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BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Organist Jim Riggs plays for the silent film “Feel My Pulse” starring Bebe Daniels (on screen). “Feel My Pulse” was played at the Paramount Theatre’s opening night March 1, 1928, with the same Mighty Wurlitzer organ used to accompany the film.

The experts’ favorite silent movies

University of Washington professor Jennifer Bean, a frequent guest speaker at the Paramount Theatre’s silent-movie series, knows more about silent films than Stephen Hawking knows about physics. So we asked her, and several other experts, to tell us about their favorites. Click on a poster to read their comments.


INTERACTIVE BY GARLAND POTTS / THE SEATTLE TIMES

THIS THEATRE opening must be the bee’s knees if they’re making Seattle’s mayor, Bertha Knight Landes, pay 50 cents to get in, just like everyone else. Newspaper photographers are asking her to pose with Frank Edwards, who’s running against her on his platform of, well, being a man. Bertha looks like she just ate some bad lutefisk.

At least she gets to go to the front of the line. Thousands dressed in glad rags are eight abreast, lined up for blocks. Some have been waiting for hours. March 1, 1928, is finally here, opening night for the Seattle Theatre.

People are asking why anyone would build the most opulent theatre in a city full of opulent theatres at this location, on the corner of Ninth Avenue and Pine Street, blocks away from all the fancy movie houses downtown. There’s been a lot of chatter about this place, that’s for sure.

Today’s Seattle Daily Times breathlessly describes it as “a magnificent cathedral of entertainment.” Inside, the paper says, patrons will discover “indescribable beauty!” and “incomparable art!” Actually, it’s even better than advertised, with hand-woven French carpeting, a majestic chandelier and many other wonderful surprises whose sheer splendor can be conveyed only by using a lot of exclamation points!

Everything’s jake with the entertainment, including the dazzling New York stage show. Renaldo Baggot and Donovan Moore — billed as Ron and Don (That Diverting Duo) at the Grand Organ — perform on the Wurlitzer theatre organ.

The evening’s finale is the film “Feel My Pulse,” and this is where the organ really shines — its rich symphony of sounds envelops the audience, creating an orchestral feel one minute, playfully adding special effects the next. It’s always in tune with the action on the screen, creating suspense, or humor. This is what these organs are built for, after all. Bebe Daniels and William Powell receive top billing in the movie, but the real star tonight is the Mighty Wurlitzer organ.

Too bad it’s already obsolete.

THE MIGHTY WURLITZER arrived in Seattle as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd were still making great silent movies. Of course, back then they were just called movies. Talkies hadn’t really caught on, but they were about to. “The Jazz Singer,” the first popular feature-length film with dialogue, had been released Oct. 6, 1927.

The Wurlitzer company at this time was cranking out organs at its factory in North Tonawanda, N.Y. Jesse Crawford, the Chuck Berry of theatre organists, was asked by the popular Publix Theatres chain to design a 4/20 — four manuals (keyboards) and 20 ranks (sets of pipes, at least 61 pipes for each rank). Wurlitzer produced 25 of them, and from 1925 through 1931 designated 18 as Publix 1 models and delivered them to the grandest movie houses in the chain. The Opus 1819 was loaded on a railcar and shipped to Seattle on Dec. 23, 1927, for a price of $46,500.

The Seattle Theatre — it was renamed the Paramount in 1930 — was not the only place in town with an organ. In fact, Seattle was home to more than 50 movie houses, almost all with organs, and was known as the “cradle of the theatre organ” in the late 1920s.

Seattle’s Mighty Wurlitzer was a beauty. The console was white and gold, a Louis XVI design with Rococo brackets. A four-man crew spent two weeks installing the pipes and nine tuned percussion instruments in chambers high above and to the sides of the stage.

But by December 1928, the theatre had shown its first talkie. Suddenly, no one had any use for theatre organs. Or theatre organists, for that matter. Ron and Don’s last regular performance at the theatre came in 1929.

Over the years, many of these instruments were taken apart, their pipes sold for scrap metal, their ornate consoles tossed into dumpsters. Some were moved to pizza parlors, private homes, ice-skating rinks, churches.

But the Paramount’s organ would eventually make a comeback, one that would require a near miracle — a savior with the money and energy to restore a dilapidated theatre, a revival of interest in silent films, and a hardworking, meticulous crew of nerds to care for it. All that, and a little luck.

BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Organist Jim Riggs “plays the crowd in” before a silent movie in June. “We are thrilled with the increased interest in the art of cinema and the treasure we have in the Mighty Wurlitzer,” says Seattle Theatre Group’s Vicky Lee, who curates the series.

BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Organist Jim Riggs flies in from Wichita, Kan., to play at the Paramount Theatre’s silent-movie series. He has been the organist for the series since replacing Dennis James in 2009.

A video about the Mighty Wurlitzer from Seattle Theatre Group.

AS THE 1930s wore on, the Paramount’s Wurlitzer was rarely played, and by the 1950s it had fallen silent altogether.

“Theatre organs were being thrown away. Nobody could ever imagine them being used again,” says Mark Andersen, a Kenmore organist, technician and organ builder. “Thousands were thrown out and junked. There are very, very few that still exist.”

The Paramount’s organ probably would have been tossed out, except that the chambers were bricked in, and removing the pipes and all the other parts would have been more trouble than it was worth. So the organ stayed — and sat, ignored — until Dick Schrum arrived.

Schrum, a 27-year-old Tacoma native with a music degree from Washington State, moved to Seattle in 1960 and discovered the Paramount’s dusty, neglected organ. He and other local members of the American Theatre Organ Enthusiasts got to work cleaning it up, and over a couple years managed to restore it to playable condition.

Schrum played the organ at a concert April 6, 1963, the first public performance for the Paramount’s Wurlitzer in more than 20 years. In 1964, Schrum heard the disastrous news that the organ would be sold, and he scheduled a farewell concert. The Paramount owners took the Wurlitzer off the market, though, and the concert on May 6, 1964, turned into a celebration.

The good times didn’t last. Theatre organ music wasn’t exactly a big hit in the psychedelic Sixties, and the Paramount seemed to be in constant turmoil.

The theatre closed for long stretches during that time, then was sold and renamed Paramount Northwest in 1971, offering a decade of rock concerts. This was good news for music fans, bad news for the theatre, which took a beating. New owners came and went, the Paramount slipping into debt and eventually bankruptcy in 1987.

The Paramount was in danger of being demolished in 1993 when Ida Cole, a former Microsoft vice-president, decided it was worth saving and bought the shabby building.

Cole closed the Paramount for repairs in May 1994 and reopened March 17, 1995. As the renovation started at the theatre, the Wurlitzer’s console was shipped off, ingloriously, to a Shurgard Storage unit in Factoria, where it remained for more than three years. There, local organ builders and technicians repaired key and stop contacts, cleaned up the console and added a new control system. On Oct. 30, 1997, the console was moved back into the Paramount. The pipes, filthy in the chambers after the work at the theatre, were cleaned.

The Paramount’s organ is one of just three of the 18 Publix 1 models still in its original venue. The others — in Birmingham, Ala., and Denver — have been modified extensively. The Paramount’s organ has had some work done (a 21st rank, the post horn, was added in 1982) but still contains all its original parts.

As the Paramount and the Wurlitzer were getting makeovers, a city of movie lovers had discovered, or rediscovered, silent movies, thanks largely to the release of old classics on video.

BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Phil Hargiss, left, and Jake Cihla of the Puget Sound Theatre Organ Society tweak the Mighty Wurlitzer during the silent-film series. But most of the work is done before and after the films are shown. “There should be little we need to do during the series,” Cihla says.

BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER / THE SEATTLE TIMES

The Paramount’s organ is a Wurlitzer Publix 1 model, with four manuals (keyboards) and 21 ranks (sets of pipes). The stop tabs, arranged in a horseshoe design, are flipped by the organist to activate pipes.

ON AUG. 9, 1998, the Paramount began a regular silent-film series with the Keaton masterpiece, “The General.” Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush” and Lloyd’s “Safety Last” were screened the next two weeks. Organ wizard Dennis James provided the soundtrack on the Mighty Wurlitzer.

Most movie buffs munching their way through Trader Joe’s goody bags on Monday nights now, mesmerized by the enchanting sounds of the organ, probably have no idea this 86-year-old silent-film star was neglected and mistreated for so long. But there’s no doubt about the magical combination of organ, theatre and silent film.

The four films shown this June averaged crowds of nearly 1,300, and an October showing of “Phantom of the Opera” drew 1,987, a record crowd for the series. Experts speak before movies. Afterward, crowds that have grown close to 100 stick around for a free glass of wine and a lively 45-minute discussion in the Paramount bar at an event called CineClub.

Carl Bennett, who edits the website silentera.com, and UW professor Jennifer Bean are regular guests. After a film in June, they talked about what the organ adds to the silent-movie experience.

“There’s more of an engagement with the audience,” Bean says. “It feels more alive.”

During “The Wind,” organist Jim Riggs sets the mood, creating the eerie whispering of the constant wind and building an emotional connection to the characters. Audience members are anxious when star Lillian Gish is in peril, and they cheer when she shoots the bad guy.

“There’s something about the shared experience, the communal experience,” Bennett says. “It’s like eating outdoors. It’s just different.”

Bean says the fact that the organ sounds come from throughout the theatre, not just from the front of the stage, where the console sits, makes a difference.

“It’s part of the space,” she says. “What you’re hearing is not like Dolby Surround Sound, thank goodness.”

Bennett interjects: “It’s natural stereo.”

Riggs, a 58-year-old from Wichita, Kan., took over as the Paramount’s organist for James in 2009. He flies into Seattle on Sundays before Monday movies. He knows all the films he plays and works up themes for different characters.

More information

Trader Joe’s Silent Movie Mondays:

March 2: The German Silents series opens with “Metropolis” (1927). Members of Seattle’s Degenerate Art Ensemble (a 17-member orchestra) will play their 1999 original score for the film. (The two other March movies will be accompanied by Jim Riggs on the Wurlitzer organ.)

March 9: “Faust” (1926), directed by F.W. Murnau, starring Emil Jannings.

strong>March 16: “People on Sunday/Menschen am Sonntag” (1930), screenplay by Billy Wilder.

Note: Films have not been confirmed for the June series. The dates will be June 1, 8, 15 and 22. All films start at 7 p.m. More information is available at stgpresents.org.

For more information about silent films: Check out Carl Bennett’s website, silentera.com.

For more information about the Mighty Wurlitzer organ: Visit the Puget Sound Theatre Organ Society’s site, pstos.org.

For more information about the Paramount Theatre: The Seattle Theatre Group’s site is stgpresents.org. Also, the group has a historic theatres library, in the Paramount Theatre’s office tower, open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. At the library, copies are available of M. Lynn Thrasher’s book “Seattle’s Paramount Theatre: From Birth to Rebirth and Beyond.”

“I call it highly prepared improvisation,” he says. “I’m not exactly winging it.”

Riggs says the biggest mistake a novice theatre organist makes is to overplay.

“The trick is to support what’s on the screen rather than take attention away from it,” he says. “The audience is there to watch a movie, not to listen to an organ concert.”

THE CARE AND maintenance of the organ, which is owned by the Seattle Theatre Group, is left to the Puget Sound Theatre Organ Society, volunteers who dedicate about 1,500 hours a year to keep the Wurlitzer in shape. No one works more hours than crew chief Phil Hargiss.

After the June series, he and two of his crew members climbed the tight space up ladders into the cramped upper main chamber to work on the pipes. Hargiss, Jake Cihla and Lisa Kuhn pull wooden chests apart to clean valves.

“Ouch!” Cihla bangs his head trying to duck under a beam.

“There’s a lot of that up here,” Kuhn says, reaching for a screwdriver.

Most of the work is done in the claustrophobic space of the chambers because of the difficulty in removing anything. The parts are more than eight decades old, but in remarkably good shape. It helped that the Paramount never used coal heat.

“The organ has lived kind of a charmed life,” says Cihla, a 26-year-old from Wisconsin who moved here in 2011 and talked his way into a volunteer job working on the organ.

As they continue tinkering, they’re happy to explain how the organ works, how the tabs and stops on the console are used, how air is blown through the big blue hose up to the chambers, creating wind pressure, making the pipes sing. “It’s a really elegant method,” Cihla says.

BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Phil Hargiss, in the chambers at the Paramount, is crew chief for the Puget Sound Theatre Organ Society, volunteers who care for the organ. “The sound … is like nothing else,” he says. “It’s worth the effort.” The combination of silent film and the Mighty Wurlitzer “can be really profound.”

Cihla and Hargiss get into a discussion about the details of the organ, which has nearly 1,400 pipes and 4,000 leather pouches made of sheepskin. Hargiss says he thinks there are half a million separate parts, and Cihla asks if that includes screws. “Well,” Hargiss says, “quite a few more, then, if you’re including screws.”

Hargiss poses a philosophical question: “Do we consider it a historical artifact? Or do we consider it a dynamic theatre instrument? If we could have it both ways, we would. We’re inclined toward letting it evolve. The Paramount is a historic building but it’s not a museum.”

IT’S THE FIRST night of the June series, and the film is “Feel My Pulse,” which happens to be the first film shown at the Paramount, 86 years ago. Same movie. Same organ.

There’s a contest for best 1928 costume, won by a flapper and a young newsboy. A volunteer re-creates the role of Bertha Knight Landes. (By the way, Bertha lost the election to Edwards, less than two weeks after that theatre opening. Too bad. She was a good mayor who fought for women’s rights and against political corruption. Seattle honored her by naming a slow-moving tunnel-boring machine after her.)

Before the movie, Riggs tells the audience that theatre organs like the Paramount’s Mighty Wurlitzer were made specifically to be played with silent films.

The Wurlitzer, says Bennett, the silentera.com editor, has never sounded better.

Turns out it wasn’t obsolete after all.

Bill Reader is The Seattle Times deputy sports editor. Reach him at breader@seattletimes.com. Benjamin Benschneider is the magazine staff photographer.

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