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Truly Organic Movie Music

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by Leonard Maltin
October 17, 2012 3:27 PM
4 Comments
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Rob Richards

If you go to see Frankenweenie at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood this month you’ll be treated to a pre-movie concert by Rob Richards on the Mighty Wurlitzer organ. I always enjoy these serenades, but I believe Rob has outdone himself with his wide-ranging Halloween medley—which received multiple rounds of applause from the audience on the Saturday morning I was present. I daresay it’s the only time you’ll hear Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” and Vic Mizzy’s theme from The Ghost and Mr. Chicken in the same performance.

Like the best practitioners in this field, Rob is a showman as well as a musician. If you’ve never heard him in person, it’s worth a trip to the El Capitan. He’ll be playing for Frankenweenie and then The Nightmare Before Christmas at most weekend shows. For more information about the El Capitan schedule, click HERE. And if you’d like to read more about Rob, or purchase one of his CDs, click HERE.

I’ve always enjoyed the sound of a theater organ, and I look forward to any opportunity when a master of the instrument like Dennis James accompanies a great silent film. But having recently read Ross Melnick's informative book American Showman, about movie theater impresario Roxy Rothafel, I realized that I’ve never listened to some of the great musicians who worked under his aegis and set the standard for this kind of music.

Pioneers-281

That’s when I purchased a wonderful two-CD set called Pioneers of the Theatre Organ: Vintage Recordings 1926-1940, produced by Jim Bedoian on his Take Two Records label. Here are some of the early masters at their best, including two who worked closely with Roxy, Jesse Crawford and Lew White. Other tracks feature Eddie Dunstedter, Milton Charles, Reginald Foort, Sidney Torch, Dick Leibert (who presided at Radio City Music Hall for more than forty years) and the great stride pianist Fats Waller.

If you’re in the habit of downloading music rather than buying physical CDs these days, you’ll miss out on the highly informative liner notes written by Ron Musselman of the Journal of the American Theatre Organ Society. And while you’re at it, do check out Jim Bedoian’s other releases, a cornucopia of material for anyone who loves music of the 1920s and 30s. (Some years ago, I had the pleasure of writing notes for Jim’s excellent Cliff Edwards CD collection.)

About four years ago, Rob Richards gave me a backstage tour at the El Capitan so I could see the formidable inner workings of his Wurlitzer organ. He provided the caption information for my photos, which I present in the following gallery. Enjoy!

Rob Richards' Wurlitzer at the El Capitan

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    Rob Richards' Wurlitzer

    The tall wooden pipes are the bottom end of the huge pedal Wood Diaphones. The lowest/tallest pipe is over thirty feet long! These have been nicknamed the "Thunder pipes" as they are installed unenclosed on a shelf backstage. They really shake the whole building! Robert Hope-Jones, the eccentric English genius who invented the theatre organ, also created many of its unique sounds (called "ranks" or "stops" in the organ). A version of his Diaphone remains in use today, although it has a less musical use: as an air operated foghorn!
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    Rob Richards' Wurlitzer

    The second photograph is the blower which supplies the wind for the organ. Looking not unlike a small steam locomotive, it has a huge 50 horsepower motor. Within the black cast iron housing are a series of large fan blades which deliver high pressure wind.
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    Rob Richards' Wurlitzer

    The third photo is one of the four organ chambers, the Orchestral division, located on the audience (upper) right. The pipes in the foreground are the low end of the English Horn. The tall pipes on the right are the low end of the Strings. These imitate the sound of bowed orchestral strings in the pedal.
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4 Comments

  • Maggie M. | October 19, 2012 9:40 PMReply

    We are sooooo looking forward to hearing El Capitan's "truly organic movie music" played by this master musician. There is nothing quite like a theatre organ. Here in Santa Barbara, thanks to the local ATOS chapter, Metropolitan Theatres Corporation of Los Angeles, the generosity of many businesses, private citizens, charitable foundations and organizations, and especially the late David Bisol, who managed our beautiful Arlington Theatre during its' restoration, we have a Wonder Morton that is loved and cherished by the community. After we attend the Arlington's upcoming organ-accompanied silent "Phantom of the Opera", my family and I are looking forward to visiting the El Capitan. We don't care what movie's playing - we're just coming for the architecture and the organ concert!

  • Norm | October 18, 2012 2:35 AMReply

    Don not forget the inimitable Stan Kann who worked his magic on the Mighty Wurlitzer and was a Master of the Art...

  • Danny McCollum | October 17, 2012 10:00 PMReply

    Rob I awesome! He is the one that got me into the Theatre Organ, Disney found the Perfect Organist, his music is pure magic!!!!!

  • Stephen Worth | October 17, 2012 6:20 PMReply

    He's a nice guy as well as a great theater organist.

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