A Wurlitzer Apart

How cool would it be if a film lover could go back in time and experience the golden days of the silent screen? Just imagine a trip to an ornate '20s-era movie palace to enjoy the latest Clara Bow or Buster Keaton classic on the big screen accompanied, best of all, by the thunderous sounds of the mighty Wurlitzer theater organ. Well, that fantasy has become a reality right in the heart of downtown Phoenix. The Orpheum Theatre is kicking off the second season of Silent Sundays with a rare showing of the original 1925 dinosaur epic The Lost World.

Providing the music on the beautifully restored 1920s-era organ is Ron Rhode. A theater organist for nearly 30 years, Rhode has called Arizona home since the early '70s. He is fondly remembered locally as the organist at the Organ Stop Pizza restaurants, and his work on huge theater organs has taken him around the globe. A past recipient of Theater Organist of the Year as awarded by The American Theater Organ Society, he has performed on virtually all of the world's existing grand Wurlitzers.

I asked Rhode about the source of the scores for the films. "I use a majority of original material compiled for the film accompaniment," he said. "Occasionally I will use a classical theme or portion of something familiar that fits a particular mood or action in the film. There are many original score sheets still in existence which list the themes to be used for each character or scene of the movie. I have some in my personal library, and I know other theater organists that have found the cue sheets and have preserved them as well."

The Orpheum's instrument is an amazing thing to see and hear. I wondered how it found its way here. "The organ installed in the theater is largely what we today call a 'parts' organ," Rhode said. "It didn't exist in a prior installation as a complete instrument from one place. All of its major parts are Wurlitzer. A large number of its ranks of pipes are from the Radio City Center Theatre in New York City. The majority of the parts in the organ date from 1928 to 1930."

Film fans will have four chances this season to enjoy restored classics as they were meant to be seen. The Lost World brings dinosaurs to London in an adventure that paved the way for hundreds of later creature features. This flick was a special-effects budget buster, one of the most expensive films of its time.

Next month will bring 1927's It, starring Clara Bow and Gary Cooper in the movie that defined the flapper era's fads and fashions. Come February, it's time for Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr. This 1928 comedy features a Jackie Chan-worthy death-defying ending involving a hurricane and cyclonic winds. Wrapping up the series in March is the 1922 version of Oliver Twist with Lon Chaney as the arch villain Fagin being just beastly to little Jackie Coogan in the title role, about 40 years before he grew up to become TV's Uncle Fester.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
David Gofstein