When the Mighty Morton organ first comes alive, it sounds like a house furnace turning on. Somewhere in the basement of the Ohio Theater, a 25-horsepower turbine blower gains speed, thrusting wind up through the walls and across the proscenium, pressurizing both rooms behind the faux-box seats. Sitting in the theater, music soon begins without any discernable location—the original surround sound. Then, a large white chariot with many keyboards and hundreds of multi-colored tabs rises from the floor, piloted by Clark Wilson, the longest serving house organist.
This isn’t the moaning organ at church playing “Love Lifted Me.” And Wilson isn’t a manicured hipster playing some righteous melody. He is a performer and silent film accompanist of international significance. He performs annually at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and to sold out crowds across the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Australia—even for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Ben Mankiewicz of Turner Classic Movies and The Young Turks, said Wilson is “the defining artist of his generation.”
Running Wednesday through Sunday from June to August, the Ohio Theater shows classic films—most on their original reels. Wilson has the task of playing music 30 minutes before, during a 10-minute intermission, and after each film. He begins watching the films in March so he can start pulling music. Throughout a season, Wilson prepares and performs about 500 songs and pieces. He does not repeat a piece in a single season and, with a few exceptions, will not repeat a song in consecutive seasons.
When the Ohio Theater began life in 1928, stage performances came secondary to motion pictures. Still, the Ohio is one of the few remaining movie palaces. Thomas Lamb designed this structure to impress and stimulate the senses with the many plaster faces, large chandeliers, multi-colored lights, and sounds. Until the ‘60s, the Ohio regularly played movies.
In 1969, the fate of the Ohio had been all but sealed; the dissolution of the studio system for multiplex theaters made the theater obsolete. Artifacts were sold, parts of the organ laid on the stage ready for packing, and the wrecking ball waited for one final farewell. Many came to what was supposed to be the final concert on the organ. Roger Garret, the Ohio organist from years before, played for a room over-filled with people. Including a young Wilson and his grandmother—his teacher and driver.
After the concert, Wilson went down to see Garret. Garret told him that some day he could play an instrument just like the one in the Ohio. Little did they know that Wilson’s interest would grow to save the theater and its instrument. Now every summer, the theater and organ relive their original purpose for the longest running film series in the country—and Wilson lives some pseudo-prophecy.
Once or twice a season, Wilson accompanies silent films. When films (or motion pictures) came to existence, they began as side attractions. For a nickel, one could look through a lense and turn a crank that would flip through a series of pictures showing a butterfly in motion or a woman performing a taboo dance; that was all there was to show until the introduction of the plot (an early example being The Great Train Robbery in 1903). And none of which had sound—nothing audible attached to pull on emotion.
At the time silent movies were first released, recordings were extremely unpleasant to listen to and trying to coordinate members of an orchestra together for a precise score—let alone reels at inconsistent speeds—came at too high of a cost, fiscally and otherwise. So it was highly likely for silent movies to be accompanied by an organist.
Theaters changed their films an average of three times a week, creating about 185 pages of new scores for the accompanist to learn, and along with each film came a cue sheet to indicate scene changes four or five measures in advance. Rather than using the new scores, organists began compiling their own to supplement or change out music for the film. Some of the original silent film scores no longer exist and organists like Wilson have to create their own.
Organists use improvisation when accompanying silent films, but that’s not to say Wilson plays randomly or without thought. (No “Row Row Row Your Boat” in Phantom of the Opera.) His compiled cue sheets provide themes for situations, characters, and moods. And his years of experience, technique, and ability allow Wilson to connect on-screen elements with his extemporaneous harmonies.
Audience members often lose sight of him and focus solely on the film—and Wilson often loses sight of the audience and focuses solely on the organ. “It’s interesting,” he said, “I can play a two hour film straight-through and entirely lose track of my place and time.” He plays and chooses music to communicate the meaning of films many years older than its audience, making the past more clearly present.
Wilson will be in his seat at the organ for the remainder of his 25th summer through August 7, playing before, during, and after such diverse titles as The Third Man and Blazing Saddles! For more, visit capa.com.