In the category of “one day people, will ask, ‘How did you ever exist with just an iPhone?’,” I recently visited the Old Town Music Hall, a little movie theater built in 1921 in El Segundo, Calif., which is near Los Angeles, and marveled at the technology and talent that went into playing live music for silent films.
That technology was the mighty Wurlitzer. That’s right, before talking pictures, audiences were entertained by silent films that used title cards and, in many theaters, live music accompaniment. The Wurlitzer is a brand of organ, but also much more. The instrument is a beauty. It has four keyboards and 1,600 pipes as well as some key-operated instruments (cymbals, castanets, drums) in order to provide the right type of sounds for playing background for a silent movie.
It also can play sound effects like car horns, bells, and whistles. It relies on the talent of the player to master such a device. In this case, the player was Bill Field. Along with a partner, Field, who has made his living as an organist for various entertainment spaces, purchased and rehabbed an old Wurlitzer organ to bring the experience to life for contemporary audiences.
Before the show, he played a short concert. The pipes and instruments are outlined with fluorescent paint. Thanks to a black light in the darkened theater, the audience can tell which pipes and instruments are working at various times. They are all controlled via keys and pedals on the organ.
That day, they showed a Tom Mix cowboy adventure. Mix did all his own stunts. The piece was filmed at the Grand Canyon — the real Grand Canyon, with sweeping vistas minus any CGI or green screen. No stunt men, miniatures, or computer effects; Tom and his horse did all the tricks. The live Wurlitzer that accompanied the silent film was perfectly in time with the film, and I felt totally transported to that dusty canyon and enjoyed Tom Mix and the musical ride!