Imagine a time when going to the movies was an all-day affair with no color picture and no sound. Doesn't sound like much fun, right? You sat in the theater for 3 or 4 hours at a time, the movie was in black and white, and the actors were mute! Was there complete silence in the room while the movie played? No, not exactly. If you were at a cheap theater in a small town, someone would probably play a piano in the theater to provide a live soundtrack to the film. In a big, fancy theater in a large city, a live orchestra would accompany the movie. But in theaters across America, moviegoers enjoyed the sound of a live theater pipe organ, an instrument most people today have never even heard of.
So what's the difference between a theater pipe organ and say, a modern church organ? Well for starters, many church organs today aren't pipe organs. They're electronic organs. They mimic the sound of a pipe organ, but they're really hi-tech synthesizers with good amplification systems behind them. A traditional pipe organ uses the keyboard to trigger the blowing of air through pipes of varying sizes to create different tones. A good theater organ goes a step further and provides sound effects along with music. This is achieved with actual props that make familiar noises. At my high school, we were lucky enough to have a restored theater organ in the auditorium. That organ has drums, cymbals, whistles, bells, and even an authentic horn from a Ford Model T. The result is a novel and unparalleled moviegoing experience.
Today I actually visited the alma mater for a screening of the 1925 silent classic The Phantom of the Opera. The event was sponsored by the New York Theater Organ Society (NYTOS), a state-wide chapter of the American Theater Organ Society. Just as it would have in 1925, the program opened with a short comedy film. In this case, it was Laurel & Hardy's "Habeas Corpus." I'm a big fan of Laurel & Hardy, but I'd actually never seen any of their silent work. I'm happy to say it was as hysterical as any of their talkies. Then after a word from the organist, the feature presentation began.
I saw Phantom for the first time a few months ago, and I enjoyed the film quite a bit, but there's nothing quite like live organ accompaniment. It was a unique experience indeed. I've been to a number of other NYTOS events, but this was by far the best. I was transported back to 1925. The music kept me totally in the moment. If you ever have a chance to experience a theater organ, absolutely do it. The wide array of available sounds makes a theater organ a one-man orchestra.
Even without the benefit of a film, a theater organ can tell a story in sound. Don't believe me? Listen to the mp3 embedded in this post . I recorded it at my high school during a demonstration a few years back. I love it because it really shows how you can get the feel for a story from the music alone. Imagine adding a silent film into the mix, and you've got yourself a pretty awesome afternoon of entertainment!