For the newcomer pleasantly surprised by its presence or the regular expecting an old friend, the sounds of a Barton organ have been offering film-goers a unique ambiance in the Ann Arbor area since the Michigan Theater’s opening in 1928. While it had a two-decade hiatus between about 1950 and 1970, the Barton organ was not only restored to new life in the ’70s, it also helped preserve the Michigan Theater from potential demolition.
“We heard it might be torn down or converted into a shopping mall,” said Henry Aldridge, Eastern Michigan University professor of film studies and Michigan Theater organist coordinator. “It was the theater organ people who got together and pushed to have the theater saved. But really it started with the organ. It makes coming to the Michigan (Theater) special.”
The pipe organ is rarely encountered, with only a handful playing in Michigan and even fewer in other states, and it’s unusual because of the skills it demands of the performer — skills which are different between classical or theater organists.
“It’s hard to find people who are good at playing theater organ, which means how to play a popular tune and make it sound good on a pipe organ,” Aldridge said. “There’s a certain style to it, sort of like jazz piano.”
One has to wonder how someone not only comes to learn this skill set but also decides to pursue such a rare path in the first place. Surprisingly, even with such a small talent pool, the Michigan Theater has had a great deal of luck finding organists to play its five-day schedule.
“We are really fortunate that people come up to us,” Aldridge said. “They say, ‘Hey you’re one of the few organs in southeast Michigan playing,’ and they want to play so they offer their services.”
Aldridge, who led the restoration effort and still plays the Barton, is joined by five other organists: Newton Bates, who also has been playing since its restoration; Steve Warner, a church organist in Detroit as well as an organ builder; Father Andrew Rogers, a professional organist and orthodox priest from Fenton, Mich.; Dr. Steven Ball, a University assistant professor of organ and carillon as well as one of the carillonneurs of the Burton Tower; and the youngest organist at 16, Emily Seward, from Southfield, Mich.
Steven Ball’s passion to play this rare instrument was instilled at a young age.
“My earliest memories are being in church and being fascinated by the pipe organ,” Ball said. “I started playing at church when I was nine, but we didn’t have an instrument at home that I could play. It was nearly impossible to practice.”
Ball, who is fascinated by public art as well as mechanical instruments, received his doctorate in organ performance from the University of Michigan. Hired by the Michigan Theater in 2003, Ball has become a regular performer for the theater’s silent films, such as this past Halloween’s showing of “Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror.”
“I describe (the silent film score) as a patchwork quilt,” Ball said. “What you’re doing is knitting together all these pieces of music and making it happen in real time. You have to be able to transition immediately from one to the other, and you also have to be ready to transpose any one of those pieces or combine them.”
With his expertise, Ball is in demand across the country for silent-film performances. However, one of his most memorable experiences was being commissioned by the city of Ann Arbor to compose a score for a never-before-seen silent film discovered in the Ann Arbor District Library’s archive of The Ann Arbor News.
“What made it significant was it was a silent film from the era,” Ball said. “It’s very rare these days that such a thing happens.”
Emily Seward’s desire to play the organ also began at a very early age and came to fruition not long after.
“When I was five or six, I went to see ‘The Sheik’ at the Michigan Theater, and Steven Ball was playing. He invited me to come and sit down at the console, and I think I played a couple of notes and then I just knew I wanted to play.”
Of course, given the rarity of the organ, it’s difficult to jump right into things.
“Initially, (my parents) started me on piano because they were skeptical,” Seward said. “It’s hard to take a 5-year-old very seriously when they say they want to play the organ.”
She started organ lessons by age 11 and began as a volunteer performer for the Redford Theater the next year. In 2009, she was hired by the Michigan Theater and trained by Aldridge to play the theater’s organ, which has its own acoustic environment for players to adapt to. Today, Seward makes the trip from Southfield to Ann Arbor almost every weekend to play for those half-hour intervals before screenings — which is, to her, a dream come true.
Here in Ann Arbor, the dreams and passions of the Michigan Theater’s organists have not only given the city a rare sound, but a lasting historical importance in cinema and music.