One Of Last Movie Theater Organs Pipes On

Seattle has one of the country's few working movie theater organs. Jim Riggs plays the theater's Wurlitzer organ while silent movies are screened. Recently he performed during a screening of 1927's Wings, the only silent film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. The Academy Awards will be handed out this weekend. With the silent film, "The Artist," in the running for Best Picture, we're looking back today to the days of the mighty Wurlitzer organ.

We're going to an old movie palace in Seattle, the Paramount Theater. Inside is one of the country's few surviving and working Wurlitzers. It was built in 1927 when the theater was built and the man who plays it there for the occasional silent movie revival is going to play us all the bells and whistles.

JIM RIGGS: My name is Jim Riggs. I play the Wurlitzer pipe organ and my signature tune is "Paramount On Parade," the old theme from the Paramount newsreels. Theater pipe organs in their original form are the most complex musical instrument ever devised.

We have a nice clarinet.

(SOUNDBITE OF WURLITZER ORGAN)

RIGGS: We have a trumpet.

(SOUNDBITE OF WURLITZER ORGAN)

RIGGS: A couple of beautiful, big flute-type sounds we call Tibia Clausas and they're kind of the heart of the sound of the theater organ.

(SOUNDBITE OF WURLITZER ORGAN)

RIGGS: And those are all organ pipes, windblown organ pipes. All the sounds you hear out of this organ are acoustic. You won't find one amplifier or speaker anywhere involved.

(SOUNDBITE OF WURLITZER ORGAN)

RIGGS: This organ has an actual upright piano up in the chambers.

(SOUNDBITE OF WURLITZER PIANO)

RIGGS: If I want a military band, I select the snare drum and crash cymbals here on the pedal.

(SOUNDBITE OF WURLITZER ORGAN)

RIGGS: We have both castanets and tambourines.

(SOUNDBITE OF WURLITZER ORGAN)

RIGGS: Those are actual sleigh bells actuated pneumatically by air-driven bellows.

(SOUNDBITE OF WURLITZER ORGAN)

RIGGS: There are a lot of sayings that we use that come from an organ. I mean, all the bells and whistles. That's because of these things. The phrase, pulling out all the stops, that's from church and concert organs. It was actually cheaper for a theater owner to buy - spend a lot of money on one of these organs and employ just a few organists than it was to employ a huge, full pit band.

(SOUNDBITE OF WURLITZER ORGAN)

RIGGS: That sort of sound absolutely knocked people's socks off back then.

(SOUNDBITE OF WURLITZER ORGAN)

RIGGS: All these silent films, they were never, ever filmed silent. They all came with scores, most all of them. Those scores are very rare. Very few of them survived today, so you have to either cobble up a score or make one up. I call it a highly prepared improvisation. And the key is to know the picture really, really well. Knowing when somebody's going to get slapped or kissed or take a pratfall or when there's dramatic tension.

Having learned the picture, then I compose short themes for the major characters.

(SOUNDBITE OF WURLITZER ORGAN)

RIGGS: The problems, the joys, the tragedies and the things that make you laugh - that hasn't changed one bit. Human frailty will never change. Human drama will never change. The setting and the trappings – yes, they will continue to evolve, but as with films nowadays, in the silent era, the story was the thing and how they tell the story is one of the richest parts of silent cinema. All the little camera tricks, the acting tricks, whatnot, that you see today in movie making, they were all originated during the silent era and to study it is a true education in the cinematic language.

(SOUNDBITE OF WURLITZER ORGAN)

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

BLOCK: Organist Jim Riggs at the Paramount Theater in Seattle. He told his story to independent producer Jake Warga, who produced the story.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: