Saturday, August 11, 2007

Gee Dad, It's A Wurlitzer

Once, in cities and towns all over America, you could pay your nickel and spend all afternoon or evening sitting in the dark of a movie theater. Before the advent of 'talkies', music was provided by live musicians. Sometimes, on a piano, or a small orchestra, but in some theaters, you would first feel the floor vibrate, hear the slight whoosh of air as the bellows filled, and then the theater would be filled with the sound of a Mighty organ, like you've never heard in church. A 'unit orchestra', really, the variety of pipe sounds, augmented by bells and traps and whistles and sometimes even a real piano played by pneumatic fingers would provide the sound-track to the films. The organist would sit so that he or she could see the screen, and play along with the movie. Before the movie, however, and sometimes between films if it was a double-play matinee, organists would entertain their audiences by playing arrangements of the popular songs of the day.

The popularity of these instruments peaked in the early thirties, and by the time WWII had started, the long, slow, sad decline of many of these fabulous movie palaces was well underway. The wrecking ball took many of them down...I knew an organist in Minneapolis who had been the house organist for nearly 40 years at the Radio City on Nicollet Ave, and was there the day the theater was destroyed by wreckers in under an hour...she was never quite the same after she saw the ball land directly in the middle of her cherished console, crushing it to splinters.

Fortunately, in a few places, these instruments have been saved and lovingly restored. In others, the instruments were removed from their original homes and installed in homes, churches, new theaters, or even in some cases restaurants.

The American Theater Organ Society keeps a list of instruments and is the national organisation dedicated to the preservation and playing of these amazing instruments. I've been lucky enough to play a few of these instruments...two in private homes here in Massachusetts, one in a theater in Springfield, MA, and one in the beautifully restored Ohio Theater right in downtown Columbus, OH. It is always an honour and delight to sit at one of these magnificent instruments and eke out a simple tune. Did you know that Carl Stalling (of Warner Bros. cartoon fame) was first a theater organist? Listen to his arrangements for various can hear it in the way he stitches together the soundtracks for his can almost watch them without the dialogue.

Here's a clip of one of today's best theater organists; Jelani Eddington. He plays in a very traditional style, reminiscent of a great theater organist of an earlier generation, George Wright. Enjoy. I have a clip somewhere of me playing a home theater organ, a Conn 642 I once owned, I'll post it if I ever find it.

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