Performance on historic pipe organ to accompany silent film
by Jennifer Cohron
Oct 20, 2013 | 869 views | 0 0 comments | 128 128 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Alabama Theatre’s Mighty Wurlitzer is among only 17 organs of its kind that were produced and one of only three that is still in its original location. The organ has been in the theatre since its opening in 1927. Photo Special to the Eagle
The Alabama Theatre’s Mighty Wurlitzer is among only 17 organs of its kind that were produced and one of only three that is still in its original location. The organ has been in the theatre since its opening in 1927. Photo Special to the Eagle
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Good music and classic movies only get better with age.

Audience members at the Alabama Theatre will be treated to both on Sunday, Oct. 27, when the Alabama chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society presents “The Phantom of the Opera.”

The 1925 silent horror film stars Lon Chaney as the Phantom.

Noted organist, composer and arranger Tom Helms will be performing an original score on the theatre’s Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Pipe Organ.

There will also be a costume contest that will begin at 2 p.m.

Tickets for the afternoon showing are $14 for adults and $7 for children 12 and under.

Proceeds from the event are used for the restoration and maintenance of the Mighty Wurlitzer. Nicknamed Big Bertha, the organ has been with the theatre since its 1927 opening.

The Wurlitzer, a Publix I model, is among only 17 of its kind that were produced and one of only three that is still in its original location.

According to the ATOS website, the annual presentation of “The Phantom of the Opera” dates back to 1976.

“The best compliment we get every year — and I never get tired of hearing it — is that after about two minutes into the film, people forget that it’s a silent film. His (Helms) score is so professionally done and imaginative that it tricks your mind,” said local ATOS president Gary Jones.

In addition to furthering public appreciation of the theatre pipe organ through the screening of silent films, members of the local ATOS chapter are also responsible for keeping the Mighty Wurlitzer in working order.

Among those who have fallen under the organ’s spell is Butch Pair, a Carbon Hill native who was an organist in his church in his youth and now serves as vice president of ATOS.

“I stumbled upon ‘The Phantom of the Opera,’ and going to hear the organ play for the first time is what drew me to the chapter,” Pair said.

Both the theatre and its organ might have been lost several decades ago if not for the intervention of ATOS.

Hailed as the “Showplace of the South” when Paramount Pictures opened the movie house in 1927, the Alabama Theatre’s days of hosting capacity crowds of 2,000 plus were long since forgotten by the late 1970s. In order to make a profit, a series of new owners diminished the theatre’s luster with dollar admissions, arcade machines in the lobby and a 20-week run of “Animal House,” according to the ATOS website.

The Mighty Wurlitzer survived the transition to “talkies” in the 1930s thanks to local radio broadcasts featuring theatre organ music and the Saturday morning Mickey Mouse Club.

According to the Alabama Theatre website, its Mickey Mouse Club was the largest in the world in 1935 with a membership of more than 7,000.

From 1937 to 1956, popular house organist Stanleigh Malotte drew almost as many people to the Alabama Theatre as the feature films.

“Back then, they would start at 10 a.m. and run until midnight. They were doing back to back shows, and you had 2,200 folks to empty out and 2,200 folks to seat. So the organ was used in between shows for sing-alongs, solo instrumental work and things like that,” Jones said.

The Alabama Theatre closed in 1981.

Local members of ATOS had been repairing the Mighty Wurlitzer since 1973 and were allowed to continue doing so until 1986, when the theatre owners were forced to declare bankruptcy.

The Alabama chapter of ATOS raised $196,000 to save the theatre and formed a new nonprofit, Birmingham Landmarks Inc., which now owns the building.

The Alabama Theatre underwent a complete restoration in 1998. The theatre now hosts special screenings of classic films, as well as performances by the Alabama Symphony Orchestra and Alabama Ballet.

With the nonprofit operating the theatre, local members of ATOS have reverted to their original role of preserving the Mighty Wurlitzer.

The group gathers each Saturday to go through the long maintenance checklist that has been developed for the organ.

“As these 85 years have passed, its pieces and parts must get rebuilt. That’s why I would have to say that she probably sounds better today than she ever has because of the care and the maintenance that go into it,” Jones said.

Jones estimated that the cost of the labor to be between $25,000 and $50,000 a year. However, ATOS chapter members work on a volunteer basis because of their love for the instrument as well as the theatre.

“Those two go hand in hand. The building without the organ would be just another pretty building. The organ without the building would never sound as great as it does. One without the other is nothing, but the sum of the two is greater than the parts. It’s a magical experience,” Jones said.

Tickets for the Oct. 27 show are available through Ticketmaster.