The unique sound of theatre organs

Special to The State Journal Published:

MILLVILLE — The music of the theatre organ will once again sound in the valley by Glenn’s Creek as organists Roland Herzel and Gary Johnson present their 13th annual Theatre Organ Concert beginning at 4 p.m. Aug. 10 at Millville Christian Church.

This year once again features the music of the 1930s-60s, including show tunes, movie themes, popular songs and instrumental pieces. Herzel and Johnson will play individual pieces, consisting of selections by Gershwin, Stephen Sondheim, Victor Herbert, Burt Bacharach and Bill Irwin.

They will also play a duet on the organ as well as several pieces by Leroy Anderson, who was for many years the composer-in-residence for the Boston Pops Orchestra under Arthur Fiedler.

The theatre organ is well-suited for these short, light concert pieces, and can easily produce the myriad of sound effects required for them. Anderson’s pieces are recognized by millions of people worldwide. Probably his most famous composition is “Blue Tango,” the first instrumental recording to sell more than 1 million copies.

Another famous piece is “Sleigh Ride.” Herzel and Johnson will play several, including “The Typewriter” and “Plink, Plank, Plunk.” The latter was used for years as the theme song for the 1950s TV game show “I’ve Got a Secret.”

The organ was given to the church in 2001 by Herzel’s late mother, Nanette Herzel. She was the organist at Millville Christian for many years, until her death in 2010, and her gift to the church is still alive and well and making music.

Percussionist Charlie Kendell will once again join in to provide drums and other instrumental accompaniment, adding to the authentic sound of a theatre organ.

Organ history
The theatre organ was invented by an Englishman, Robert Hope-Jones, to fulfill a practical need. In the days of silent movies, small theatres would hire a pianist to provide musical background during the show. But larger theatres needed more sound, and usually featured orchestras.

However, the instrumentalists were often temperamental and difficult to work with.

Sometimes individual players would not show up for a performance and leave the orchestra short-handed. Other times, the orchestra might refuse to play until the theatre owner agreed to give them a pay raise.

Hope-Jones created a solution for this problem by designing a pipe organ that mimicked the sound of an orchestra. Unlike the concert organs of the day, which were designed to play the music of Bach, Handel and other classical composers, this new organ was designed to play popular music in the movie houses.

Although the initial cost was high, theatre owners soon embraced the idea since the instrument could be played by just one person instead of a host of sometimes temperamental musicians.

Eventually, the theatre organists themselves became famous for their music. Jesse Crawford, probably the most well known of them all, became as famous as many of the movie stars of the day. Soon theatre organists found themselves playing concerts for their admiring crowds.

With the advent of soundtracks for movies, the days of the theatre organ were numbered, and the instruments had virtually disappeared by the 1950s. As of late there has been a revival of interest in the theatre organ, with Herzel and Johnson a part of that.

After the concert, the church will host an old-fashioned ice cream social. The public is invited.

If you go …
To reach the church, proceed east on Versailles Road. After passing the I-64 overpass turn right onto Duncan Road. Follow the road 1.5 miles to the bottom of the hill where Duncan Road ends at a stop sign. Turn left onto McCracken Pike and the church is on the left.   

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