Monday, October 3, 2011

Before the Talkies

I am exaggerating only a little when I say that the average age of the audience was north of seventy.  The man from the Organ Society announced proudly that there were over three hundred people in attendance, and he was looking absolutely spiffing in a smart jacket with a spotlight on him, standing in front of red velvet curtains like a vaudeville conjurer. I did some mental arithmetic, which I am poor at, and decided that as an audience we must have a combined age of 21,000 years, or 2.1x104 in scientific notation. You may do as you please with that figure; I report it here as bare fact. 


We were here to see a silent movie, and it would be accompanied by that colossal curiosity squirreled away in the old Hollywood Cinema out in Avondale there: New Zealand’s only working Theatre Organ, by the fabled Wurlitzer Corporation. I didn’t know what I should be expecting, but we were given an introductory lecture, so I know more now. Introductory lectures are the mark of great entertainment in my book.  I love the feeling of sitting there out of my depth, grasping a few fleeting facts delivered by an enthusiast in some obscure field.  It's a brief glimpse into the inner life of a person with a consuming passion; a member in good standing of some organisation dedicated to the preservation of this or the promotion of that, where this and that are sufficiently far off the public radar as to require introductory remarks for benefit of the uninitiated. A couple of anecdotes to remember later on, jumbled up with salient points out of order and the dates all wrong - when somebody starts in on an introductory lecture I know I'm in the right place.

The organ was installed in the late twenties at the newly-completed Regent Theatre on Queen Street, said the man from the Organ Society. Ask your dad, he'll tell you it was a magnificent building, the Regent: a picture palace in the old style with marble polar bears and a man selling ice-creams from a tray during the intermission at three for a groat. They shipped that Wurlitzer in at some vast expense from New York City, but it wasn't set up and working in time for the opening season apparently so they had to get an orchestra in.  I feel for that orchestra. Sixteen sweating hacks, sawing away, doing their best to keep up with Charlie Chaplain's hopping antics and Buster Keaton's prat-falling capers, sweetening the romances and adding drama to the newsreels, night after night in the flickering light and all the time knowing that as soon as the engineers from the Wurlitzer Corporation got their newfangled organ ready, they were all of them out on the street.

The Theatre Organ: Like an iceberg, most of it lurks out of sight. 
Other that that, it is not at all like an iceberg.

Because this organ, said the man from the Organ Society, this organ could do the work of sixteen men.  A 'unit orchestra,' said the Wurlitzer Corporation, capable of reproducing the majestic swelling of the violins, the silvery horns, the tootling flutes, thunderous kettle-drums and muttering contrabasses. And not through nasty digital sampling, by God, not back then in the 1920s and not now.  This organ has twenty-foot pipes for those sturm und drang bass lines, rank on rank of them in sweeping hyperbolic curves, all the way down to tiny piccolos the size of a pencil. There are bells of course, and whistles - so many whistles! Mighty fans in the basement force air at the pressure of dozens of atmospheres through a cat's cradle of pipes and feedlines, through the stops and into whichever combination of the one thousand and twenty-four pipes the action calls for. This organ drives a real piano (Graham, bring up the spotlight on the piano would you please, said the man from the Organ Society) for that barrelhouse honky-tonk sound, and there are rooms - rooms! - full of drums, xylophones, an ironmongery of hardware, all struck by cunning little hammers quivering against springs, waiting to be released by magnets triggered by electrical pulses shooting along the wires in accordance with Maxwell's famous equations, and controlled from the console up there on the pedestal by one toe tapping, eye twinkling, white-haired, bow-tied magician: New Zealand's only practising Theatre Organist.

Remote-conrolled piano: The golden age of entertainment.

He prances, the Theatre Organist, he dances, he fairly flies around the console.  Three manuals, a bank of pedals, more stops than the London Underground, an orchestra in a box - he is master of them all.  But he harbours a great sadness, all alone in the dark.
'I hope you're sitting next to somebody you like,' He says on the microphone, spun round on his organ bench before the main feature and kicking his feet like Kermit. 'I wish I was.'  The lonlieness of the Theatre Organist. In my head I become his protégé, sitting next to him on the bench, turning pages for him, fetching a cup of tea in the interval - a sneaky slug of gin for the late showing? Oh, why not - leaning over to pull out a difficult stop or jumping in to play a high glissando when the stage-coach flies over the cliff: New Zealand's only apprentice Theatre Organist.

But that will have to wait. For now I am in the audience, several standard deviations below the average age, an outlier on the bell curve.  If you want to feel like the youngest person in the room, this is the place to be.  They showed a colourised promotional film from the Auckland Transport Board, shot in 1952. 'Oooh, there's the Farmers!' 'There's John Court!' 'Remember, there were two, weren't there? John Court and George Court? Weren't there? High teas?' 'Young people these days!' They said that, they really did. I didn't catch whatever it was young people these days are supposed to be doing, and I'd like to know actually; I seem to spend most weekends at silent movies or curiosity shops. They played 'God save the Queen' before the feature, and the audience rose in a great clattering of walking sticks and creaking of knees, muttered through the first verse. I took off my hat, I put my hat back on, I felt subversive. 'We used to see if we could kiss right through the national anthem!' said an old dear behind me, she really did.

There was an intermission before the feature, of course, and the crush at the concession stand was a thing to behold. Old people can't queue, it's well known - their needs are immediate and pressing, their senses are dim, they are teenagers with Super Gold Cards. Umbrellas were used in anger, and I heard language that would have made the Queen blanch. They were, in short, loving it.  Back in their seats, munching on ice cream, they settled in for an hour and ten minutes of vintage Buster Keaton: 1923's Our Hospitality, featuring antics on trains, horses dressed as ladies, Keaton's amazing aquiline nose, actual cliff-hanging, gentlemen dressed as ladies, and - spoiler warning! - love conquering all.

'I'm glad you're down there,' said the Theatre Organist. 'I wouldn't want to do this on my own.'  And nor should he - the Theatre Organ is not for bedroom strummers or solo dilettantes. The Theatre Organ is part of the picture – on the screen the engine hilariously decouples from the train, the conductor blows his horn, and the Theatre Organ delivers a brassy squeal, right on the beat. An adversary is having trouble with his pistol, Keaton solicitously fires it off for him, the Theatre Organ provides the crash of cymbals. As the villains lay their nefarious plans, the twenty-foot bass pipes rumble threateningly; during the helter-skelter horseback chase through the forest, the Theater Organist winks and plays - what else? - the William Tell overture, double time. And when love conquers all, the music swells, 21,000 years of movie audience wipe their eyes, and they break into rapturous applause as the concealed hydraulics  swing into operation and New Zealand's only practising Theatre Organist slowly sinks out of sight.

2 comments:

  1. It was amazing. We're definitely going along next time it happens.

    ReplyDelete