Theatre Organ Concert Aug. 12


MILLVILLE – Millville Christian Church will host the 10th annual Theatre Organ Concert on Sunday, Aug. 12 beginning at 4 p.m. The concert is free.

Organists Roland Herzel and Gary Johnson will once again play the church’s electronic “theatre organ,” featuring music written specifically for theatre organ concerts, based on a style used in the early 20th century to accompany silent films. From this practical application of music for movies came a series of composed works intended to be played as stand-alone concert pieces, rather than as simply movie accompaniments.

Silent films were often provided with an improvised musical accompaniment, usually a piano in smaller theaters. Larger theaters hired small orchestras, but the costs proved to be excessive. In addition, the musicians were somewhat fickle, sometimes being absent for a performance and hurting the sound of the orchestra, or demanding more pay at show time. Thus, theater owners were in the market for a better solution to the orchestra and all its pitfalls.

Robert Hope-Jones, in England, came up with the perfect answer, though it didn’t seem at first to make a lot of sense: a pipe organ. People thought of pipe organs as “belonging” in a church, with a staid and stalwart sound suitable for congregational singing or choir accompaniment.

But using a pipe organ to accompany a movie? No one had seriously considered it.

Hope-Jones built a highly modified church organ, with pipes voiced to sound more like an orchestra than a Bach organ.

He beefed up the wind pressure to create thunderous bass and trumpets, added traditional orchestral instruments such as oboes, violins, trombones and French horns, and installed special devices to create a “vibrato,” to make these instruments sound more natural.


He also invented a brand new type of organ pipe with a tone similar to a flute, but with a more aggressive edge. The “Tibia” has become the basic pipe for a theatre organ, and gives the instrument its classic “theatre organ” sound.

Theatre organs also feature a host of percussion instruments such as bass drum, snare, xylophone, maracas and so on, all fully playable from the organ console using special knobs and buttons for the hands, feet and even the organist’s knees.

Most organs destined for highly visible locations in large theaters and stadiums were built with a flashy custom console with lots of gold and filigree to really stand out in a crowd.  The result was literally a “one-man band” and people were mesmerized. (Later on, Hope-Jones’ company was merged with the firm that epitomizes the theatre organ: Wurlitzer.)


Theatre owners quickly took to the idea. Instead of having to pay an entire orchestra and putting up with 20 temperamental musicians, the theater owner now had to pay just one organist. Although initial costs of installing the organ were high, the theater owner could now count on having an exciting, full orchestral sound for his each showing of his silent films, thus keeping his patrons well satisfied, returning to the theater regularly and keeping the seats filled.

Just imagine the majesty of hearing the theatre organist play a very loud, powerful trumpet fanfare with drum roll and crashing cymbals, shaking the room, at the beginning of the chariot race in the 1925 silent version of “Ben Hur.” Audiences had never heard anything like it before at the movies, and they loved it.

And they loved the theatre organists as well, who became celebrities in their own right. Indeed, several major theatre organists became as famous as the Hollywood movie stars in the films they played. This whole “theatre organ” business was quite a sensation.

After soundtracks on film ended the era of silent movies, the theatre organ also fell out of favor, and many were disassembled and removed from the theaters across America.


However, some of the composers and arrangers such as Jesse Crawford and Bill Irwin turned to the theatre organ with a new eye, that is, as a concert instrument in its own right, instead of an accompaniment for films.

Crawford toured the world, concertizing on theatre pipe organs as well as the new electronic version of the theatre organ invented by the Hammond Organ Company. He sometimes toured with his wife, also an excellent organist, and “The Crawfords” played numerous duets to the delight of audiences everywhere. They aptly demonstrated that the theatre organ could indeed stand on its own as a concert instrument.

This year’s concert will primarily feature duets, after the manner of “The Crawfords,” with Roland and Gary both seated at the console. This allows a much richer texture in the music, to produce even more of the full orchestral sound.

The selections are concert arrangements that were put together by internationally-known theatre organist Bill Irwin who was one of the great concert theatre organists of the 1940s through the 1970s, and all of these compositions are as challenging for the organist as they are enjoyable for the listener.

Irwin is still alive and well today, although he doesn’t concertize anymore. However, last year he supplied Gary with several of his volumes of compositions and arrangements, and they will be put to good use for the organ concert at Millville this year. This is literally a blast from the past!


A couple of weeks ago, Herzel and Johnson presented a program of organ duets at the Kentucky Theater on Main Street in Lexington. The old pipe organ that was used for many years in the early 20th century was discovered some years ago, still tucked away behind the stage, and is currently being restored so that it can be once again used in the theater.

Several organists from Lexington and Frankfort voluntarily perform “pre-show concerts” before the Wednesday Classic Movie summer series. They play a temporary electronic instrument.

An interesting tradition at the Kentucky Theater is the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home” just before the movie begins, with all the moviegoers joining in, and led by the organ. This tradition began in 1922. We all look forward to the day when the “theatre” pipe organ will once again sound at the Kentucky Theater.


Following the concert at Millville Christian, the church members will host an old-fashioned Ice Cream Social, where you can meet the organists, and share the warmth and hospitality of the good folks at Millville.

“These folks are just wonderful,” said Johnson, “and Roland and I are very grateful to them for hosting this concert for the past decade. Dr. Ray Holdren is their pastor, and he is very enthusiastic and supportive about this concert series.”

DIRECTIONS: The church is located on McCracken Pike in Millville. Turn at Cracker Barrel off Versailles Road and proceed to the bottom of the hill. Turn left there and the church is a quarter mile on the left.

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