MILLVILLE — Roland Herzel and Gary Johnson will present their 11th annual Theatre Organ Concert 5 p.m. Sunday at Millville Christian Church, Duncan Road.
The program will cover a variety of styles, from swing to show tunes to Latin numbers to John Philip Sousa. An old-fashioned “ice cream social” follows the program.
Herzel is organist at South Frankfort Presbyterian Church. Johnson is organist and choirmaster at First Presbyterian Church. Both live in Frankfort and are members of the American Guild of Organists.
Theatre organ music has been around a long time and assimilates many different musical styles. It’s a different kind of sound, something you don’t ordinarily hear on a daily basis.
The theatre organ is a unique instrument, quite different from its cousin, the “church” or “Classical” organ. The sound of the theatre organ can’t be replicated by rock bands or keyboard players or folk bands or orchestras — you simply don’t hear anything like it anywhere else.
Most of the arrangements that Herzel and Johnson will play were written years ago, thus capturing the musical styles and practices of an earlier time and preserving them. The concert is like a walk back in time.
Despite its artistic nature, the origin of the theatre organ was a practical matter, invented in England to solve a nagging problem.
In the days before movies had sound tracks, music was provided by live musicians in the theater. Smaller theaters used pianists, and larger houses hired orchestras. But these were expensive and often musicians would fail to show up to play for the performance, thus throwing things into disarray.
The solution to this nagging problem was to create, essentially, a “one-man band.” A standard church organ was modified so its pipes sounded a bit like real orchestral instruments such as the trumpet, flute or violin. The goal was to create a rich variety of timbres, like would be found in a large orchestra.
Also, many percussion instruments were added, such as drums, xylophones, chimes, woodblocks and even thunder sheets, all played by the organist using various buttons, foot pedals and knee levers. Thus, the organist was able to play not only mood music for the movie, but provide appropriate sound effects as well.
So, as a train approached the station on film, the audiences heard the loud sound of a train whistle. The organist would create the sound of thunderstorms, the sense of a busy city street, or the sound of drums to accompany a marching band. And through it all, the full, expressive music coming from the organ pipes filled the theater with a sea of sound. Perhaps, one could even say, a wall of sound.
Audiences of the day were astounded at the result. Never before had they had such an experience at the movies. The theatre organ was a hit.
As time passed and recorded sound tracks on film began to be played over large speaker systems, the theatre organ fell by the wayside. Most of the instruments were simply thrown away, though some have survived. A worldwide movement began some years ago to find, preserve and restore the remaining organs as concert instruments, before they decayed to ruins.
The instrument’s first reincarnation was in glitzy “pizza palaces” across the nation about 40 years ago, and it’s still a growing trend. Theatre organs have become an art unto themselves.
Directions: To find the church, go out U.S. 60 toward Versailles, turn at Cracker Barrel and follow Duncan Road as it winds along, coming to a stop sign at the bottom of a wooded hill. Turn left. The church is a short distance on the left.