Niche Celebrities: Musicians For Silent Film A number of old Art Deco movie palaces across the country still feature live organ performances 30 to 60 minutes before film screenings. Some theaters occasionally feature old silent films with an organist playing his own composition as a soundtrack underneath. These musicians have an enthusiastic following and become celebrities — although most people only see the back of their heads.
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Niche Celebrities: Musicians For Silent Film

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Niche Celebrities: Musicians For Silent Film

Niche Celebrities: Musicians For Silent Film

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This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Many historic movie theaters were shuttered in the 1950s with the growing popularity of television. Elaborate pipe organs that provided the live music for silent films were put into storage. But in pockets around the country, especially Northern California, historical architects have now restored a number of these movie houses to their original design and reinstalled the organs. One of the most popular brands was the Mighty Wurlitzer. Reporter April Dembosky introduces us to one Wurlitzer and its proud performer.

(Soundbite of the Mighty Wurlitzer)

APRIL DEMBOSKY: Jim Riggs is an anonymous celebrity.

Mr. JIM RIGGS (Organist, The Mighty Wurlitzer): I've played for, I don't know, over a million people in the Bay Area the last 20 something years, but they don't know what my face looks like.

DEMBOSKY: His most regular gig is playing for movie audiences 30 minutes before show time at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, California. His ruddy complexion, bowtie, and loafers give him the look of a high school history teacher, but his many fans know him only by the back of his head.

Mr. RIGGS: It kind of goes with the territory. Matter of fact, years ago I took a Craigslist personal ad out, and it went something like, ever wondered who that organist playing at the Paramount or the Castro Theater, what he's like? Because you never see his face. And it went on like that. Actually, I got a couple of nice responses too.

DEMBOSKY: Riggs plays the Mighty Wurlitzer organ, which has more than 1,800 pipes, four keyboards, 244 keys, and 32 foot pedals.

Mr. RIGGS: I can't tell you how many times I've heard, that looks like the cockpit of a 747.

(Soundbite of the Mighty Wurlitzer)

Mr. RIGGS: There's a celesta, there's a glockenspiel, two xylophones.

(Soundbite of Wurlitzer xylophone sound effect)

Mr. RIGGS: The drums, the cymbals, tambourines, castanets.

(Soundbite of Wurlitzer castanets sound effect)

Mr. RIGGS: And then there are silent film sound effects - things like horses' hooves.

(Soundbite of Wurlitzer horse's hooves sound effect)

Mr. RIGGS: There's a surf effect or a crash cymbal.

(Soundbite of Wurlitzer cymbals sound effect)

DEMBOSKY: The sounds don't come out anywhere near the keyboard. Riggs shows me to the secret room where the music is actually made - the organ chamber. The chamber is a story above the stage overlooking the seats, which means we have to climb a narrow iron ladder to get there.

Mr. RIGGS: I hope you're not afraid of heights.

DEMBOSKY: Wow. It looks like a room in Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, with very elaborate, very shiny plumbing. The pipes go from being as short as a pencil to as tall as a house. When Riggs plays the key on the organ console marked English horn, this is where the sound comes out.

(Soundbite of Wurlitzer English horn sound effect)

DEMBOSKY: There's the xylophone, the glockenspiel, and the sleigh bells.

(Soundbite of Wurlitzer sleigh bells sound effect)

Mr. RIGGS: Great for playing jingle bells.

DEMBOSKY: Riggs' love affair with the organ began when he was in middle school. His class went on a field trip to see a local woman who had installed a Mighty Wurlitzer in her home.

Mr. RIGGS: Now, I'd seen pipe organs in church.

(Soundbite of the Mighty Wurlitzer)

Mr. RIGGS: And, you know, ho hum.

(Soundbite of the Mighty Wurlitzer)

Mr. RIGGS: And she sat at the console, slapped a whole bunch of stuff(ph) down and started playing.

(Soundbite of the Mighty Wurlitzer)

Mr. RIGGS: I had tears coming down my face - 13-year-old kid.

(Soundbite of the Mighty Wurlitzer)

DEMBOSKY: Riggs became the resident organist at the Paramount when his predecessor, known as Rosie, died 20 years ago. The theater staff believe Rosie's spirit lives on in his brown tweed jacket hanging on a lamp backstage.

Mr. RIGGS: She keeps watch over the joint.

DEMBOSKY: Riggs says the jacket brings good luck to the theater, so no one touches it. Rosie's glasses and his orange peeler are still in the pockets. For NPR News, I'm April Dembosky.

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