return to Journal index

return to home page

The following article was published in "The Complete Organ Recitalist", ed. Herbert Westerby, London, 1927, pp. 347-354

New York and the Cinema

 

By T. SCOTT BUHRMAN ,

 

Editor of The American Organist.

 

It would be hazardous to guess the exact date, some decades ago, when the news gradually filtered through music channels that an organ had been installed in an up-town theater, and that an organist of considerable local fame was playing it. At any rate the average organist determined that he must go and see this thing - and undoubtedly, like myself, never did.

Somewhere along the 'teens of the 20th century, Mr. RALPH BRIGHAM made himself locally famous by his beautiful music in the Strand Theater, on Broadwav, New York, where he played a large Austin - one of the early three-manual organs of quality supplied for theater trade. As I remember it, he was successful chiefly for the beautiful pianissimo background which he supplied for the pictures, going into fortes only for moments of relief and into fortissimos only for climaxes.

That established, in my opinion, the attitude theater organists had to adopt to be artistically successful - though to be commercially so, they often had to make all the noise they could, else their managers would not feel they were getting their money's worth of their organs and organists. Anything that would make dollars come in was all right to them.

In the church the attitude is for churchly decorum - established by centuries of church history. In the theater the urge is for laughter and applause, with both eyes on the gate receipts. In America the essential thing has been - ever since the good Britishers, our forefathers, came here - to attend first the absolute necessities of existence; things aesthetic and artistic had to wait. Americans, at their best, are only Britishers transplanted and facing different conditions. The British church organist to-day who comes to America brings with him British traditions of church music; and he applies them, too, just as long as he deems them worthy.

In the theater it is the American who has the traditions behind him, and the Britisher who has nothing. That is, playing the organ in a moving picture theater has been done in America, lo, these weary 20th century years, while in Great Britain it flourishes not even to-day as it did in America fifteen years ago. Therefore,in undertaking to explain theater organ playing to our British brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers, I realise I am, in their eyes, rather endeavouring to exonerate than explain.

I shall skip two decades and begin with the end of 1926. We find in our largest theater,

THE CAPITOL,

on Broadway, New York City - and to that city I largely confine my remarks - a truly magnificent organ of four manuals, and 52 stops augmented from 37 registers (actual ranks of pipes), with 2,356 pipes, built by the Estey Organ Company. It is as good a church organ as it is a theater instrument; there are no traps, though there is some percussion work - harp and chimes. Tonally, it is a work of art. I deal with the Capitol because I consider it as near the ideal as has thus far been obtained - organs, organists, and managers being as they are.

When the Capitol was first opened it suffered the usual crime of prolonged forte and fortissimo from the organ - the sweetest voice on earth becomes a torment if it remains loud for minutes upon minutes. There were frequent changes of organists, and fluctuations in artistrv. Then the manager discovered a church organist whom he liked personally, and offered him this most coveted Broadway post. The church organist knew he couldn't do it, and declined. But theater managers get what they want. Dr. Melchiorre Mauro-Cottone accepted, and disgraced himself for an apprenticeship of several years until he gradually matured into a supreme photo-playing artist.

 

DR. MAURO-COTTONE.

Dr. Mauro-Cottone, of Italian birth, is to-day a supreme theater artist; when we hear Dr. Mauro-Cottone we hear music that is beautiful, that is always appropriate, music that never offends. His playing now is a background of pianissimo, broken only by an occasional forte for relief, and a fortissimo now and then for climax. He plays no compositions formally, but uses anything and everything he wants, drawing it not from the printed sheet, but from his copious memory, using as many pages or as few measures as he likes, moulding one piece into another by the aid of his fine musicianship and his ability to improvise by the hour; I doubt if he improvises strictly his own music for more than a few minutes at a time, just as I doubt if he plays one composition or theme for more than a few minutes at a time. His is the perfect school of fitting organ music to pictures - providing you have a tremendous memory, the ability to improvise entertainingly by the hour, and a liking for the job that never deserts you.

 

MR. FIRMIN SWINNEN.

Before Dr. Mauro-Cottone became an artist, Mr. Firmin Swinnen was one.

The war drove him out of his cathedral in Belgium, and after playing many recitals in Great Britain for war charities, he landed in America, and within a few weeks was seated at the Console of the fine, but poorly-placed, Austin organ in the Rialto Theater - at that time the most popular in all New York. From a Belgian cathedral to a moving picture theater is some jump - many would say, some drop. He dabbled for a while, but very early found himself and created an art of his own. He was transferred to the Rivoli, a few blocks farther north, and there made himself famous. His method was improvisation by the hour, day, week, month, and year - any amount, in any style. Now and then he would descend to a page or two from some printed piece the general music director of the theaters thought would make a good theme for the hero or heroine. Mr. Swinnen never tired either himself or his audience. He was not picturesque and reposeful, like Dr. Mauro-Cottone is. He was happy, melodic, rhythmic, care-free, he improvised his little Chinoiserie (published by Fischer) as a sudden inspiration in the midst of a scene; the next time he enlarged it, and by the end of the week - picture programmes run one week in the big Broadway houses - he was playing Chinoiserie pretty much as the printed score has it. That was his style to perfection: not music for the text-book, but music for the heart - and for the feet, for he was always rhythmic.

It was Mr. Swinnell who played the organ solo part in the concerto version Mr. Frank Stewart Adams made for the opening Allegro of Widor's Fifth Symphony, and brought down such a storm of applause that he had to take the spot six times before the show could go on. Few men can improvise musically interesting caprices, scherzos, toccatas, and gavottes by the hour. , Mr. Swinnen has no imitators. Now he has retired from the theater and is Concert organist at the great Du Pont estate.

 

MR. J. VAN CLEFT COOPER.

Mr. J. Van Cleft Cooper was associated with Mr. Swinnen at the Rivoli during his days of fame. Mr. Cooper played many pieces from memory, mingled them with quite liberal improvisations, used a keen sense of comedy and the dramatic to put over many stunts at the console to emphasize those on the screen. He too has left, as the policy of the house has changed from get-the-money to don't-educate-anybody. To be sure, they are both about the same; the latter is but slightly worse. It was Mr. Cooper's invention to fit with music in two keys a screen situation where a dance orchestra in the ballroom was intruded upon from the outside by the little German street-band of brass. If that sounds easy,a reader might try playing "God Save the King" in the key of F with the right hand while playing "Annie Laurie" in D with the left. Mr. Cooper had a keen sense of humour that never deserted him till the foreign invasion wrecked Broadway and filled the theater with gum-chewing tabloid digesters. That killed the ardour of most of us.

 

MR. FRANK STEWART ADAMS.

Mr. Frank Stewart Adams remains, at the present writing, as a stalwart rock in a weary waste of nothingness. He is a master musician, and is blessed also with a sense of the dramatic, - as well as of the ironic and the comic. In so far as musicianly music dare be introduced into the subnormal atmosphere of a Broadway theater, Mr. Adams will likely be introducing it. He has resigned times without number - and been inveigled back into harness again. He uses pieces of music, largely from the printed score, and is a master of the art of joining one to the other without damage to either, nor betraying the process to his audience. While one of our most scholarly players, he can master the stunt tricks as well, and has on occasion devised also novelties of his own, wherein he played with the organ for the sole purpose of making an audience laugh.

 

MR. JOHN PRIEST.

Mr. John Priest, an Englishman if ever there was one, worked for years on Broadway and achieved artistic success only when he acquired the truly beautiful Skinner organ of four manuals, 67 stops, and 2,157 pipes, in the new but only would-be beautiful Colony Theater, where the orchestra was placed on an elevator and the Console on another, so that either or both could be elevated for solo work and sunk out of sight for picture accompanying.

What is artistic picture playing ? I define it as a beautiful background of beautiful music, unobtrusive, not existing for its own sake but as the mate of the screen story, not descending to a depth equal to that reached by the average, money-made and money-mad picture, but eternally maintaining an atmosphere of simple beauty, and at no moment at variance with the mood of the story the screen is telling or trying to tell.

Wagner knew how to make music to fit moods and actions, and so did Puccini. So do many Composers known to us all. Their respective styles are as different as their personalities, just as the music of our best theater organists has its individuality, its personality. A theater organist must set about his task just as Wagner did, excepting that whereas Wagner would have been a thief had he borrowed tunes from other composers, the theater organist will be foolish if he fails to do so, largely for the reason that not one man in fifty thousand has sufficient creative ability to invent on the spur of the moment music interesting enough to carry a two-hour screen story to its conclusion. A theater organist's task is easier also in that he has no master; the text-book and its rules do not apply to him - if he is to retain his job. Such liberty is inspiration in truth - for those not past being inspired.

 

THE ORGANISTIC TRICKSTER.

Thus far I have dealt with real organists. We have something new in America, the organistic trickster. Mr. C. SHARPE MINOR - who can account for his own name, it's too theatrical for me to take as genuine [Note by Ian McIver - it was his real name: he was christened Charles Sharpe (after his mother' maiden name) Minor, and known in the "trade" as Charlie Minor] - was the first organistic trickster to attain fame and be credited with five hundred dollars a week salary. His method is to invent a story that can be understood by children not over seven, have an "artist" draw or invent slides that can throw still pictures and words to the screen, and then play the organ while this is going on.

Mr. Minor has a melodic gift beyond Compare, a sense of rhythm, no organ traditions to kill him, and nerve enough to go through with anything. He has made thousands giggle - which is all the box-office wants. I detest the degraded un-American type of theater audience that has made Mr. Minor's game profitable, but I tremendously admire his melodic and rhythmic gifts. I've heard him play a simple ditty with as much artistry as a Paderewski packs into a Beethoven Sonata - it is not musicianly artistry, but musical artistry. I hope the distinction is clear. The musicianly appeals to you and me after we have studied music for twenty years. The musical appeals to our butcher and baker and automobile-maker who haven't studied music ten seconds and don't intend to.

 

MR. HENRY B. MURTAGH.

Mr. Minor has gone - touring, as usual, opening new organs for the builder who has adopted him - and in his place we have Mr. Henry B. Murtagh for the moment, who represents California's school of theater organists - and California is where most of our pictures are made. Mr. Murtagh started as a sincere musician, I believe, but is now discovering that a musical jokester makes more money, and he is giving delight to thousands. In his way he is the supreme artist, even better than Mr. Minor. There is a suavity, good humour, sincerity, and appeal to his work before the audience that has won for him the admiration of the tabloid readers without sacrificing the respectful admiration of those musicians who are not too envious of theater organists to see the motives that actuate them and sympathise with the restrictions that bind them - restrictions that instantly kill the theater career of any organist who violates them.

My British readers can have but little sympathy with any man who calls a theater organist an artist; indeed many American organists have no comprehension of the artistry back of successful theater organ work. This is an attempt to contribute something in behalf of the American organist who has found starvation in serving the church no more to his liking than the drudgery of teaching Lizzie and Percy to play the C major scale at fifty cents an hour.

Theater organs have spread. On Broadway we have between 40th Street and 53rd Street - about half a mile - the following organs:

Three-manual - 22 stops.

Three-manual - 38 stops.

Three-manual - size not given.

Three-manual - 49 stops.

Three-manual - 15 registers, probably augmented to 70 or 80 stops.

Four-manual - 67 stops.

Four-manual - 52 stops.

Four-manual - 126 stops.

Four-manual - 29 registers, probably augmented to 120 or 150 stops.

This is New York's famous theater district; there is probably no other half-mile anywhere in the world with so many organs. Three of them are truly fine instruments in every way, and I have not the slightest hesitancy to record this appraisal of them. The Loew circuit of theaters has about 75 organs in its houses, and employs very nearly 200 organists. The Capitol at the moment has three organists on its staff.

 

SALARIES IN NEW YORK.

Salaries in New York Citv have reached about a 150 dollars as top price for a week's work, with but a very few getting that much; the upper average is about 80 or 90 dollars a week for the larger houses, including perhaps two or three dozen men and women attaining it, the smaller houses with two or three changes of programme each week, or daily changes, pay from 40 to 50 dollars a week.

All work seven days a week, and there are rarely any vacations in the summer with pay. Does the dollar mark make a British appeal? I hope not. While the average manager in an American theater doesn't know good theater music from the long meter Doxology, still he is a peculiar breed, and it takes about all the average quick-witted American can do to keep on good terms with him; I doubt if any British organist would or could be happy in an American theater, even if he were allowed to stay at the job for a month.

The rest of America ?  Los Angeles, on the Pacific coast, and Chicago on the Great Lakes, pay larger salaries than New York. Yet I doubt if there are a dozen organists in either place Who would not come to New York if they could get a coveted Broadway theater to play in, salary or no salary. These two leading cities, Chicago and Los Angeles, have developed the trickster style to its limit; New York organists cannot understand it, nor praise it-any more than these others can understand or praise the theater style of the New York musicians.

Theater organs in the smaller towns, where the managers are likely to be Americans now and then, have a great opportunity for good. Whether they are capable of meeting the opportunity is a question. Churches as a rule have little or no objections to their organist's accepting also a theater post, especially if he does not play in the theater on Sunday. In New York the churches do not much care what happens to their organists on Sundays or any other days.

 

THE THEATER TYPE OF ORGAN. .

There is a type of organ built especially for theaters. Its distinctive features are noise, exaggerated tone colours, an excess of traps all the way from the firegong to the bird-whistle - thunder, drums of all kinds, wind hissings, sleigh-bells, horses' hoofs, perfect imitations of falling rain, and anything else a theater manager can ask for in his moments of delirium. But it would seem that the only essentials of the theater organ are that it shall be equipped with anything and everything in the way of beautiful and satisfying tone, whether organ or imitative-orchestral, and that every pipe in the whole instrument be enclosed so as to be at least capable of that degree of expressiveness we commonly call crescendo. It ought to be enlightening to remember that our finest artist, Dr. Mauro-Cottone, gets everything he wants from an organ entirely without traps of any kind. Mr. Firmin Swinnen has proved that he can secure from pipe-work alone all the imitative noises and stunts he needs - and that goes even so far as to produce a perfect imitation of thunder, hissing wind, and falling raindrops. How he does it is his own secret. Once it was worth money to him; now he is not using it at all.

 

THE FUTURE.

The future? We are gradually growing better. Jazz and simple tunes played entrancingly, or at least captivatingly, on the organ will displace the rather disgusting trickster stuff we now hear. After that it will be an easy transition to better and better music - but always in an entertaining mood. Please understand that no intelligent musician criticises the theater organist because he has to play rubbish on the organ and dare not use his opportunity for cultural advantage even one minute of his long day. One chain of theaters has it as a standing policy that the slightest hint at educational or cultural effort in its music, either from orchestra or organ, is intolerable and will result in the immediate dismissal of the conductor or organist "perpetrating" it. This is not fiction - it is fact. But we musicians of America do not blame our theater musicians for that. It is for every man to decide how he shall earn his living, and we believe it is just as honest to play ditties on the organ in a theater as it is to sell sugar over a grocery counter, in each case the purchaser is getting the thing he wants, something sweet, something intelligible and desirable. The blame is placed, not on the musician, but on the condition - and that will right itself in time. If it fails to right itself, then we shall discover that it already was right, and our opinions wrong; history has proved that wrong cannot forever exist in this fair world of ours.

Fugues and choral preludes have no more right in the theater than a toe-dance has in the choir-loft, and the musician Who condemns the theater organist because he refuses to play fugues and choral preludes is hopelessly under-intelligenced.

It has indeed been difficult for that soberest of professionals, the church organist, to find that he has feet to dance with, lips to smile with, a heart to be merry with. Let us give him unbounded admiration for the effort he is making to constitute himself a theater organist, and thus thwart the disaster of the transplanted pianist who would - and always does, when given the chance - use the organ only for rooster-crows, cat-and-dog fights, and peanut whistle effects.

One of the best signs of the future is the Society of Theater Organists, first founded in New York. This institution holds academic and practical examinations to test the capability of those who aspire to be theater organists.

 

Further reading:

Readers might like to note that a biography of Firmin Swinnen (1885-1972) by Jon Spong was published in The Diapason, December, 1999, pages 16-17. [Ian McIver]

return to Journal index

return to home page

This page brought to you by:
VintageHammond.Com - We Buy-Sell-Trade Vintage Hammond Organs and Roll or Kari Organ/Vending Machine Moving Dollies Order Roll or Kari Dollies Here