Artscape
6:03 am
Sun April 10, 2011

The Mighty Wurlitzer organ stars at Paramount Theatre's "Silent Movie Mondays"

Each winter and spring, the Paramount Theatre in Seattle hosts a silent movie series on Monday nights.
This month’s classic films showcase New York City and it also features one of Buster Keaton’s best works.

But the star attraction isn’t what’s on screen. It’s the instrument making the music.

The Paramount’s Mighty Wurlitzer organ is one of the last three of its kind in the world still housed in its original theatrical home.

And when it's played, there's nothing else that sounds quite like it.

"It’s a sound that completely surrounds you," says organist Jim Riggs. "It’s one of the things that's charming about these instruments. It's a sound that seems to come from all around the auditorium and audiences still respond to that some 80 years after it’s been put in."

A "star" musician for the star organ

Riggs is a rock star in the organ world; one of the best anywhere and the Paramount has flown him to Seattle from Wichita to host its silent movie theater series.

Silent movies have always had soundtracks. The scores used to be shipped to theaters along with the films but unfortunately, like the theaters, not many of the scores survived.

So Riggs actually improvises the soundtracks, watching the movie overhead, playing the four keyboards – five if you count the foot pedals – on the organ console that sits on the stage.

An ornate instrument for a glamorous, glitzy Paramount Theatre

In the 1920s, Seattle had more than 40 glamorous movie theaters like the Paramount. They were architectural marvels, mirroring the glamour of Versailles.

Inside every theater stood a pipe organ, purchased because it could replicate the sound of a full orchestra – but it cost a lot less than paying for live musicians for each show.

Now the Paramount, still glitzy after a major renovation in 1994, is one of the city’s last historic movie houses. And it’s the only one with its original pipe organ still in place.

When it debuted, the Mighty Wurlitzer was an electro-mechanical wonder, says Tom Blackwell. He helps lead the Puget Sound Theater Organ Society, a group of volunteers who’ve been restoring and maintaining the Wurlitzer for nearly 50 years.

"This was the hi-tech of its time when it was produced," Blackwell says. "Each note involves a chain reaction, from somebody pressing a key to the wind actually coming out of the pipe. And there’s probably 20 moving intervening moving parts."

The Paramount’s organ features 1,376 pipes, which can be seen if you're willing to literally climb inside the theater's walls.

To do that, you go backstage; squat through a small door; and climb a 40-foot ladder. You end up eye-level with the chandelier.

The organ console usually slumbers underneath the stage. But on this night, it's been pulled out and prepped for Riggs, who says silent movie music is all about setting a mood and enhancing what's on screen. You're not actually supposed to notice the organ is actually there.

But that's impossible. Sit in the balcony -- front row -- on Silent Movie Mondays -- and try not noticing the Mighty Wurlitzer.

Trader Joe's "Silent Movie Mondays" continues through April. The series is also held at the Paramount each winter.