Since 1928, the Michigan Theater has existed as a bastion of community culture. It was originally designed as a “movie palace” — an institution characteristic of the era — for silent films and stage productions. In these early years, it was common to preface films with a 30-minute stage show complete with an orchestra and pipe organ, which has persisted as an essential fixture of the theater.

It’s nothing short of extraordinary for the Michigan Theater to boast two of these musical rarities, considering only 7,000 were assembled during the limited heyday of theater organ production, spanning from 1912 until 1932. These theater organs are a special type of pipe organ designed specifically for silent film accompaniments. Their ranks, or sets, of pipes, imitate the instruments of the bygone orchestras as much as possible — not just the percussive instruments of chimes and bells. 

Since 1971, these giant instruments have dwelled beside each stage of the Michigan Theater. They’re loud, and occasionally fear-inducing. They accompany theatergoers throughout the emotional journey of a silent film, or provide a soothing overture to preface the daily matinee. Today the Barton pipe organ of the main theater and the electric organ in the screening room are played by five organists — Henry Aldridge, Andrew Rogers, Stephen Warner, Lance Luce and David Hufford — and heard each day.

“We are truly blessed to have the full support of the Michigan Theater staff,” Aldridge wrote in an e-mail interview with The Michigan Daily. “The Barton is an integral part of the theater’s activities. Patrons come early to the movies just to hear it.”

For 40 years, Aldridge served as a professor of electronic media and film studies in the Department of Communication, Media & Theatre arts at Eastern Michigan University, with the organ serving as more of a hobby. Much like his other organist peers, he was always interested in music — the church pipe organs instantly intrigued him as a child. 

“Our church, St. Paul’s, had an outstanding music program, and I was very familiar with church pipe organs,” Aldridge wrote.

During his undergraduate years at the University of North Carolina, he began playing a small theater organ at the Center Theater in Durham. After coming to Ann Arbor in l970, Aldridge led a team of volunteers in working on the Michigan’s instrument in l971, beginning to play it in public in l972.

He subsequently took theater organ lessons from Father Jim Miller of Fenton, Mich., through whom he met future fellow Michigan Theater organist Rogers. In an interview, Rogers referred to Father Jim as the best instructor in the area.

“Music was always something that I tried to do in between the cracks of everything else,” Rogers said.

What originally served as a hobby while Rogers worked at a plastics factory and then a travel agency became his primary source of income. Though Rogers now typically plays two to five times during the week, he’s always willing to substitute for fellow organists.

“You like it that much?” the Daily asked.

“That and it is my job,” Rogers said in response, laughing. “We’re really lucky to be here. It’s really a gift. To have an original organ in its original home is rare.”

The instrument’s rarity surely makes it a local treasure, but it poses challenges for the primary musicians. Theater organs are considered a thing of the past, and music for them is no longer composed.

“They can’t be taken on the road, and there aren’t too many places to play,” Rogers said. “It’s really a double-edged sword.”

With minimal music for organists today, especially theater organists, the musicians must take on the role of composers and create original arrangements. For the organists of the Michigan Theater, this typically means creating their own film scores for upcoming silent films the theater will screen. The process is lengthy, often spanning two to three weeks, during which the organists watch the films over and over, collecting moments and emotions to reflect in the form of a compelling composition.

“You’re taking this musical material, the basis, the melody, the harmony and just reorganizing it kind of in real time,” Warner, another of the organists, said. “You want to make what you do a part of the movie.”

Usually, the organists start from scratch and watch the silent films without the provided score. According to Rogers, creating a successful score often means making sure the music doesn’t draw attention to itself. Still, the music does have the ability to control the audience’s expectations. Rogers referred to Hitchcock’s silent film “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog,” which features a woman unwittingly falling for a Jack the Ripper-type serial killer, as an example.

“Musically, I have to decide when to let you know she’s safe in his presence,” Rogers said. “(By using music), you actually control part of the plot.”

“Try to capture the essence of what the filmmaker was trying to do,” Warner said. “Carry the emotion — intensify it, maybe, nuance it, but don’t change it.”

Some film scores require more work than others. Warner said he often creates a theme and assigns variations to different characters. This requires practice playing pieces in different styles.

The standard running time for these feature-length films is 70 minutes, but there are some more ambitious projects. For long films like the often four-hour-long epics of D.W. Griffith, the scores require broader brushstrokes; the music doesn’t change every 15 seconds.

“I haven’t done (any of those) yet,” Warner said. “I don’t know if I have the guts to do it.”

The Michigan Theater in particular offers the ability to expand the musical palates of its audiences, and it continually offers new opportunities for the organists themselves.

“Being in a venue like this, you can be experimental,” Warner said. “I know I have an adventurous audience here.”

To these organists, the relative obscurity of available organ music and the antiquated nature of the instrument doesn’t mean it has nothing to offer in the modern world. After all, the theater organ has always faced scrutiny.

“Even in its heyday, there was certainly a tension between the theater organ and the classical organ,” Warner said.

Warner also believes that the theater organ still has a place in modern music education.

“This is something we should actually learn about,” he said. “(After all), my personal music interests are far before my time. I’d love to start bringing back some of my pop music.”

Even if organ music never does make a significant resurgence, it still holds real value to the Michigan Theater organists.

“The instrument has a huge, colorful palate, and it has a huge, expressive capacity,” Warner said. “In the end, that’s kind of the reason I play it. You can have some really magical musical moments, singing for your audience through this big mechanical beast.”

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