A few years ago, I started to regularly watch The Lawrence Welk Show, at 6 p.m. on Saturdays on Channel 56. Something about it really appealed to me, and I was curious where this new enthusiasm came from.
Then it struck me that it probably came from my many hours of listening to high quality performances of classic tunes on the Redford Theatre Barton organ in the company of an appreciative audience. The beautiful melodies of the Welk show have often enhanced the afterglow of a Saturday matinee at the Redford, or have warmed me up for a Saturday evening performance.
At an organ concert/silent film accompaniment on April 25, 2009, I once again thought about the similarities of the music presentations of the Redford and the Welk show. The spotlight on John Lauter intensified the feeling of the event, the same way that a TV closeup gives special recognition to soloists on the Welk show. The echoes of the Barton organ made me feel like I was in a time machine as I felt more deeply the warmth of the old favorites that John was belting out.
The main event of the evening was the showing of the 1927 silent film My Best Girl, starring Mary Pickford. John wrote most of the score for the film, except for some excerpts from the famous theater organist Lee Erwin. John paid a heartfelt tribute to Lee Erwin, just as Lawrence Welk did earlier that evening with Irving Berlin on a 1978 show that was a salute to the composer of There’s No Business Like Show Business and God Bless America.
John opened the evening with several songs from the 1920s era, including George Gershwin’s Sweet and Lowdown, The Wedding of the Painted Doll (familiar to fans of the Redford movie favorite Singin’ in the Rain), and Al Jolson’s Toot, Toot, Tootsie! (Goodbye).
His musical skills came in particularly handy towards the end of My Best Girl, when a technical problem caused the film to be stopped for a few minutes. John kept playing, in the silent movie style, and any annoyance with the technical glitch was quickly replaced with the realization that you were still listening to beautiful organ music in a lovingly restored old movie theater.
Several times, John spoke with the Redford crowd about the music he was playing. He connected with the audience in the same friendly, familiar way that Welk always did with his live audience and TV fans, with humor and a sincere appreciation for the music.
Both the Redford and Michigan Theater have a group of organists that bring their two Barton theater organs to life. A special personal touch of visiting these theaters is seeing enthusiastic fans gather around organists either at the Barton or in a lobby, where the fans thank the organists with strong praise or ask them questions about the instrument or their manner of playing.
It’s a family feeling, much like the emotions you feel during the interviews that Welk show veteran Mary Lou Metzger conducts with old Welk stars after repeats of classic shows. I once heard singer Ralna English talk about how Lawrence Welk worked “from the heart”—a perfect description of how our Detroit Movie Palace organists bring pleasure to thousands of movie and theater organ fans.
If one actor or actress could be credited with creating the star power of the movie business that helped build the Redford, it might be Mary Pickford. Redford visitors had the special privilege to see “America’s Sweetheart” at both the beginning and end of her silent film career, when her popularity was at its peak.
The earliest film, They Would Elope (1909), was presented courtesy of the Library of Congress and guest host Christel Schmidt, an LC employee who has written extensively about Mary Pickford. Schmidt promoted the Library of Congress book Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture (written by Peter Kobel), which was on sale in the outer lobby of the Redford.
Schmidt was generous in her praise of the Redford Theatre and its volunteer staff. She reminded the audience how lucky it was to have a theater like the Redford that showed silent films. There’s always a nice extra kick of satisfaction from the validation of an outside expert like Schmidt. As I listened to her speak, I also thought back to an enjoyable weekend in April 1996 when the Detroit Film Theatre hosted the National Film Registry Tour of the Library of Congress, which included classic American movies from the 1920s to the 1980s.
Schmidt spoke about the significance of Mary Pickford in movie history, especially her skill for business that made her phenomenally wealthy and helped her found the United Artists studio along with D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and her husband Douglas Fairbanks.
It was intriguing to see two different screen images of Mary Pickford, 18 years apart. The big screen of the Redford helped show how the basics of Pickford’s appeal were there from the beginning—the expressive eyes and smile; the careful balance of gentleness, wholesomeness, and humor; and the spunk and spirit that paid off well for her both on and off screen.
The Detroit Movie Palaces have helped me better appreciate Pickford, along with many other famous silent movie stars. In recent years, the Detroit Film Theatre has shown Pickford in Daddy Long Legs (1919) and the Michigan Theater has shown the 1929 Pickford/Fairbanks talkie The Taming of the Shrew. The Redford’s showing of My Best Girl was extra significant in that this movie was Pickford’s last silent movie and one of her most critically acclaimed.
When I got home from the Redford, I went through my usual ritual of digging through my different movie books to see what others thought of that day’s movie. In The Story of Cinema (1982), David Shipman called My Best Girl an “almost perfect romantic comedy, a good example of the Pickford and Fairbanks films, co-operative efforts not factory-packaged.”
So ended another happy Redford evening, which also included a newsreel of old images of Detroit. Thank you, Redford Theatre and Christel Schmidt, for helping us movie fans better appreciate and relive movie history.
Copyright © 2009 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.