The mighty Wurlitzer returns to five movie palaces
The opulent sights and sounds of the 1920s and ’30s film era
have returned to five Western movie palaces. At each theater –in
Denver, Oakland, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco–you can hear a
mighty Wurlitzer organ (four of the organs have recently been
Veteran organists play the elaborate keyboards of these powerful
instruments, filling the air with melodies before film performances,
during silent films, and in concerts. They evoke an era when movie
theaters combined architecture, film, and music to create an entrancing
world of fantasy, a place where viewers’ eyes would never rest.
Movie-palace organs became endangered in 1927, when the first major
sound film, The Jazz Singer, was released. Of the 2,000 Wurlitzers that
were built, only 500 remain in playable condition today, many at pizza
restaurants and roller rinks around the country.
Often combining classic, baroque, Moorish, Arabic, Byzantine, even
Polynesian and Mayan influences, theater architects created extravagant
illusions of starry skies, verdant courtyards, tropical rain forests,
Greek amphitheaters, and art deco shrines. The organist synthesized
symphonic sounds that “spoke’ from massive pipes hidden behind
ornate grilles above both sides of the stage.
Victims of television and neglect, many movie palaces were torn
down in the 1960s and early 1970s. New uses have been found for some
survivors, including for symphony, ballet, and opera performances. But
at the five listed here, you can hear old organs in period settings.
Paramount Theater, 1621 Glenarm Place; (303) 534-8336. Reopening
this month after lengthy restoration, this 2,000-seat art deco theater,
built in 1930, will feature live shows, but it also plans four concerts
this year on its dual-console Wurlitzer. Call for dates.
Grand Lake Theatre, 3200 Grand Avenue; (415) 452-3556. Classical
architectural styles were used in this 970-seat theater, built in 1926
and now divided into two theaters. The main auditorium houses the
Wurlitzer, installed in 1983.
The newly released science-fiction film Dune runs this month. The
organ rises on a hydraulic lift to play before the first and second
evening performances every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Admission is
$5 for adults, $2.50 for seniors and children under 12; the first
screening Saturday is $3 for adults. Silent films with organ
accompaniment are occasionally scheduled.
Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway; (415) 465-6400. Built in 1931,
the restored 3,000-seat theater has art deco architectural motifs that
have attracted international interest. Elegant lobby furniture made
from exotic woods and cleverly designed light fixtures made of frosted
glass adorn the sitting spaces outside the auditorium; nearly everywhere
inside, reliefs of men on steeds, ladies in repose, and flowers, vines,
and leaves greet the eye.
The organ, installed in 1981, is in walnut and gold leaf, and
matches the gilded walls.
Guided 2-hour tours ($1) of the city-owned theater are offered at
10 A.M. on the first and third Saturdays of each month. No reservation
is required. The organ is played before films in the Explorama travel
series, and during the intermissions: dates are January 26 (Paris),
February 16 (Norway), March 16 (the Alps), April 20 (the Orient
Express), and May 25 (Yugoslavia); shows are at 2 and 8; tickets cost
The Paramount Organ Pops Concert Series features Lee Erwin
accompanying silent film comedies on March 2 at 8:30 P.M. On Sunday,
May 12, Jim Roseveare and Peter Mintun combine music from the Wurlitzer
with the concert grand. Tickets cost $6 to $11.
Salt Lake City
Capitol Theatre, 50 West 200 South; (801) 535-7905. Built in 1913
as a vaudeville house called the Orpheum, the plush 1,900-seat theater,
now owned by Salt Lake County, premiered its restored house organ in
1983. Crowned with a dazzling crystal chandelier, the baroque
auditorium is home for the ballet, opera, and two modern dance troupes.
An organ pops series and silent film showings are planned. Call for
Castro Theatre, 429 Castro Street; (415) 621-6120. Built in 1922,
the theater has an ornate, tent-like ceiling that hangs above the
1,550-seat auditorium–designed to resemble an elegant baroque garden.
Trompe-l’oeil murals in orange, rose, and pink decorate the walls.
The organ is played by Elbert LaChelle every night before the first show
and during the intermission of double bills.
December 21 through February 7, you can see some of MGM’s
greatest films. Gone with the Wind starts the festival December 21. On
January 15, Bob Vaughn plays the organ to the silent film The Big Parade
at 7:15. It’s double-billed with Three Comrades, a sound film, at
9:45. On January 25, The Wind, also silent, plays at 8:30, billed with
Camille, a sound film, which runs at 6:30 and 10:15. Admission is $4.50
for adults, $2.50 for seniors, and $2.50 for the first show on
Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays.
Photo: San Francisco: Spanish baroque ceiling of Castro Theater
dwarfs big gilded organ
Photo: Denver: left hand selects stops as right hand plays manual
of 1930s Wurlitzer at Paramount Theater, reopening this month
Photo: Oakland: Paramount’s grand lobby features leaded-glass
“fountain’ filled with amber light
Photo: Oakland: lighted starburst overhead lures moviegoers into
Grand Lake cinema palace