Stationed in Music Hall’s ballroom is an instrument few know about: the Wurlitzer organ—a special type of theater organ manufactured by the renowned Cincinnati-based Wurlitzer Company to accompany silent films. With its 2,000 pipes that produce the notes of 31 instruments, this particular 1927 organ dazzled silent moviegoers in Cincinnati’s RKO Albee Theatre until the domination of sound movies.
The organ is now estimated to be one of only 40 well-preserved Wurlitzer theater organs remaining, and, in the late 2000s, was restored and permanently relocated to Music Hall for concerts and silent films by pipe organ specialist Ronald F. Wehmeier.
Now, following a pandemic-induced hiatus, the organ is taking center stage once again with the return of the “Silent Movies Made Musical with the Mighty Wurlitzer” concert series. Presented by the nonprofit organization Friends of Music Hall, which preserves and celebrates Music Hall, the concert series is an annual springtime event.
In years past, attendees watched both a silent short film and feature-length film at the Music Hall ballroom. In our new pandemic reality, viewers can enjoy this year’s prerecorded concert at home from 6 p.m. April 9 through April 25. The free virtual concert will feature the silent comedy Girl Shy and an accompanying score performed on the Wurlitzer by 40-plus-year veteran organist Clark Wilson.
“We wanted something that would be extremely enjoyable to young and old alike,” Wilson explains, describing this year’s movie choice. “And who doesn’t like to laugh?”
The 1924 romantic comedy stars Harold Lloyd, who, with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, is revered as one of the greatest silent film actors. The story follows the bashful and inept “Poor Boy,” played by Lloyd, who falls in love with the engaged, wealthy Mary and undertakes a string of dangerous adventures to stop her wedding. It’s the old fable of the shy boy getting the girl, says Wilson, “but what [Poor Boy] goes through, that’s where all the fun comes from.” The event also includes background on Wilson, Lloyd, the Wurlitzer organ, and a presentation on inclusivity in silent film, showcasing females and people of color who were pioneers in the industry.
The music is equally important as the movie, says Holly Brians Ragusa, a vice president on the executive board of Friends of Music Hall. Because there was no score available when Girl Shy was originally released, Wilson wrote an original score that captures the rhythm and action of the movie. The theater organ and the sounds it makes are also unique, wholly unlike the traditional church organs.
Ultimately, the goal of the “Silent Movies Made Musical” series is to provide greater access to Music Hall, says Brians Ragusa. She explains that Music Hall is the “people’s hall,” because it was partially funded by the Cincinnati community and that the Friends of Music Hall want to connect Cincinnatians with the historical building through low-cost options like free or low-price tours and events.
“It’s important that people understand they have a place here [at Music Hall]” she says. “And then, once we can gather safely again, [they are welcome] to come into the hall and enjoy a concert, enjoy a tour, and just feel more connected to the city that they live in.”
You can view the screening for free at this link, which will be live from 6 p.m. April 9 to April 25.