Saturday, September 22, 2018

Blisters and ciphers and stops, oh my! The exhilaration of accompanying 'Wings' on the Orpheum's Mighty Wurlitzer in Sioux City, Iowa

'Wings' on the Orpheum's big screen, with tiny me playing the mighty Wurlitzer. (Click to enlarge.) Photo by Dave Gross.

Last weekend I had the privilege of playing an enormous Wurlitzer theatre organ in Sioux City, Iowa. But that's not all!

I also ran 6.2 miles in North Sioux City, South Dakota, thus bagging No. 38 in my quest to run at least 10K in all 50 states.

You can read about that project here.

But about the organ: what a thrill to return to the beautifully restored Orpheum Theatre as part of the Sioux City International Film Festival.

The annual festival is focused on new and emerging filmmakers from all around the world.

But in recent years, they've included a silent film/live music component. This is in part, I gather, because the Orpheum and its Wurlitzer pipe organ are just too special to be left out.

Checking out the Wurlitzer prior to the show.

And I would agree. Not many communities can boast of a restored 1927 movie palace AND a working theatre organ in its original installation.

But the Orpheum can. And one of the reasons for this is a dedicated community of supporters that keeps the organ playable.

As you can imagine, anything with thousands of moving parts all in need of constant calibration is bound to need some regular attention.

This is mind-numbing to me. I mean, I can't keep up with maintaining my lawnmower!

So Sioux City is blessed with some folks who look after the Wurlitzer year in and year out, which enables people such as me to drop into town and play it.

One is Rick Darrow, whose company Darrow Pipe & Organ maintains church organs all over the Midwest.

Rick lives right in Sioux City, and seems to have adopted the Orpheum's Wurlitzer. He and his son Tom maintain it, tune it, and keep it in working order.

You can tell Rick is the organ go-to guy. When I sat down at the console and pulled out one of the "trays" with arrays of control buttons on them, I found a piece of ornate molding painted in gold, with a note addressed to Rick that it was a piece of trim that somehow got loose and fell off a side of the bench.

Rick Darrow at the console of the Orpheum's Mighty Wurlitzer.

Rick was kind enough to show me around the console when I first came out to Sioux City last year. And Tom was on hand last time to pull any ciphers (meaning pipes that get stuck in the open position) and troubleshoot during the performance.

This time around, I came in Sunday prior to the show. Sure enough, a big low D flat in a bass pipe got stuck open. I called Tom and he said he'd be right over, but then Orpheum manager Tim went into the pipe chamber and fixed it. That's a well-loved organ with a lot of people looking out for it!

Inside the Orpheum: the organ and the screen.

And then there's Dave Solberg, a local guy who's played the organ for 63 years and is still going strong. Dave, who knows the Wurlitzer inside out, showed me his custom settings, which I used during the performance.

And how about Irving Jensen, a local businessman and philanthropist whose financial contributions have kept the Orpheum and its Wurlitzer in tip-top shape?

I had the privilege to meet Mr. Jensen, a delightful gentleman who takes great pride in seeing the theater and organ in action, as it was last Sunday.

A hasty selfie threesome of me, Irving Jensen, and Dave Solberg.

For me, last Sunday was a chance to use this wonderful instrument to create live music to accompany 'Wings' (1927), the 2½-hour long winner of 'Best Picture' at the first-ever Academy Awards.

I know the film pretty well, and I've developed some solid musical material to go with it. So I was able to concentrate on what Rick Darrow calls the "orchestration," finding the right stop combos and volume levels and settings, and managing so many other variables to create a satisfying musical score.

A couple of hours isn't enough time to even begin to assimilate everything a big theatre organ can do. But once the film started, I found I was able to anticipate key scenes in 'Wings' and make use of some of the Wurlitzer's capabilities.

I attempt to blend in with Clara Bow and Buddy Rogers.

For instance: in the scenes where it's important that Clara Bow's dress truly sparkles, I was able to set up the solo keyboard (the top of three) so it played all the "tinkly bell" stops such as glockenspiel, etc.

And in the medal-pinning scene, I made use of the Wurlitzer's snare drum effect, which is triggered by a separate foot pedal way off to the right.

Speaking of pedals: I'm still fairly new to playing theatre organ, and so I still have to really think about what my feet are doing down there with all the pedals.

What happened Sunday was surprising: after 2½ hours of continuous playing, plus several hours of warming up, I developed unexpected blisters on the top of my smaller toes on my left foot.

Occupational hazard? I think it was mostly a function of wearing the wrong socks and shoes, and also from not stretching beforehand. Duly noted.

And it wasn't that serious, as after a couple of hours, I was able to get out on the road and run those 6.2 miles.

But the best part of the whole experience was what happened afterwards. Dozens of people, mostly families with kids, came down to the console to learn more about the instrument and ask questions.

And it reminded me how unearthly bizarre and complex an organ console looks like to most people: a cross section between the cockpit of a 747 and a carnival midway. People are genuinely in awe!

A future organist checks out the Wurlitzer.

It's times like these that really bring home to me how privileged I am to be able to work with such a great instrument—a direct physical link to the entertainment era that produced art that has a lot to teach us, now more than ever. I think.

A few brave folks climbed up on the bench to try out the organ, playing impromptu duets and perhaps sparking an interest that might bloom into music lessons or more. And I couldn't be happier.

Another young organist, with me trying not to be too much like Lon Chaney.

Many thanks to Rick Mullin and everyone with the Sioux City International Film Festival for their hospitality, and all the work that made this year's festival a great success.

Hope to see everyone next year!

1 comment:

  1. Such a treat to hear the organ used to its capacity. Hope you can return again. We'll be there.