The line that starts forming outside Richmond’s Byrd Theater well before showtime every Saturday night is hardly an unlikely sight for Washingtonians used to cult films and world premieres. But the Byrd is a second-run movie house, meaning that the films it shows have been out for quite a while.
So what’s the story here?
The answer comes when the crowd, a diverse group of younger folk, old-timers and families, settles into the Byrd’s cavernous auditorium complete with French Empire appointments and an 18-foot chandelier hanging from a central dome.
The house lights dim, and from the depths of the orchestra pit rises the centerpiece of it all, a spotlit theater organ, built especially for this theater back in 1928 and played with aplomb by master organist Bob Gulledge. The crowd cheers. There are even a few “woo-hoos.”
“I love the sound when he plays,” says Blake Butler, 13, from Mechanicsville, Va. “Dad plays the organ in church, but there’s nothing like the Mighty Wurlitzer.”
The Mighty Wurlitzer. The very phrase conjures up images of a largely vanished time, when grand movie palaces dotted downtowns and folks got dressed up to see the show.
Just don’t expect to find any in the District: Our own movie palaces and their organs are long gone. You’ll have to venture farther afield to check out the vintage tones of a Wurlitzer or a Kimball.
But they are there to be heard, whether in solo performances, accompanying a silent film or, as at the Byrd, before a show of “talkies.” And they are all within a two-hour drive of town.
The 1928 Byrd Theater operates 365 days a year, and a glimpse of its elaborate interior alone is enough to make a jaunt to Richmond worth the price of gas. But Saturday nights are special, because that’s when the Wurlitzer wows the crowd before the movie show.
“It’s one of the greatest things in the state of Virginia,” says John Donati of Richmond, who has been coming to the Byrd, along with brother Humbert, since it opened and he was “just a baby.”
During the glory years of the 1920s, just about every downtown theater, along with more than a few neighborhood venues, had its theater organ, capable of reproducing the sounds of a full-scale orchestra and complete with a wide array of sound effects to accompany the show.
Theater owners regularly competed with one another to see who could have the organ with the most keyboards, or manuals, and regularly upped their number of ranks, or sets of pipes. So having a 3/18 organ, meaning one with three manuals and 18 ranks, would be better than having a 2/9.
But the halcyon years were short. Once the movies began to talk, the theater organ largely fell silent.
“In a lot of theaters, owners simply stopped making the payments,” Mr. Gulledge says. “Some organs were repossessed and others were just thrown out.”
Some theaters continued to use their organs for singalongs during intermission and before the show through World War II. The Capitol Theater in downtown Washington was well known for its stage shows, featuring full-pit orchestra and organ accompaniment.
But after the war, as more families made the move to the suburbs and spent their evenings watching television instead of going downtown, even once-grand movie palaces like the Capitol were shuttered, divided, or demolished. By 1963, the Capitol was gone.
There were a few holdouts, like Radio City Music Hall in New York, which continues to wow audiences with its own 4/58 Wurlitzer. But the outlook for the theater organ was grim.
That’s where the American Theater Organ Society comes in. Organized in 1955, the society is committed to the preservation of theater organs and theater organ music worldwide. Today it counts 5,000 members in 60 chapters around the globe. Local chapters frequently refurbish and reinstall theater organs in theaters that have been saved from the wrecking ball.
Fewer than 100 theater organs in the United States remain in their original installations, according to ATOS. The one at the Byrd has been there since the theater’s beginning, thanks in part to its longtime manager, Bob Coulter, who managed the theater from its opening until his retirement in 1971. Longtime organist Eddie Weaver, who died in 1992, continued to draw crowds well into the 1980s.
Most theaters were not so lucky as the Byrd and were stripped of their organs long ago. Most theater organs are reinstallations, with “new” organs resurrected from parts procured by members of a local chapter of the ATOS.
What makes the theater organ special? One thing could be the organ’s signature sound, the kind of sobbing throb produced by the tremulants that are activated by the organist from the console. You won’t find those on a church organ.
“These are the things that give the organ the ability to speak,” says Mr. Gulledge, who fell in love with the sound of the Byrd’s organ when he first heard it played. He was 13 then and had come to the theater to see “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”
“There’s no sound that you’ll ever hear that’s like this,” he says.
And the sound effects are, well, pretty cool, ranging from the distinctive ougah-ougah of a 1920s car horn to a locomotive, to thunder and rain.
There’s even a siren, perfect for those rollicking Mack Sennett chase scenes on those infrequent occasions when the Byrd shows silent movies.
“One organ can replace a whole pit band and then some,” says Mr. Gulledge, who has been driving up to Richmond every Saturday night from his home in Virginia Beach for the last seven years. He’s only missed two Saturdays, when he broke his foot.
The Byrd’s organ is even hooked up to a grand piano. Mr. Gulledge regularly plays it from the console, and the audience regularly applauds the phantom pianist’s solo spots of Joplin, even though there’s no one there to see.
One thing is sure: there’s more to a theater organ than just bells and whistles. Part of that special quality stems from the organ’s connection to the space, Mr. Gulledge says.
“Each organ was designed and scaled for a particular building,” he says. “They were voiced to the particular acoustics of the theater. When they’re moved they never sound the same.”
Luckily for Washingtonians, there are two original-installation organs within easy driving distance of the District. In addition to the Byrd’s 4/17, the Weinberg Center for the Arts in Frederick (formerly the Tivoli) boasts a 2/8 Wurlitzer that has a pretty sweet sound of its own, and is lovingly maintained by a dedicated organ crew.
“It’s a magnificent instrument,” says Ray Brubacher, who will accompany nine silent films at the Weinberg this season, including 1925’s “Phantom of the Opera,” a Halloween special on Oct. 28.
Mr. Brubacher has been a familiar face (or back) to Washington audiences for many years, providing live accompaniment for American Film Institute screenings, at National Gallery shows, and at the Library of Congress’ Mary Pickford Theater, among others.
While it may not be the best town for silent-era movie palaces, the District is a pretty good place for taking in some silent films, although these are usually accompanied by a piano rather than an organ.
This month, the National Gallery will present a series of films starring Mary Pickford, probably America’s first bona fide film star. Miss Pickford’s films will also be shown at the Library of Congress, with Mr. Brubacher accompanying on piano Oct. 20.
But Mr. Brubacher, who became interested in the theater organ as a teenager, will be the first to admit that silent movies often sound better on that instrument.
“There’s no sound like the real sound of a pipe organ,” says Mr. Brubacher, who remembers going down to Washington’s Capitol Theater, before it was demolished, and playing its Wurlitzer. (That organ, incidentally, was saved and is now in a private home in Thurmont, Md.)
As a teenager, Mr. Brubacher started buying copies of silent films on 8 mm and accompanying them on the piano. In 1973, when the American Film Institute at the Kennedy Center began auditioning for an organist to accompany silent films on its electronic organ, Mr. Brubacher decided to try out. He’s still with the AFI today.
“In silent movies, when you had lots of schmaltzy love scenes, you had to have a particular kind of sound,” he says, demonstrating the theater organ’s trademark sobbing throb at the Silver Spring home of fellow organ enthusiast Doug Miller, who has an old movie theater organ installed in his basement.
Sharp-eyed theatergoers may notice that Mr. Brubacher rarely uses music when he plays. Very little music remains from the days of silent film. While big-budget movies could be delivered with a composed score played by the house orchestra, smaller films came only with cue sheets. These suggested particular pieces of music, often popular songs or traditional melodies, that could be played by the pianist or organist to accompany particular scenes. Today, says Mr. Brubacher, nine out of 10 accompanists create the music for the film as they go.
“I go and preview a film two or three times,” he says. “I develop themes and motifs for the principal characters so that there is some consistency in the music and then fill in the rest while I’m playing.”
For a recent screening of the original “Three Musketeers,” starring Douglas Fairbanks, Mr. Brubacher researched French classical music of the 17th and 18th centuries, pulling out themes and assigning them to characters in the film.
But he’s careful never to let his own virtuosity overshadow what is happening on the screen.
“What I play and what is happening on the screen has to have cohesiveness,” he says. “I’ve tried to be careful never to let the music get in the way of the film.”
The fact that Mr. Brubacher and other theater organists are able to do all that they do is a tribute to not just their talent but to a dedicated cadre of craftsmen who scour the country in search of parts and scurry up ladders and rickety steps. Frequently, they’ll have to cobble together parts of different organs, so the resulting instrument may have pipes from one company and the console from another.
“We’re real lucky at the Weinberg,” Mr. Brubacher says. “We’ve got an extremely dedicated crew of volunteers.”
Many organ enthusiasts belong to local chapters of the ATOS. Up in York, Pa., the Susquehanna Valley Theater Organ Society, an ATOS chapter, has been busy restoring a three-manual, 20-rank organ for the newly refurbished Capitol Theater, part of the downtown Capitol-Strand Performing Arts Complex. The result is an instrument that organists love to play.
“It’s a brilliant instrument. It does all the things I ask it to do,” says Ken Double, a nationally known organist who crisscrosses the country playing theater organ concerts — and may be familiar to hockey fans as the voice of the Houston Aeros of the American Hockey League.
Like all theater organists, Mr. Double uses the features of the organ to make his task easier. The horseshoe shape of the console allows for easy access, and a series of pistons, or buttons underneath the manuals, allows the organist to preset favored combinations of pipes. Watch the hands and feet of any theater organist and you’ll see that they are all acting completely independently of one another.
“If it has got a melody, it will play on a theater organ,” says Mr. Double, who prides himself on the fact that unlike many theater organists, he’s never had a piano lesson. Instead, he took lessons from Al Melgard, staff organist at the old Chicago Stadium.
Mr. Double is on the younger side of many theater organ enthusiasts. At the Free State Theater Organ Society in Catonsville, Md., many of the members are retired — and that gives them more time to work on the thing they love best.
“We’ve got a tremendous organization,” says Peter D’Anna, Free State’s current program chairman, who was among the group’s founders when they started back in 1984. Today, the group boasts about 250 members.
On the campus of the Spring Grove Hospital Center, 10 to 15 members of the society work on the pieces and parts of the various organs they have laid out in one of the cottages.
They hope to create a 3/18 organ from the 2/8 1922 Robert Morton/Wicks organ they have installed in the Rice Auditorium nearby, which is home to their Sunday afternoon organ recitals.
“People know us, so they’ll play for no fee,” Mr. D’Anna says of the guest organists, who often travel a considerable distance to play.
Because in the end, there’s something about a theater organ that’s more than the sum of its parts. Maybe that’s why the crowd back at the Byrd seems reluctant to vanish into the night, even after the last credits have rolled on the second movie show.
“It’s such a wonderful place,” says Libby Dearsley, a Richmonder who has been coming to the Byrd with her husband Stephen for “years and years.”
“And having the organ here makes it such a rousing experience. It really gets everybody in sync with everybody else, no matter who you come with.”
Where to hear theater organs
Looking for a theater organ performance? Don’t wait too long. Theater organs, and the theaters they come in, can be expensive propositions, so there’s no guarantee that even a respected grande dame like Richmond’s Byrd will be able to keep up with the costs of maintenance. Here’s a guide to what’s out there now.
Byrd Theater: 2908 West Cary St., Richmond. The theater is in the trendy Carytown neighborhood of antique stores, craft shops and independent coffeehouses. Recent movies are shown nightly with matinees on Saturday and Sunday. Organist Bob Gulledge plays the organ Saturday nights for 15 to 20 minutes before the shows at 7:15 and 9:30 p.m. Admission is $1.99 for everyone. 804/353-9911 or www.byrdtheatre.com
Weinberg Center for the Arts: 20 West Patrick St., Frederick. October is a great month for silent movies at the Weinberg, with Ray Brubacher at the Wurlitzer for them all. Call 301/228-2828 or see www.weinbergcenter.org and click on “Movies.”
“Peter Pan” (1925), 8 p.m. Oct. 14. $6 adults, $4 everyone else.
“Phantom of the Opera” (1925), 8 p.m. Oct. 28. $9 adults, $7 others, largely because this Lon Chaney masterpiece is double-billed with the 1974 talkie “Young Frankenstein.”
Buster Keaton silent double feature: “The Cameraman” (1928) and “Spite Marriage” (1929). 8 p.m. Nov. 18. $9 adults, $7 others.
Strand Capitol Performing Arts Complex: 50 N. George St., York, Pa., presents “Spooky Tunes,” on Sunday, Oct. 30, at 2 p.m., featuring the 1922 classic silent film “Nosferatu” and organist Don Kinnier. All tickets $12. Dec. 4 features “A Family Christmas” celebration with organist Rudy Lucente. Call 717-846-111 or visit the web at www.strandcapitol.org
Free State Theatre Organ Society: Sunday afternoon theater organ concerts at several venues. See www.geocities.com/fstos1984.
Rice Auditorium, Spring Grove Hospital Center, 55 Wade Ave., Catonsville. 3 p.m. Oct. 16. George Batman performs on the Robert Morgan/Wicks organ originally installed in the Metropolitan Theater in Baltimore. Free.
Strand Capitol Performing Arts Complex: 50 N. George St., York, Pa., 3 p.m. Nov. 13. Organist Bob Lachin performs at a joint meeting of the Free State Theatre Organ Society and the Susquehanna Valley Theatre Organ Society. Free.
Rice Auditorium, Catonsville. 3 p.m. Dec. 11. Concert on the Robert Morgan/Wicks theater organ by local favorite Bobby Raye. Free.
Dickinson Theatre Organ Society: Dickinson High School Auditorium, 1801 Milltown Rd., Wilmington, Del. Nationally known theater organists perform on DTOS’ 3/66 Kimball organ, billed as the world’s fourth largest theater pipe organ. Call 302/995-2603 or see www.geocities.com/dtoskimball.
Annual Fall Open House: 2 p.m. Oct. 16. Concert by Delaware Valley favorite Don Kinnier, “guided tours” of the instrument, silent film comedy with theater organ accompaniment, refreshments and “open console” (a chance for anyone to step up and play the organ). Admission free.
British organist Robert Wolfe: 8 p.m. Nov. 5 at 8 p.m. Tickets $10 at the door.