Sally Carpenter is a definite Renaissance woman. She’s worked as an actress, college writing instructor, theater critic, jail chaplain, and tour guide/page for Paramount Pictures and is currently employed at a community newspaper. Learn more about Sally and her books at her website/blog.
Making beautiful music with theatre organs
You’re seated in a red velvet-covered chair, waiting for the movie to start. A hole opens in the stage floor and from the basement rises a platform holding an organ and the seated organist who begins to play. Forget the movie—I could listen to the music all day.
An organ in an old art deco theater in Los Angeles plays an important role in my new cozy mystery, The Quirky Quiz Show Caper. We see the organ on the very first page. If only my book came with an audio track, you could hear it as well.
Theatre organs were developed in the early 20th century to provide music for silent films. Like church organs, these instruments had pipes but differed in several ways, particularly the horseshoe-shaped console providing the organist easy access to a larger number of stops. Theatre organs were also equipped with a multitude of “special effects”—whistles, cymbals, chimes, gongs, woodblock, etc.—to provide realistic sounds for the films. These organs were often ornate with gold leaf or velvet trim or even rhinestones.
As synchronized audio tracks became common in movies, the organs were still used for live music between films. But by the 1930s, these instruments fell out of favor, possibly due to the cost of maintenance and the organist’s salary. Many theatre organs were sold, dismantled or moved to other venues such as skating rinks, sports arenas, museums and private homes.
Only about 40 theatre organs in America are still in their original installation site. Many of these have had extensive refurbishing, due to deterioration, wear and water/smoke damage over the years. Some of these old instruments have been retrofitted with new digital/electronic devices to improve and expand the sound quality and variety.
Two theater organs that I’ve seen/heard are in the Ohio Theatre in Columbus, Ohio, and the Embassy Theatre in Ft. Wayne, Ind. Both theaters had weekend classic film matinees with live music before and after the show. I remember the organ in the Embassy rising to the stage as the organist began playing, which I thought was pretty cool.
The largest pipe organ west of the Mississippi is in the Nethercutt Collection in Sylmar, Calif., just north of Los Angeles. I visited the museum on a group tour. J.B. Nethercutt founded Merle Norman cosmetics and used his fortune to collect antique cars and other trinkets. He built the museum to house his treasures for the public to view.
The building is drab on the outside, but inside contains a stupendous exhibit of restored classic cars in a glamorous setting. The fourth floor houses the Music Room, with a variety of old-time music boxes, some six feet tall, and the Wurlitzer organ. The largest pipe in the organ is 40 feet long! The pipes are visible behind a glass wall.
The Wurlitzer had been fitted with a computer system that could play back a recorded piece of music. During my tour, the organist touched a button and the instrument played a short concert he had performed earlier.
While at the museum, I purchased a CD of Christmas music played on the Wurlitzer. It’s one of my favorite holiday albums.
Have you seen/heard an authentic theatre organ? If so, where and when?
Former teen idol Sandy Fairfax is a guest panelist on a TV game show—and the first category is murder! When his kid brother, Warren, is framed for killing a college student, Sandy makes it his duty to track down the thug before the police move in. After all, Sandy did play a detective once on a hit TV show. Sandy will get right on the case—right after he visits his kids; fights with his ex; woos his hoped-to-be girlfriend, Cinnamon; and convinces his parents he should be the special entertainment at a black tie gala designed to raise funds for his father’s faltering orchestra. All this while he and his biggest fan attempt to “Raise The Stakes” on a rigged quiz show where––wonder of wonders––the murder victim had recently been a contestant. Sandy’s ready to pull out some of his long blond hair as the game points and the suspects pile up.