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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

Silent Movies

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, July 31, 2016

One of the interesting aspects of working in a public library is the follow-up to information requests that are received by the library over the years, and new information you learn from your work.


It is said that librarians know “a whole lot of stuff” about many things, but aren’t experts in any particular thing.


Several years ago, our library system fielded questions regarding the “theater pipe organs” that once were part of the theaters in Steubenville.


The former Capitol Theater’s Robert Morton organ now resides in Tulsa, and the former Paramount Theater’s Wurlitzer organ is now in Virginia.  We gathered information for both owners to use in their current installations.


The Tulsa folks still send me occasional information about the former Steubenville organ, and its use in a community college auditorium there.


I happened to notice that the Ohio Theatre in Columbus, a 1928 former Loew’s movie palace that has been restored to a Performing Arts Center, was doing a silent movie presentation of the 1927 Fox Pictures film, “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” starring George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor.


My real interest was that their original Robert Morton “Mighty Morton” theater pipe organ would provide the sound and music for the silent movie.


What an opportunity to see and hear the 1927 film in an old movie palace!  Since my son lives in Columbus, I was able to talk him into accompanying me to the event.


I had to explain to him that silent movies existed from 1894 to 1929 and contained no spoken dialogue.  Instead facial expressions, gestures, and written cards are used, accompanied by a pianist, organist, or small orchestra.


All of this changed with the invention of the amplifier and Vitaphone system, and “talkies” emerged to become the movie format of today.


For a short period of time, several companies manufactured theater pipe organs with a variety of sounds to replace the expensive orchestras.  Over 7,000 such organs occupied theaters in America, with only 40 still occupying their original locations today.


The Spanish-Baroque interior of the Ohio Theatre is difficult to describe.  It is beautiful, some would say gaudy; but was meant to be an “experience” for movie-goers in 1928.


I told my son that we had to “get there early” so we could sit close to the stage, as I wanted to experience the “Mighty Morton” organ right up front.


Fifteen minutes before show time, the house lights dimmed and the massive stage curtains were raised, and parted the screen as the organ began ascending from its “pit” below the stage blasting 1920 show tunes that caused the floor to vibrate.


When the mini-concert ended, the organist provided a wonderful history of the theater, and an overview of the silent movie to be shown, as well as a description of how it was filmed in 1927.


The Ohio Theatre was saved from demolition by one day in 1969 after being purchased by the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts.


For the movie accompaniment, the organ was played by East Liverpool native Clark Wilson, who has been the Ohio Theatre’s organist for the past 25 years.


He re-wrote the music based on an early Vitaphone recording, and it was a perfect match for the movie.


Every aspect of the “Mighty Morton” was utilized during the 95 minute presentation, from car horns to church bells, as well as a variety of musical scores.


The sound emerged into the 2,800 seat theater from the two sound chambers, and at times literally shook the building.


I kept thinking that I was experiencing this silent movie in the same way people did in 1928 in this grand movie palace.


The scene was complete with a row of classic cars parked in front of the theater on State Street.


My son’s thoughts?  I guess he enjoyed it.  I explained that I was born long after the “silent movie” era; I had only heard my grandmother talk about the days of going to silent movies before the talkies arrived.


Perhaps someday we will be able to experience the same here in our Grand Theater.