Organ society presentation and organ restoration both labors of love

By Lee Shepherd

I’m really late coming to the table. I just discovered the Binghamton Theater Organ Society and attended a delightful evening of Charlie Chaplin films Saturday (April 13) with master theater organist Jim Ford and lecturer Joyce Jesionowski.

Performing on the Robert Morton Organ at The Forum, 236 Washington St., Binghamton, Ford cleverly improvised the “soundtrack” for four films from Chaplin’s early career.

According to Wilbur Dodge, organ technician, the Morton organ was reconstructed by Robert Melnyk and David Clark, using salvaged IBM parts, most of which are no longer replaceable. As they fail, they’re rebuilt by Dodge and technician trainees Jim Mead, Ed Pettengill, Rodney Lucas, Ed Watts and Carl Monson. The organ and the organist were in fine fettle this weekend, though.

After an informative introduction to the life and times of the great silent film star by Jesionowski, Ford played Chaplin’s signature piece, “Smile,” along with “Comedy Tonight” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and “Strike Up the Band.” He then played continuously through the films, a whole orchestra unto himself, underscoring the slapstick and poignant moments with sympathetic melodies and percussive sound.

The Binghamton Theater Organ Society, founded by Paul Stapel, looks to be a labor of love by many dedicated volunteers, as listed in the program. One goal is to rebuild the Link Organ in the mansion of the Roberson Museum and Science Center, also in Binghamton, once $20,000 is raised.

It was a thoroughly entertaining evening, complete with popcorn.

Look for the next BTOS event on Dec. 29, when Ford accompanies the films of Buster Keaton.  Visit www.binghamtontos.org for tickets and more details.

And if you want to hear versatile Ford play in other venues, he’s the church organist for Christ the King Redeemer Lutheran Church in Vestal, and will play at the April 20 B-Sens hockey game at The Arena.

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1 Response to "Organ society presentation and organ restoration both labors of love"

  1. David L. Schriber

    I was very disappointed with this program. The key and unique skill of a good theater organist, as distinguished from a classical organist, is the ability to provide live improvisational accompaniment that matches a silent film’s plot line or character or emotion of the moment. Much of this was missing with Jim Ford in this latest BTOS show – there was no obvious “suspense” or “chase-scene” music, no “skater’s waltz” type music in the skating scenes, no contrast between male and female characters, just a few tunes that repeated over and over, varying mostly by volume. The only sound effects played during the flicks were a drum boom and cymbal crash, and then not consistently. Patrons unfamiliar with theater organs, unless they paid close attention to the intermission video, were left with hardly a clue to the surprising variety of sound effects, including even bird calls, that could be coaxed from the Morton’s console.

    I guess I was spoiled by a guest appearance here in 2010 by Jelani Eddington, who did the grand tour of the Morton’s unusual sounds. He then punctuated a Laurel and Hardy flick with well-orchestrated accompaniment, including sound effects of a ticking clock, knock at the door, and separate sound effects for each repeated sight gag. That program was a huge learning experience for those who, like me, knew very little about the era of live theater organs and silent film.

    My wife and I overheard a lot of comment afterward April 13 on the amount of gratuitous violence (we might call it bullying today) in the Charlie Chaplin slapstick. My impression is that other silent films, like Laurel and Hardy, had more “plot” and less “punch/kick.” But perhaps L&H were later in the history of cinema. The introductory remarks by BU’s Cinema Professor Dr. Joyce Jesionowski were appreciated as they traced Chaplin’s life and themes in his films.

    An added minor disappointment to the program April 13 was that, while the organ might have been in full repair, the hydraulic lift was not, I understand, which is why Morton and Ford remained in the orchestra pit, preventing a good view either directly or by video of Mr. Ford’s hand and feet as they played. While I agree with Jim Ford’s view that good organ accompaniment to cinema should (like good theatric scenery) not call attention to itself, it is nonetheless entertaining, even for other organists (and I am not one), to watch the hands and feet of another commanding the “king of instruments.”