Forty Years of Musical Magic

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“We have survived for 40 years, and we’re still going strong!”  David Martin’s announcement from the stage of the Redford Theatre on Sept. 22, 2007 was met with a strong burst of applause, on this evening when the Motor City Theatre Organ Society celebrated 40 years of organ concerts at the Redford.

To honor the occasion, organist John Lauter accompanied the 1920 silent movie The Mark of Zorro, the same film that was screened on that opening night in 1967 when the Barton Theatre Pipe Organ came back to life after three years of restoration work.

John opened the show with ”The Perfect Song,” which was the very first song played at the 1967 show by Gaylord Carter (who had made that tune famous as the theme of the Amos ’n’ Andy radio show).  The Redford’s web site timeline includes a photo and more information about this fun event, which was held about 40 years after the theater opened in 1928.

To get everyone in the 1967 mood, John played a medley of pop songs from that year, including “Happy Together,” “Windy,” ”Alfie,” ”Don’t Sleep in the Subway,” and “Up, Up and Away.” John mentioned that he lived five blocks from the Redford in 1967, when it was a neighborhood movie house showing such films as The Graduate.

Silent Movie Greats

When David Martin introduced John Lauter, he mentioned that John had scored more than 30 silent films, and continued a tradition started by famous theater organists like Gaylord Carter and Lee Irwin. John also paid tribute to these musicians, who had played movie accompaniment during the silent film era, and then were rediscovered in the 1960s when interest was revived in silent movies.

“If I do my job, you’ll sort of forget about me after awhile,” said John before launching into a dynamic musical background for Douglas Fairbanks as the heroic, acrobatic Zorro.  The audience added its own enthusiastic accompaniment to the film.  They hissed the villains, and applauded loudly whenever Zorro dramatically got the best of his foes.

At intermission, a young lady dressed as Zorro helped David Martin conduct the 50/50 raffle, as John Lauter played a drum roll on the organ to build the suspense. “Does anyone see a sword?” joked Martin (who didn’t see one). “I’m safe.”

We then enjoyed the final scenes of Zorro.  John’s musical accents included castanets, which you could hear shaking behind a grille at the side of the auditorium.

As I watched the movie, I thought about what makes silent movies unique, and how this was the only kind of film that audiences knew in 1920. I saw similarities with opera, with the strong visual storytelling style, and the powerful dynamics of the music.

And the night ended in operatic fashion, with the crowd exploding in cheers and applause for John Lauter, who was compelled to go back to the organ for a short encore of the movie’s main theme.

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Copyright © 2007 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.  

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