When the Michigan Theater and the Redford Theatre opened 88 years ago in 1928, their Barton theater organs were designed to accompany silent movies. The talking picture soon changed these plans, but these organs both returned to their original use on the weekend of April 23 and 24, 2016.
At the Redford on Saturday, April 23, organist Lance Luce accompanied a screening of Buster Keaton’s 1926 comedy The General. The next day at the Michigan, on April 24, organist Steven Ball played the music for a 100th anniversary screening of the 1916 drama Sherlock Holmes, with famous Holmes stage interpreter William Gillette.
At both theaters, the evening’s entertainment was much more than the movies and the musical accompaniment.
At the Redford, Lance played several old songs to help take the audience back 90 years to when The General was first released. He also showed the audience the differences between a church organ and a theater organ, with musical samplings and performances of sacred songs.
Lance, who is also a regular organist at the Michigan, talked about the wind-driven mechanics of the Redford’s Barton organ. He demonstrated the actual percussion instruments that are remotely played behind the grill work of the Redford. He noted the differences between tuned percussion instruments like the xylophone and untuned percussion like the drum.
At the Michigan, Steven and Michigan Theater organist Henry Aldridge gave pre-movie speeches about the theater’s Barton organ. The event was sponsored by the Ann Arbor Guild of Organists (AGO) as a fundraiser for the continued restoration of this organ. Henry was one of the driving forces behind saving both the organ and the Michigan Theater in the 1970s.
Steven played the organ for many years at both the Michigan and the Redford. He now plays and maintains a large theater organ at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Steven celebrated his Michigan Theater homecoming by performing his signature tune at the Michigan—”Hooray for Hollywood.” He also helped the Michigan’s organ restoration fundraising effort by presenting a personal check to Michigan Executive Director and CEO Russ Collins.
On the screen, the two movies were lessons in the evolution of the grammar and technology of the silent cinema.
The 1916 drama Sherlock Holmes was filmed mostly with a stationary camera. But the camera setups, pictorial composition, and editing were all well done by the cinematic standards of any era.
Travel ten years forward to the release of The General in 1926. Camera movement had evolved to the point where a camera operator could smoothly follow a running train, and even pan back and forth along that train.
Both movies also showed the power of personality in film.
William Gillette was primarily a stage actor who was well known for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. Before the movie, Russ Collins of the Michigan talked about how Gillette helped establish the movie image of Holmes. In the movie, Gillette used his tall height and sharp facial features to project authority, resourcefulness, and a touch of cleverness.
In The General, Buster Keaton continued his one man war against the world, this time as a train engineer in the South during the Civil War. His unsmiling face and stoic manner helped create great humor out of the smallest gags, because of the contrast between his personality and the situation.
Large crowds attended both events. I came away from the weekend with a better appreciation for silent movies, and a thankfulness for the community of interest that helps keep this art form alive and well in the Detroit and Ann Arbor areas.
Copyright © 2016 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.