The Silent Man

Photo provided by Bruce GIBSON Joe Rinaudo dressed as an itinerant projectionist from the early 1900s.


On most days, La Crescenta resident Joe Rinaudo can be found tinkering in his vintage lighting shop, Rinaudo’s Reproductions, in the small industrial area just east of Montrose. On other days, however, Joe can be found dressed in his antique top hat, tails and spats, flexing his muscles as the power behind a 1909 hand-cranked movie projector, providing entertainment from the silent-movie era.

Rinaudo’s vintage lighting business and his passion for silent movies are uniquely intertwined. His love of silent movies – especially comedies – began as a child in the 1950s when his father played a couple of 8mm Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton comedies while the family was watching home movies. Rinaudo was hooked and began to collect silent movies, over the years working his way up from 8mm to theater-quality 35mm prints.

One day while watching a Laurel and Hardy movie, Rinaudo noticed an old combination gas/electric wall sconce in one scene and became intrigued. Unable to find a fixture like it anywhere, Joe got a resale license, ordered parts out of a catalog, and built one on his own. Soon Joe began receiving requests from others to create custom-made vintage lighting and thus his business was born.

Over the years, Rinaudo’s company has created lighting pieces for several of Clint Eastwood’s film sets, many Disneyland attractions, the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Ill., and the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles. Celebrities Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey and Ozzie Osbourne have used Rinaudo’s services and his shop recently serviced the two large crystal chandeliers seen every week on TV’s “Dancing With the Stars.”

Along with running his lighting business, Rinaudo also works with the Library of Congress, supervising and funding the restoration of silent movies.

“Eighty-five percent of all American silent movies have been lost,” he said, “and the few still in existence are missing scenes and are badly spliced.” Rinaudo is currently working on the restoration of the 1923 Snub Pollard short, “It’s a Gift.” As part of the deal, he gets to keep a copy of each 35mm print for his own personal use.

Using a vintage 1909 hand-crank movie projector that he beautifully restored to working condition, Rinaudo conducts silent movie shows several times a year. In the past he has shown his movies at the Hanford Fox Theater, the Visalia Fox Theater, South Pasadena High School and the Nethercutt Collection in Sylmar. He also puts on two shows each year for the Motion Picture Academy.

Rinaudo dresses for the movie shows in the aforementioned outfit of top hat and tails as an homage to the itinerant silent-movie projectionists from the early 1900s –  those men and women who tramped across America lugging reels of film and a hand-crank projector to bring movies to folks in rural areas where there were no theaters.

“Hand-cranked projectors were common during the early days of movies, not due to of a lack of electricity, but because there was no standardization of the number of frames-per-second projected,” according to Rinaudo  “The projectionist had to speed up or slow down his cranking speed to compensate for the original, unknown cranking speed of the photographer.”

Rinaudo also provides the use of his 1926 American Fotoplayer, which he meticulously restored himself, to record new soundtracks for the restored movies. The fotoplayer, a contraption comprised of a player piano, organ pipes, drums, and various sound effects, was built to provide accompaniment to silent movies in the early 1900s. Its pedals, levers, switches, buttons, and pull cords were all used to play the xylophone, beat a drum, ring a bell, create the sound of thunder or chirp like a bird. Out of thousands, only 50 fotoplayers survive today, and only 12 of those are in playing condition.

Rinaudo, his fotoplayer, hand-crank movie projector and his reproduction lighting company were even the subjects of an entire episode of Huell Howser’s California Gold. To find out more about Rinaudo’s Reproductions and to see a clip of Rinaudo playing his American Fotoplayer from the California Gold program, visit