The mighty Wurlitzer returns to five movie palaces Essay

The mighty Wurlitzer returns to five movie palaces The opulent sights and sounds of the 1920s and ’30s film erahave returned to five Western movie palaces.

At each theater –inDenver, Oakland, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco–you can hear amighty Wurlitzer organ (four of the organs have recently beenrenovated). Veteran organists play the elaborate keyboards of these powerfulinstruments, filling the air with melodies before film performances,during silent films, and in concerts. They evoke an era when movietheaters combined architecture, film, and music to create an entrancingworld of fantasy, a place where viewers’ eyes would never rest. Movie-palace organs became endangered in 1927, when the first majorsound film, The Jazz Singer, was released. Of the 2,000 Wurlitzers thatwere built, only 500 remain in playable condition today, many at pizzarestaurants and roller rinks around the country. Often combining classic, baroque, Moorish, Arabic, Byzantine, evenPolynesian and Mayan influences, theater architects created extravagantillusions of starry skies, verdant courtyards, tropical rain forests,Greek amphitheaters, and art deco shrines. The organist synthesizedsymphonic sounds that “spoke’ from massive pipes hidden behindornate grilles above both sides of the stage. Victims of television and neglect, many movie palaces were torndown in the 1960s and early 1970s.

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New uses have been found for somesurvivors, including for symphony, ballet, and opera performances. Butat the five listed here, you can hear old organs in period settings. Denver Paramount Theater, 1621 Glenarm Place; (303) 534-8336. Reopeningthis month after lengthy restoration, this 2,000-seat art deco theater,built in 1930, will feature live shows, but it also plans four concertsthis year on its dual-console Wurlitzer. Call for dates.

Oakland Grand Lake Theatre, 3200 Grand Avenue; (415) 452-3556. Classicalarchitectural styles were used in this 970-seat theater, built in 1926and now divided into two theaters. The main auditorium houses theWurlitzer, installed in 1983. The newly released science-fiction film Dune runs this month. Theorgan rises on a hydraulic lift to play before the first and secondevening performances every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Admission is$5 for adults, $2.

50 for seniors and children under 12; the firstscreening Saturday is $3 for adults. Silent films with organaccompaniment are occasionally scheduled. Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway; (415) 465-6400.

Built in 1931,the restored 3,000-seat theater has art deco architectural motifs thathave attracted international interest. Elegant lobby furniture madefrom exotic woods and cleverly designed light fixtures made of frostedglass adorn the sitting spaces outside the auditorium; nearly everywhereinside, 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, andmatches the gilded walls.

Guided 2-hour tours ($1) of the city-owned theater are offered at10 A.M. on the first and third Saturdays of each month. No reservationis required.

The organ is played before films in the Explorama travelseries, and during the intermissions: dates are January 26 (Paris),February 16 (Norway), March 16 (the Alps), April 20 (the OrientExpress), and May 25 (Yugoslavia); shows are at 2 and 8; tickets cost$6.50. The Paramount Organ Pops Concert Series features Lee Erwinaccompanying silent film comedies on March 2 at 8:30 P.M. On Sunday,May 12, Jim Roseveare and Peter Mintun combine music from the Wurlitzerwith the concert grand.

Tickets cost $6 to $11. Salt Lake City Capitol Theatre, 50 West 200 South; (801) 535-7905. Built in 1913as a vaudeville house called the Orpheum, the plush 1,900-seat theater,now owned by Salt Lake County, premiered its restored house organ in1983.

Crowned with a dazzling crystal chandelier, the baroqueauditorium is home for the ballet, opera, and two modern dance troupes.An organ pops series and silent film showings are planned. Call forupcoming schedule. San Francisco Castro Theatre, 429 Castro Street; (415) 621-6120. Built in 1922,the theater has an ornate, tent-like ceiling that hangs above the1,550-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 showand during the intermission of double bills.

December 21 through February 7, you can see some of MGM’sgreatest films. Gone with the Wind starts the festival December 21. OnJanuary 15, Bob Vaughn plays the organ to the silent film The Big Paradeat 7:15. It’s double-billed with Three Comrades, a sound film, at9:45. On January 25, The Wind, also silent, plays at 8:30, billed withCamille, a sound film, which runs at 6:30 and 10:15.

Admission is $4.50for adults, $2.50 for seniors, and $2.50 for the first show onWednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Photo: San Francisco: Spanish baroque ceiling of Castro Theaterdwarfs big gilded organ Photo: Denver: left hand selects stops as right hand plays manualof 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 intoGrand Lake cinema palace


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