Keyboard Wizards

For many visitors to the Michigan Theater and Redford Theatre, the unique movies might have been the first attraction. But after a few trips, they were probably also drawn to the warm melodies of the Barton theater organs of each movie house.

Two pairs of skilled hands recently brought these magnificent instruments to life. These performances also re-enforced both theaters’ unique role as presenters of silent films in the manner in which these movies were originally shown.

The Phantom Strikes the Michigan

On September 5, 2006, Michigan Theater organist Steven Ball dramatically accompanied a big screen presentation of the 1925 silent film The Phantom of the Opera. Ball was helped by two singers (Laura Hicks and Steven Lancaster), whose vocal stylings added to the personality and emotional depth of the film.

Ball began the evening with an overture that included themes for the different characters. When he finished, the organ lowered, the lights dimmed, and the curtains opened with a theatrical sweep that helped pull the audience into the drama of the performance.

As Lon Chaney held his mysterious control over the Paris Opera House, Ball enhanced the action with many delicate musical touches. He often gave a voice to Chaney’s on-screen organ-playing. The singers accompanied opera performances and other scenes, and Hicks even let out a scream during one very dramatic moment.

After the film ended, a finale was played by Ball, who was dressed in black evening clothes similar to the garb of characters in the film. The Michigan audience roared its approval for the live performances.

Ball, whose many talents were publicized in a September 24 article in The Ann Arbor News, skillfully showed two of the strengths of the Michigan Theater—its unique films and historically valuable theater organ. After the show, he talked with several visitors near the organ, giving them further insights into this amazing musical instrument.

The Welsh Wizard Delivers

Ball also has performed at the Redford Theatre, where on September 30, 2006, a touring organist from Wales accompanied another 1925 silent film that was almost the opposite of The Phantom of the Opera.

The evening, the personable Byron Jones, “The Welsh Wizard,” played music for the Buster Keaton comedy The Balloonatic. As Jones laid down his magical melodies, the audience marvelled at the remarkable stunts performed by Keaton. Once again, an audience appreciated this unique time in movie history when performers made special efforts to visually express themselves.

Jones’s film music was only one part of a very warm and special evening. Jone’s intriguing Welsh accent sometimes made it hard to understand his words, but his friendliness and appreciation for the audience came through perfectly.

Several times, Jones talked about how he fed off the crowd and could easily have played all night. His music combined his own magical touch with other styles that reminded me of the playing of some regular Redford organists—the bouncy brightness of Tony O’Brien and the smooth rhythms of Gus Borman. At times, I wished I could have just laid down on a couch and let Jones’s music emotionally consume me.

Jones was performing the last concert of a five-week tour of the United States. In the Redford lobby after the show, he talked with patrons and signed copies of his CDs. No doubt, he was adding to the personal touch that made this such a friendly night at the Redford.

Detroit Movie Palaces Home Page

Copyright © 2006 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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