ve recently had access to a vast number of silent cinema publications (see my previous posts form these sources)—Billboard, Exhibitors Herald, Motion Picture Magazine, Picture Play, Variety, Motion Picture and Film Review, Motion Picture Classic, Photodramatist, Picture Goer, Reel Life, and Moving Picture World—and I’ve been scanning them all for anything to do with drums. Some of these publications span over a decade (and I’ve had a lot of help from OCR word-searching!). I’ve now read hundreds of articles on the role of the trap drummer in the cinema. It is well known that the drummer was often the one who provided the sound effects for these moving pictures; a train whistle every time a train appeared on-screen, a bird whistle/baby-cry/gun-shot, every time a… etc.
(See Nick White’s website for a great collection & demonstrations of these traps)
However most of the articles I’ve read, published at the time of these pictures, are more critical than complimentary. It seems that these effects were received at the time as comical sound effects rather than legitimate on-screen sound. Trap drummers working these cinemas had an effect for almost anything, and were too eager to use it whenever the opportunity presented itself. Rather than the trap drummer enhancing these pictures, it seems that these were often misplaced, ill-judged, and provided the wrong response from the audience (especially as we moved closer to the end of silent cinema and these films strived for more than just novelty light entertainment).
Writers for these magazines as well, as members of the public writing in, all seem to say the same thing, painting a very different picture from the much simpler view of drummer’s role in the cinema that I’d had previously. I’ll share one of the longer, more detailed articles, that echoes what the others are saying, too.
Moving Picture News, August 23 1913, Vol VIII, No 8, p23