Not only was there a piano player clattering away, the audience would join in as well. They would cheer and shout and jeer, and if the film was a western, drum their feet along with the galloping horses. It was noisy, boisterous, loud and anything but silent.
In the early days there would often be performers on stage as well. Before the film started, there would be comedians, jugglers and singers; then, once the film got going, a man on stage would explain the action or read the captions out loud, all of which added to the spectacle, the event, the theatre of cinema.
In almost every other respect, going to the cinema in the silent era was entirely different to the modern-day experience. At Scotland's oldest purpose-built cinema – the Hippodrome in Bo'ness – there was only one night per week when smoking was banned. On every other night, you would have to squint at the screen through clouds of yellow smoke. It could also get rather crowded in there – these days there are about 176 seats in the Hippodrome, which reopened in 2009 after a renovation; in the early days, it was more like 1000 – squished in, excited and rowdy.
Reminding people that this is how cinema used to be – and in many ways trying to recreate it – is one of the points of the Hippodrome's Festival of Silent Cinema, which is now in its third year. Its director, Alison Strauss, has invited me to the cinema to talk about the festival and, in the peace and quiet of the empty and rather beautiful auditorium, tries to summon up the atmosphere of those early days.
"Before a film," says Strauss, "there would be sword swallowers and magicians and the like. There would be a whole line-up of live acts and a complete change of programme every week." It was all masterminded by a local man called Louis Dickson, who established the Hippodrome and was its master of ceremonies. One of Dickson's early ideas was to film events in the area and invite the locals to come and see themselves on screen.
"He would pan across hundreds and hundreds of faces," explains Strauss, "and then say, 'Pay a penny and come and see yourself on the screen at the Hippodrome!'" It was the common man on screen for the first time – reality TV 100 years before it was invented.
One example of this kind of film, although not filmed by Dickson, is being shown at the festival this year. The short, silent, 10-minute picture was filmed in Kirkwall and shows hundreds of people taking part in a game of handba. A hundred faces fill the screen in a hundred seconds: ordinary people caught for a second or two in a moving picture. A young man pushes his way to the front and his face fills the screen. I wonder what happened to him? Did he die in the war? Watching it is an extraordinarily moving experience.
The film is part of the festival's New Found Sound event, in which local schoolchildren create new soundtracks for films, and is one of around 14 silent pictures being shown over five days. The highlight is Stage Struck, a 1925 movie in which Gloria Swanson, the greatest film star of her day, plays a waitress dreaming of being the greatest film star of her day. It's a glorious, playful, funny picture and has a Technicolor sequence in which Swanson, in a flipped version of the faded star she would later play in Sunset Boulevard, spoofs her own diva image.
There's comedy too, of course: Chaplin's The Immigrant, One Week starring Buster Keaton and Another Fine Mess with Laurel and Hardy. Strauss particularly loves the comedy, partly because she used to watch Laurel and Hardy with her grandmother, but also because of the atmosphere in the Hippodrome when a comedy is being shown.
"Kids laugh their socks off at silent comedy," she says. "That's one of the best things for me, being in this cinema when it's full of people. We showed the Harold Lloyd film Safety Last last year, and it was packed. They were crying with laughter and also on the edge of their seats."
Which goes right to the heart of what Strauss is trying to achieve with the festival, and the Hippodrome. The cinema reopened four years ago after a rather sad period in which it had been first a bingo hall and then left to decay. Falkirk Council paid for a facelift and a rebirth, and it's been a steadily growing success since, although there were plenty of naysayers who were down on the whole thing at the start.
"A lot of people told me it wasn't going to work," admits Strauss. "Some people said it because of the economy of scale – it's difficult to run a single-screen cinema – but some said it because it's in Bo'ness. They said nobody will come to Bo'ness. People thought cinema had changed."
Strauss's riposte is that cinema has indeed changed but not for the better, and that the Hippodrome can offer an alternative. She believes the multiplex, with its skeleton staff, has dehumanised cinema-going.
"No disrespect to Cineworld," says Strauss, "but you go in and it's quite depressing and cold. What the Hippodrome can offer is the opposite. When you come to the Hippodrome, it begins with the building because it's different and quirky and because it's attractive and a piece of history. And with the silent film festival, you're not allowed to be passive in the same way because as soon as you have something live, it wakes you up a bit."
For this reason, Strauss is particularly fond of the festival's Film Explainer event, which is returning this year after a successful premiere in 2012. In the early days of cinema, the explainer would stand by screen and explain the film for the audience or read out the title cards. Strauss first heard about the concept when she read Gert Hofmann's novel The Film Explainer and commissioned the performer Andy Cannon to recreate the idea for the festival.
"It's a fascinating aspect to silent cinema," says Strauss, "because especially before film became adept at telling stories through pictures, there would be more reliance on inter-titles and a lot of the audience was illiterate, so at a basic level the explainer would be able to read the titles to people.
"But then they became like a performer, like part of the film; they would interpret what was gong on, or add a commentary. And in Japan, it was a very respected art. They were called benshi and became more celebrated and famous than the film stars they were describing. People would come to see films narrated by these star benshi."
Strauss's aim is to re-establish that buzz of a live experience in cinemas and remove the passivity of watching a blockbuster in a multiplex, and she believes she is right on trend. More and more, there are screenings that try to do more than just offer a film that you sit and watch – there have been screenings with live soundtracks, such as Psycho with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Glasgow, nationwide streamed screenings such as Hitchcock's The Lodger at the Glasgow Film Theatre, and there is the Secret Cinema movement in which special screenings are staged to a select few fans. Strauss sees her festival as being part of this change.
The Festival of Silent Cinema can also act as a reminder of something even film fans may have forgotten. In the early days, cinema and its stars, particularly Chaplin as the tramp, genuinely reflected their audiences. The cinema was central to working communities and their people. And then, just as those communities started to struggle in the 1980s, so did cinemas and they started to close down.
The Hippodrome is a bit of a happy ending to that story. Here is a cinema in the middle of an area that suffered high unemployment and industrial decay. At first, its cinema went the same way but now it has reopened and regenerated.
"Every day people would see that treasured part of their youth decaying before them," says Strauss. "But the Hippodrome is part of a reversal of that. There are people who are passionate about their local cinemas and are trying to bring them back to life."
The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema, March 13-17. For tickets, call 01324 506850 or visit www.hippfest.co.uk.