William Lewis will perform at this year's San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Credit: Pamela Gentile

William Lewis has accomplished quite a lot for an 18-year-old. He has performed puppet shows at Children’s Fairyland and at the quirky annual Driveway Follies Halloween bash. He’s played piano and sung at both Buena Vista Winery and the Sebastiani Theatre in Sonoma. And he sang a solo in composer Gordon Getty’s operatic film version of Goodbye Mr. Chips, which recently premiered in New York.

And as Lewis explains on his LinkedIn page, “before all hell broke loose, I was a regular organist at the Grand Lake Theatre.”

On May 8, the classically trained pianist, organist, composer, and marionettist will make his debut live performance at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, accompanying the short film The Kid Reporter on piano. Now celebrating its 25th year, the Festival, held May 5-11 is offering 29 programs, “from Buster Keaton to Brazilian experimentalism, French melodrama to German horror.”

A senior at the Oakland School for the Arts, where he majors in musical theatre, Lewis is also currently in rehearsals for OSA’s production of the musical Into the Woods, where he will play the double cast roles of the stepmother, Cinderella’s prince, and the wolf. He is sandwiching the silent film concert between the six musical performances. In addition, he’s also participating in two student showcases and working on a hand puppet version of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Tinder Box, including script writing, scenery building, and puppet constructing. He said he hopes to debut the production at the annual Children’s Fairyland Puppet Faire.

He may be young, but Lewis is already one of Oakland’s most prolific artists, with a love for puppets, film, and theater.

“I do have to run around like a maniac,” he said in a phone interview he made time for between rehearsals, standing in an alleyway behind his school.

Lewis’ interest in silent films began at age 10 when he watched them on television. He began playing to accompany them on piano at home. A huge Sherlock Holmes fan, at 11 he went to see a screening with live accompaniment of the 1916 film about the detective, and the effect was immediate. 

“It was fantastic, and I was entranced,” he said. 

At that point, Lewis was too shy to approach the musician who had composed and performed the music, Connecticut-based Donald Sosin, who has been creating and performing silent film music for fifty years and playing for major festivals.

But two years later, he again saw Sosin perform—this time, accompanying the 1916 Charlie Chaplin film The Pawn Shop, in a program by the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra.

“I thought, oh, my god, it’s Donald Sosin!” he said. This time, he braved approaching the musician, who graciously took him on a tour of the backstage, put up a classic Mickey Mouse silent film, and urged him to play along on the piano.

“I was first struck by Will’s unique appearance—he dresses very fashionably, and kinda old style,” Sosin told The Oaklandside. “He was very enthusiastic, was knowledgeable about silent films, had a creative imagination, and he wanted to learn. He is unique.”

What followed were many months of coaching, mainly via Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Will is among the youngest I’ve encountered who’s seriously interested, and a good enough musician and performer to get in there and figure stuff out.”

Acknowledging that there probably aren’t a ton of teens interested in silent films, Lewis explains his attraction to them, as a composer and pianist. 

“It’s like scoring a regular film, but without the inhibitions,” he said, referring to dialog as one example. Describing the process as a “full outpouring of art,” he also weaves together various themes, utilizing improvisation. Composing the scores entirely of his own music, he says that he “strives to create both passionate and mostly historically appropriate music.”

Lewis is sad that some people regard silent films as “culturally a joke,” mocking it while ignoring the beautiful art at its core. He laments the fact that it might be a dying art. 

Sosin’s mentor was composer-performer William Perry, who produced the Emmy Award-winning PBS series The Silent Years in the seventies. Hosted by Orson Welles and Lillian Gish, Perry and his program are often credited with helping revive interest in silent films.

Sosin agrees that there has been some drop off in screenings of the genre, pointing out that New York’s MOMA, Brooklyn’s Academy of Music, and the Museum of the Moving Image no longer host regular screenings, but he attributes this not to a lack of interest, but to the many home streaming options that are now available, including TCM’s Silent Sunday Nights. And although he admits that “silent films aren’t big seat fillers” in regular theaters, the festival scene is booming, and the genre is being seriously taught in colleges. Prior to the pandemic, Sosin had years when he was performing 100 shows—all around the world.

San Francisco’s Silent Film Festival is the largest in North America, he said, and he loves the fact that they’re dedicated to providing the very best-looking prints—even doing their own restorations. He loves the enthusiasm of the crowd: “eight-hundred to one-thousand are cheering and crying together—the energy feeds on itself.”

Sosin will be performing, along with Frank Bockius, to the feature-length Penrod and Sam. Lewis’ film is on the same bill, and while Sosin has not yet seen or heard the score, he’s excited about it, as well as seeing Lewis perform in Into the Woods

“I’ve never seen him perform as an actor-singer,” Sosin said.

In performing The Kid Reporter, Lewis will be defying W.C. Fields’ admonition to “never work with children or animals.” The “Baby Peggy” in the film, Diana Serra Cary, was a silent film star at the tender age of 19 months and went on to star in over 100 shorts and many features before the age of 5. 

“She was so cute, and a great little actress—it’s insane!” said Will. His wish for the audience is that they enjoy the film’s light-hearted frivolity.

With high school graduation coming up, Lewis is uncertain about his next steps, given that his talents lie in so many artistic fields.

“I don’t know if there’s one thing I can do brilliantly; I suspect I’ll always be doing part of everything,” he said. 

He plans on taking a gap year and is considering applying for work at the famed Bob Baker Marionette Theater in Los Angeles.

Donald Sosin has some thoughts on the subject of his mentee’s future. “He’s still young enough—he should go out and do it all!”

C.J. Hirschfield

C.J. Hirschfield served for 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry, She penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years, wrote regularly for Oakland Local, and has contributed to KQED’s Perspectives series. She now writes for EatDrinkFilms.com and Splash Pad News. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.