Marlin’s Palace Theater will screen the 1925 silent film “The Phantom of the Opera” on Saturday night, but the film’s ghost won’t be the only organist in the house.
Waco organist Jim Pitts, who like most organists in the silent film era will improvise a score while the film is playing, will accompany the classic horror film live. At his fingertips is an organ almost as old as the Palace Theater and the movie, a 1927 Robert Morton pipe organ that is now enjoying new life as a digital instrument.
The theater organ came to the Marlin Theater last year, after renovation by the Texas Museum of Theater and Broadcast to McGregor, who received it in 2017. The museum lacked space for pipes, bellows and organ fans, which were not in the best shape after two floods and years in storage, so it was converted to a digital organ during its restoration.
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During his life in Texas, organ Robert Morton saw stints at the Old Mill Theater and the Rialto Theater in the 1920s and 30s in Dallas, a brief interlude at an Austin funeral home, and many years in storage before his last active phase in Dallas. ‘ Lakewood Theater in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Its digital conversion means its sound is generated from digital audio samples rather than air blown through tuned pipes, but for Pitts, a veteran of church and theater organs, it’s pretty close to reality. Pitts’ introduction to the wider world of organ playing came in the 1950s when a chaplain at Lackland Air Force Base appointed the young airman from Bruceville who occasionally played for the church as organist for his chapel services. This forced Pitts, a Baptist, to expand his repertoire to include Catholic and Jewish liturgical music.
Although his work as a Texas State Technical Institute broadcaster and instructor paid the bills for much of his career, including stints at Waco stations WACO-AM/FM and KRZI-AM, Pitts continued to play the organ on the side, in the churches, with dancing. groups, in recording studios and occasional gigs on theater organs. He was organist at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in the 1960s and is now organist at Lake Shore United Methodist Church.
Over the years, he has become as steeped in the history of the theater organ as he is in organ music. While the tradition and sound of movie organs has resonated in popular memory for over a century, the historical window of their heyday is actually quite small, spanning from the 1910s to the 1930s.
Films were silent in the early decades of cinema, lacking soundtracks for dialogue, sound effects, or music to underpin the on-screen action.
“It had the appeal of watching someone else’s slideshow of their vacation,” Pitts said.
Theater owners accustomed to booking small orchestras and pianists for vaudeville performances began experimenting with live music with films. Pianists worked better and cheaper, but as movie theaters grew, pianos were less successful in filling auditoriums with sound.
The pipe organ, however, did just that in churches and cathedrals, and some enterprising theater owners began upgrading the pianos in their halls and amphitheaters to make them the queen of instruments. As theaters became larger and more architecturally elaborate, the organs inside also increased, adding manuals or keyboards and ornate fittings, mounted on lifts that moved the organs from storage beneath the floor at stage level.
Their sounds have also evolved from those designed for church and classical music with new stops, voices and sound effects added to complement the movies. Theater organs have developed to imitate a full range of orchestral instruments with extensive selections of percussion including snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, marimba, xylophone and gong, as well as effects sounds like train whistles and car horns – voicing options not offered in church organs.
“The theater organ, like the banjo, is a quintessentially American musical instrument,” Pitts said.
The Robert Morgan Pitts organ will play Saturday, white with gold accents, reproduces these sounds from digital samples, including a rumbling bass note resembling that produced by a 32-foot pipe. It is felt more than heard as Pitts demonstrates at the Palace Theatre.
“They ask me not to do this in older (theater) houses because the plaster is falling off the walls,” he laughed.
Accompanying a film on the organ requires another well-tuned instrument: the organist. More specifically, an improvisational organist.
Movies rarely came with an accompanying score, so musicians had to make something up while watching the action on screen and for durations exceeding an hour. Players put together phrases from classical music and popular songs with tropes for romance, action, comedy and, as in the case of “The Phantom of the Opera”, horror.
Pitts has played under the “Phantom” silencer four or five times before.
“80% of that score doesn’t exist…and every time is different,” he said.
At the console, the organist performed some of the phrases likely to appear on Saturday night: sinister chords with vibrato, themes from Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ and the iconic opening passages from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue. in D minor.
“No one has written better scary music than Bach,” Pitts said with a smile.
The instrument of choice for the main character of “Phantom”, a shadowy masked figure living in the underground chambers of the Paris Opera, is an organ. The ghost, embodied by Lon Chaney in the 1925 silent film, is at the keyboard when he is unmasked, one of the emblematic scenes of cinema.
Saturday’s ‘Phantom’ screening will bring back memories of when the Palace Theater was a movie theatre. The facility hosts dinner theaters and training sessions at the Paranormal Academy, but is branching out into entertainment, said Robert Brown, Palace Theater board member and owner of ad agency Waco. McKinley Brown & Bradley.
An Elvis Presley tribute revue in August drew a good crowd, and raising money for Saturday’s film screening could lead to more showings in the future, Brown said.
The movie screening at Marlin combines a 1925 theatre, a 1925 movie, and a 1927 organ, but the golden years of theater organs the reunion suggests would not peak until a few years later, after the 1927 debut. of “The Jazz Singer”, the first feature film to film with sound. Its arrival marked the end of live music in cinemas, as films would then carry their own sound and music.
The weather reduced the chances of hearing a theater organ in live accompaniment. Trey Concilio of the Texas Museum of Theater & Broadcast, which has another complete theater organ in its collection, said the infrastructure needed to repair, maintain and tune the instruments is “a dying craft.”
The organists who can improvise at the console also disappear. Pitts is sad, but philosophical, at the end of the age of the theater organ.
“He had a short life, but an exciting life,” he said.