Three Halloweens ago, Tempe's Valley Art Theatre hosted a screening of Universal's 1925 horror classic The Phantom of the Opera, with live-organ accompaniment. On the night before Halloween this year, the admirable experiment is being repeated on a grander scale. Organist Rob Richards, who played the Valley Art show on a small electric organ, will accompany Phantom at Orpheum Theatre, as a way of showing off the newest addition to that venue's repertoire of resources: a newly restored vintage Wurlitzer theater pipe organ.
The show is a benefit to raise dough for the ongoing organ-restoration project by the Valley of the Sun Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society, an organization which pursues the preservation of the "theater organ tradition" with a zeal usually reserved for the conquering of diseases. They pieced the new Wurlitzer together out of parts harvested from a variety of, er, donor organs around the country.
According to local ATOS honcho Don Reasor, the almost 60-year-old console comes from the old Paramount Theatre in Middletown, New York. Additional parts were cannibalized from far and wide--the "Main Tibia Clausa and Open Diapason" and the "Flute Celeste/Concert Flute" are from the Fox Theatres in Tucson and Phoenix, respectively; the "10 hp Spencer blower" comes from the Saeger Theatre in New Orleans; two "Aeloian-Skinner Violes" originated in the Tabernacle organ in Salt Lake City; the "Austin Horn Diapason and Principal" are from the Los Angeles Philharmonic Hall organ; and 14 "Wurlitzer Ranks" are from no less a hall than Radio City Roxy Theatre. What all of this means, I've no idea, but it suggests that the Orpheum's new baby has a fine pedigree.
Reasor says that such elaborate organs were marketed to theater owners in the later years of the silent era as a method of downsizing--they were called "unit orchestras" and used to replace the small pit orchestras once employed by the theaters with a single musician. In a typical modern-technology twist, however, even that one musician is no longer always strictly necessary. "One new feature of this instrument," he says, "is that a soloist's performance can be fed right into a computer hard drive and played back with nobody at the keyboard. That way when schoolkids are touring the theater, the docents can say, 'Okay, kids, here's what it sounds like.'"
A retired American Airlines employee, Reasor isn't an organist himself. "I'm a professional listener," he says. His ears finally received the payoff of his labors a few weeks ago when he at last heard the Wurlitzer's tones reverberating within the walls of the Orpheum. "It sort of brings tears to your eyes, after having dreamed about it for so long."
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At 41, Rob Richards, the man who will sit down to play Halloween Eve, is a mere whippersnapper by theater-organist standards. A graduate of Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, Richards lives in Studio City, California, where he's trying to break into film scoring, but travels the country to play a theater-organ event about once a month.
"Phantom is one of the most requested silents," Richards says. "My accompaniment is semi-improvised. I use a theme for each of the characters and for major pivot points in the action, and for the rest I have to see how I'm inspired. It may be music I've written or music from the classics. I don't use the D minor Toccata for Phantom, though, because it's a bit of a cliche."
A slight disappointment, that. Hasn't hearing the Phantom rumble out those great, somber Bach tones passed out of the realm of cliche and into the realm of obligatory archetype? Even so, the prospect of seeing Phantom at Orpheum Theatre, with live-organ accompaniment, is enough to make either a cinephile or a music lover drool. If you've never seen the peerless mime of Lon Chaney in the title role--one of the most extraordinary pieces of acting ever captured on film--it's hard to imagine a more atmospheric way to initiate yourself, or your kids. The price is right, too: $8.50 for adults, $5 for kids under 11. Kids under 3 go free.
The Phantom of the Opera:
Directed by Rupert Julian; with Lon Chaney.