Meridian Star: Keeping the music playing

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Meridian Star: Keeping the music playing

PostSun Oct 12, 2014 9:56 pm

http://www.meridianstar.com/news/article_967ff276-51c6-11e4-9021-83108c051807.html

Keeping the music playing

Posted: Sunday, October 12, 2014 5:00 am

By Clay Hamilton [email protected]

Frank Evans of Meridian, a former Hamasa Shriner, has an old friend living inside the Temple Theatre. No, it's not the ghost that allegedly haunts the stage at night. She's got a set of pipes on her like you never did see and her first name is Robert.

It's the Robert Morton Organ that resides just in front of the stage and inside two apartment-sized acoustic chambers on either side of the theater closer to the very top of the room.

Evans keeps the organ in top shape for the various events that it plays a role in, such as the recent silent movies shown in the Temple.

"I try to keep it tuned and get it playing. The organ is 80 something years old. It's had water damage multiple times. I started working on it in 1972 - literally, weeks after the Saenger chain moved out of the Temple Theatre (to go to the then new Village Fair Mall). We've rebuilt, we've repaired, we've patched."

The pipe organ was originally put it for the purpose it was designed for, which is the accompaniment of silent movies. In 1929 with the film "The Jazz Singer" with Al Jolson, silent movies died. That first "talkie" was the end of the silent movie era within a few months.

"So the organs fell into disuse," Evans said. "Most theatre chains didn't maintain them."

At one time in this country there were more than 6,000 theaters that had organs. Now there are less than 300 organs in public buildings throughout the U.S. A few have gone into private residences, the rest of them have been lost. Busted up, damaged, thrown away, burned. Back in the 1930s and '40s when they decided to air-condition a theater, the organ chambers were the perfect place to put the air conditioning.

"So they hauled the thing out and hauled it to the dump," Evans said. "We have two in public buildings here in the state of Mississippi. We have one in Meridian here at the Temple and we've got a sister organ which is almost identical - a Robert Morton - in the Saenger Theatre in Hattiesburg, Mississippi."

Theater pipe organs aren't the only rarity these says; so is the number of people who play the type music for which they were made. The theater organ wasn't design to play Bach or classical music. It was designed to play the popular music of the day that was familiar to movie goers and it was used to set the mood for the movie.

Designed to play a soundtrack, the theater organ was the synthesizer of the day, with eight pipes, a diaphone, a Kinura (which produces a sound like a bee in a bottle) and a Tibia, which produces a sobbing flute like sound. There are two sets of pipes, a flute and a Vox Humana, which is supposed to imitate the human voice.

"If you play it in chords down in the lower registers it sounds like a bunch of men humming in the background," Evans said.

And that's just the beginning, there is a metal bar marimba - a metal bar harp. It has a wood bar xylophone, a set of orchestra bells, a 28" bass marching drum, a 24" crash cymbal, a 16" rhythm cymbal, a castanet, sleigh bells, tom-tom, wood block and a tambourine.

"And then to round it out you've got a train whistle and a bird whistle and a siren to provide sound effects," Evans said. "In the movie when the hero would walk up and knock on the door, the organist would reach over and hit the wood block a couple of times to give the sound of someone beating on the door."

"Done well, when you are watching a silent movie - if it's done well - you never even hear the organ," he added.

Pipe organs, unlike modern keyboards with external speakers, are physical acoustic instruments and are designed for use in theaters. How well the organ matches the acoustics of the building determines how good the organ sounds.

"The most important 'stop' in the organ is the building; the acoustics of the building, the reverberation of the building, the way the sound melts together within the building," Evans said.

When asked how the Temple Theatre compared to other venues in terms of sound Evans said, "It sounds good. It really does. It was well voiced and (the organ) was well suited for the building. After the instrument is installed the man that did the installation would spend a couple of days increasing and decreasing the size of pipes to make everything even out and blend together properly."

Evans pointed out that when you go to see a silent film at the Temple you are actually going for a performance that is slowly vanishing from the musical landscape.

"A silent movie would fall flat on it's face without some type of background," he said.

Taking care of the Robert Morton Organ has been a labor of love for Evans. When asked if he felt like he and the organ were old friends he answered "absolutely."

Recently Evans and Roger Smith, director of the non-profit Temple Theatre, modified the organ so that it could be raised and lowered during a performance. That involved extending nearly 900 connections inside the organ.

Smith, a former theater organist himself, has built several pipe organs.

"That's why I came here because I wanted an old theater with a pipe organ," Smith said. "And what people don't realize in any pipe organ - it's really the room that makes the organ. You could take that pipe organ and put it in a room with low ceilings and it wouldn't sound as good. It's the room that makes the difference. Frank had volunteered all these years, and it was maintained exactly the way it was done from day one. Frank maintained it wholeheartedly."

Smith wants to upgrade the organ.

"The organ is getting older now, so I suggested we start the Frank Evans organ restoration fund. Or even call it the Frank Evans Theatre Organ. He's built/redone an exact new console with new tabs and everything. Did it all out of his own pocket," Evans said. "So I'd like to start a fundraiser for local people that are needing a tax write off. Both organizations, the Temple Theatre and the Magnolia Organic Theatre Club are 501c3 non-profits. So any donation is tax deductible."

"Our goal is to add more color and voices to the organ," Smith said. "It will really sound like a knock out by the time we are finished."

Evans says the work done would ensure that the organ would be available to be enjoyed for another 50-75 years.

For more information on submitting a donation or to schedule a tour of the organ, call the Temple Theatre at (601) 693-5353.

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