The Mighty Wurlitzer Returns to Its Roots at Sidewalk

The Alabama Theatre’s Mighty Wurlitzer theater organ (Source: Lewis Kennedy, Birmingham Landmarks Inc).

Visit the Alabama Theatre in downtown Birmingham, face the stage and you might notice the red and gold console to the left. It’s a theater organ known as the Mighty Wurlitzer. It’s an instrument whose heyday has long passed. But this weekend, as part of the Sidewalk Film Festival, it’ll return to its original purpose: accompanying silent films.

First, a Little History

Before films had sound, theater owners used live music for accompaniment. Wurlitzer, one of a number of piano manufacturers, smelled an opportunity.

“They went to theaters, theater management, the studios and said ‘Why would you want to pay a 42-piece orchestra to play every night when, if you purchased one of our instruments, you could put it in, install it and have one person?’” Alabama Theatre house organist Gary Jones said. “’Think of the payroll savings you would have.’ And that was their marketing tactic and it worked.”

Since the theater organ would replace an orchestra, it was designed to mimic one. Wurlitzer actually called its product a “unit orchestra.” It can produce an array of sounds such as strings, trumpets, trombones, clarinet, oboe or flute. In addition to the pipes are percussion instruments from drums to symbols to chimes to glockenspiel.

Perhaps the most fun feature of the organ is its sound effects. The Alabama Theatre’s collection includes a train whistle, a Klaxon horn (that old-timey “awooga” car horn) and horse hooves, which, in true Monty Python tradition, are two wooden shells clapped together. They’re sounds that can accent what’s on screen.

The pipes and other instruments are hidden in chambers in the walls of the theater. (Andrew Yeager, WBHM)

It’s a Rube Goldberg-like machine driven by air and electricity. It’s all mechanical with no electronically-generated sound.

The Alabama Theatre installed its Wurlitzer in 1927 when the venue opened. That also happened to be the year of the first “talkie” or feature-length film with sound. That essentially killed silent films.

“The theater organ was as quickly out as it was in,” Jones said.

Silent films held on for a couple of years, but after that the theater organ was relegated to interlude music between features. Some found new life as novelties in restaurants or private homes — a blip in musical instrument history.

A Lost Art Back in Birmingham

The Mighty Wurlitzer’s return to its origin this weekend is due in part to Nathan Avakian. He’s a theater organist and something of an evangelist for the instrument.

About 10 years ago, he was playing a theater organ at someone’s home as part of a benefit in Portland, Oregon where he grew up. He was just 17. A local businessman and philanthropist named Jon Palanuk was there, and when he heard the music, it stopped him in his tracks.

“I was transported back to my childhood and blown away by how big and impressive and unique the sound of the instrument was,” Palanuk said.

He also noticed how many older people were in the room. A light bulb went off.

“I’m going to reinvent silent movies using theater pipe organ music and reintroduce this sound to a whole new generation,” Palanuk said. He was determined.

“He was sure this was gonna work and so he actually approached me, introduced himself on the night of that fundraiser,” Avakian said.

This was Palanuk’s idea: filmmakers under the age of 20 would select one of several pieces Avakian composed for the theater organ and create a three-minute silent film to go along with the music. That’s the basis of the International Youth Silent Film Festival.

It sounds simple, but it’s fundamentally different from the way films are typically made. Usually, a filmmaker starts with the pictures and adds music later.

“Having to go strictly based off audio is just so hard,” Birmingham-Southern College student Mackenzie Delk said. She and fellow student Cassady Quintana entered a film in the contest. They had a story in mind. They settled on one of Avakian’s pieces they thought would go with it best.

But Delk said they were practically in tears trying to make it work. They ended up reshooting part of their film. Still, Quintana said one thing about the silent film format was simpler.

“We didn’t have to worry about audio,” Quintana said. “So we could record in loud places anywhere that was making noise because we’re just taking the audio out so it doesn’t matter.”

For Nathan Avakian, it’s kind of backwards too. A composer usually writes to what’s already onscreen. In this case, he has no idea what he’s composing for.

“So rather than thinking about a specific plotline and imagining certain characters, I think of it more as just an interesting thematic piece of music,” Avakian said.

The contest uses 10 pieces from Avakian including western, film noir, horror, and romance.

The International Youth Silent Film Festival has run in Portland for a decade. And it’s the reason the Alabama Theatre’s Mighty Wurlitzer can return to its roots this weekend. Selections from that event will screen during the Sidewalk Film Festival and Avakian will be in Birmingham to accompany them live.

It’s the third year this has been part of Sidewalk.

“The very first time that they did this, the crowd went wild,” organist Gary Jones said. It’s the difference between watching a moving and live Broadway show Jones explains. “You’re part of that experience as opposed to, eh, I’ll just pop in a Blu-ray.”

Organizers in Birmingham and Portland hope in the next few years the Alabama Theatre can become a regional site for the silent film festival. In the meantime, aficionados say the theater organ is not a historical blip, but a living, breathing instrument capable of contemporary sounds. They say the silent film should not be overlooked either.