Thursday, October 30, 2008

Holy Hollywood Habits

Watching former movie star Mother Dolores Hart being interviewed on the Catholic channel, it came to me that there was another well known film star who caused quite a stir when she traded her Hollywood habits for a nun's habit. I can't pull the name out of my memory.
Seems like she might be deceased. Have I gone totally senile or did this really happen? Help!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Buster and the Barton

Harry Heuser, whose Broadcastellan is a beautifully written and researched journal dedicated to "keeping up with the out-of-date" asks me to share a bit about my experience accompanying Buster Keaton's silent films at the annual Keaton Society Convention that's held in my town every Fall. First off, I'm a second or third rate piano player with no organ training and little justification for ever playing a theater pipe organ in public. So why did I do it for three or four years back in the 90's? That's easy. It's all about a total fascination with the instrument. I was involved in the local group that has restored the 1929 Barton Pipe Organ in our downtown theater in several stages over many decades. Over on the right, that's organ technician extraordinaire Jim Fles, tearing the Mighty Barton limb from limb, wire from wire. Could he possibly know where all those wires go? Not only did he get it back together but he added lots of new sounds to the original eight ranks (sets) of pipes. Most fortunately, there are many such groups and gifted technicians around the country and the world, lovingly rebuilding the old organs that escaped the wrecking ball. And there's a surprising number of brilliant young organists who have fallen in love with the theatrical style, generally attributed to Jesse Crawford, that came and went away long before they were born. In the photo below is Jim on the left, showing off his reborn baby. On the right is the late Stan Stone, who spent a lifetime servicing pipe organs.
Dan Barton, whose firm installed their organs in many theaters here in Michigan and around the country, was a circus musician. He loved the brightly painted circus wagons and when he went into the pipe organ business, he wanted his instruments to be as much fun to look at as they were to listen to. The red and gold console like ours is called the circus wagon model.

I wanted to show off the organ as best I could, letting newer generations experience the silent films as their grandparents did, accompanied by an instrument that was designed for that very purpose.
Not blessed with the musicianship or technique to actually compose a score to go with the films as many of the professionals did, I just watched the picture and improvised noise to go with the action. I got away with it pretty well, playing bits of old songs that the various scenes brought to mind. When a pretty maid came into view I might use "A Pretty girl is Like a melody" or maybe "Pretty Baby." One of the films had some restaurant scenes so I played "Let's have another cup of coffee, let's have another cup of tea" and "A cup of coffee, a sandwich and you." For the Keaton film, "The Cameraman," I composed sort of a poor man's score, weaving "You oughta be in pictures" into the accompaniment. For a scene where Buster was singing the old "Prisoner's Song ...If I had the wings of an angel," I played right along with him as he mouthed the words. I always wondered if there were any old timers in the audience who recognized those old tunes. When the villain appeared, I just played some scary minor chords and progressions down at the low end of the keyboard. Harry Heuser's high class journal, too good to be just a blog, and my middle class organ playing do have a thing or two in common. They are entertaining and they come from love.
Whatever my playing lacked, it was entertaining, and that's what the theater organ is for. It does not edify as in a church or concert hall. It weeps and wails for pathos, makes outrageously cute and funny sounds for comedy. It has horns and sirens, bells, whistles, xylophones, drums, all kinds of sound effects, all played from the massive console. The British fellow who invented the theater organ called it a unit orchestra ... a whole orchestra in one unit, playable with the fingers and feet of one very busy organist. I didn't get paid for the three or four years I made all that more or less musical noise, maybe because I let it slip that I would probably pay them just to be able to sit at the huge console. It looks like the cockpit of a jet plane, surrounded by three keyboards and countless knobs, buttons, levers, switches, things to push, pull and flip. And down below there's a keyboard to play with my feet for the low, low notes, plus some more big buttons, called pistons, down there to turn on some of the sound effects. The theater pipe organ might be the most complex, demanding musical instrument ever built. To play it well, you would need extensive, concert level training plus an understanding of registration. That's organ language for knowing what to do wih all those gadgets to coax the various sounds out of all the hundreds of pipes and assorted noise makers at your command. If you have the opportunity to watch a good professional theater organist's hands, as you can find on some you tubes, you will see him constantly pushing buttons and flipping tablets, changing the sound with almost every measure, jumping to one of the other keyboards for a few notes or a sound effect, playing on one keyboard while setting up sounds on another one. It is a demanding mental and physical exercise that is fascinating to watch. Any good keyboard artist can play the notes, but only a real theater organist can make the instrument sound like a whole orchestra and more. At the console for this year's Keaton convention was Chicago organist, Dennis Scott. He is president of the Chicagoland Theatre Organ Society and the Silent Film Society of Chicago. Of the big name organists who have played our Barton, I found Gaylord Carter, who played the "Amos 'n Andy" theme music on radio, to be the most entertaining. For beauty of registration, getting gorgeous sounds out of the then small instrument, my vote goes to Lee Irwin. He was one of the radio organists on WLW's legendary "Moon River" program.

Because they are so complex, pipe organs are notoriously temperamental. Pipes refuse to play while others might sound off all by themselves with no keys being pressed. When that happens, a good organist just plays around the offending squawker, playing notes that fit pretty well with it, until someone runs up to the pipe room and fixes it. One of my more memorable moments happened when the blower that supplies the air to the pipes died. No air, no sound. A woman from the audience wrote in her small town newspaper, "The show was very entertaining until Mr. Martin's organ lost its air." There's no business like show business.

Elvis's co-star now a nun

Former movie star Dolores Hart, who played opposite Elvis in 3 films, now a Reverend Mother, Prioress of an abbey, will be interviewed by Father Groeschel Sunday night Oct. 26 on the EWTN Catholic network. Should be most interesting. If you miss it, they repeat it on the following Saturday. I will probably have something to say about it on my "religious" blog, Goofy Church Stuff.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Buster Keaton Lives

The Damfinos, the International Buster Keaton Society, came to my town again this fall for their annual convention. The Keaton family had a lakefront Summer home in an actors colony here in the 1920's. Here I am with Eleanor Keaton, Buster's widow on the left and Adrian Booth, his co-star in one of the classic Keaton silent films that I accompanied on the Barton Theater Pipe Organ on the right. The photos were taken in the mid 90's.

Eleanor was much younger than Buster, but they had 26 good and loving years together. Buster died in 1966 and Eleanor was with us until 1998. At my last report, Adrian Booth was still alive at 90.

Photos courtesy of dear friend, show business afficiando and friend of the stars Al Flogge