Saturday, 27 November 2021

Celebrate Lit: Theater Organs

When I was invited to participate in the Ever After Mysteries series – a collection of fairytale-inspired mysteries set in the 1920’s, I jumped at the opportunity. It was an exciting era of cultural changes and industrial development, of prosperity for the middle classes, and the opening of new career fields to women and people of color.

But what I really wanted to write about was the theater organ. Magnificent, extravagant, over-the-top theaters opened all over the country, and before the advent of the “talkies”, the silent films were accompanied by orchestras and theater organs.  The organs were as elaborate as the rest of the theaters’ décor, often painted ivory or red with gold trim – or even entirely gilded. They had a horseshoe shape to accommodate the many functions of the organ, and in the bigger theaters, they opened the show by rising dramatically from a pit on an elevator platform.

At one time, over 7000 organists were employed by theaters across America. They often became local celebrities like the actors in the films they accompanied. Film accompaniment was different from regular musical performance. The organist had to keep time with the projectionist’s speed, which sometimes varied. Some films came with complete orchestral scores, but some only had a rough outline from which the organist was expected to improvise. There wasn’t much standardized training for the career until the prestigious Eastman School of Music in New York offered a certificate program in theater organ performance.

These “unit orchestra” organs had several rows – manuals – of keys, panels of stop tabs, several pedals, and a “Toy Box” for special effects like horse hooves, car horns, police sirens, trains, and thunder. They operated like regular organs, with multiple ranks of pipes, but the organist was also able to play a variety of real musical instruments directly from the organ console. Full-size pianos, various percussion instruments, and bells were installed in the pipe chambers and controlled remotely.

The organist played to open, accompany, and close the evening’s entertainment, which often included vaudeville acts and other musicians in addition to the feature film. In my book, Murder at the Empire, Gayle Wells plays a Mighty Wurlitzer, one of the biggest and best theater organs. Her character was inspired by Rosa Rio, a 1920’s organist who went on to play the organ for radio and television productions after the “talkies” made the organists’ jobs obsolete.

Few theater organs survive today. One of the best examples is the Mighty Mo, at the beautifully restored Fox Theater in Atlanta, Georgia. The American Theatre Organ Society and some other organizations are working to preserve the existing organs as well as teach the art of theater organ performance to young musicians, so hopefully, there will always be opportunities to see the old silent films accompanied as they were a hundred years ago!

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