Silent films are still shown at the marquee-less Senate Theater, one of Detroit’s last surviving grand movie palaces. But the real star these days is the organ console that rests on stage.

Resembling an ornate, oversized desk, this “king of instruments” hails from the early part of the last century and served as the soundtrack to a variety of black-and-white silent movies before talkies came along. Able to replicate a myriad of orchestral and other sounds, the theater organ underscored the drama, excitement, or sadness taking place on the silver screen.

Though decades have passed, the Wurlitzer organ remains a viable player at the Senate Theater, which opened on Michigan Avenue in 1926 and continues as an entertainment venue, with occasional movies and concerts, thanks to the non-profit Detroit Theater Organ Society.

“It’s really something to hear,” says Kevin Werner, an organist and a board member of the group, which owns and operates the Senate. “People are flabbergasted when they first hear one. They never knew such an instrument existed. It’s quite an experience.”

The Senate’s organ, originally housed at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit’s New Center neighborhood, is among a couple hundred still in existence in the United States, many of them in private collections.

Five theater organs, in addition to the Senate, can be found in Metro Detroit venues, including two at the Fox Theatre in downtown Detroit. The others are at the Redford Theatre in Redford, the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor and the Stahls Automotive Foundation in Chesterfield.

“We’d absolutely be missing a huge part of our history if we no longer had these,” Werner says. “They’re a part of our history, our musical history. It’s a lost art form. We get a lot of older people here at the Senate, but they were not alive during the heyday of silent movies and theater organs.”

Fortunately, there’s been renewed interest in theater organs, thanks to aspiring young filmmakers and their young composer counterparts.

“We’re seeing a lot of young people showing interest. There are young filmmakers making silent movies and young composers scoring the movies,” Werner says.

It’s a trend the Redford Theatre, which opened in 1928 and still boasts its original organ from the Bartola Musical Instrument Co., is also is enjoying.

“Our numbers have been really up two or three years,” says John Lauter, an organist and a member of the Motor City Theater Organ Society, which operates the Redford. “And if there’s ever any situation that prevents the organist from playing – and there can be many – we hear about it and we hear about it from everyone. They come to hear the organ.”

The appeal, he believes, is the theater organ’s “very honest sound.” Theater organs and silent films are also a vital part of film history and interest continues because silent films are examples of great storytelling, in some cases, “telling stories better than sound films.”

While Werner no longer performs as an organist, he’s happy to demonstrate the organ’s capabilities. As he taps pedals and presses keys, something wondrous erupts – electrical signals from the console direct the correct pipes to sound, creating a symphony, with every instrument imaginable in play: piano, xylophone, orchestra bells, snare drums, cymbals and the percussion family.

He teases with “One” from “A Chorus Line,” and then offers “the vox humana,” a tone that resembles the human voice, an organ sound as familiar as a lullaby. Then to demonstrate how a theater organ differs from a church organ, he pushes a button and birds chirp. Sleigh bells ring.

“He’s pulling out all the stops,” says Joan Brown, president of the Senate’s non-profit group. “Do you know that’s where the saying comes from? From the theater organ. That always makes me laugh when I hear someone say that. They have no idea where it comes from.”

She’s correct. The term stems from organ playing, as far back as the mid-19th century. The idiom means bringing every rank of pipes into play, to create the fullest sound.

Theater organs became popular in the teens and 20s of the last century, part of the overall experience of watching a film in a grand movie palace, a form of entertainment that was more of an event then. Many of the organs disappeared as times changed and movie houses were razed for development.

The organ at the Senate Theater is not the original. The group purchased the Wurlitzer after it was removed during a modernization of the Fisher Theatre in the early 1960s. It was installed at the Senate after the group worked to restore the original building, which had closed in the 1950s after a brief life of showing horror and X-rated films. The number of seats was reduced to 880 from the original 1,200.

Renewed interest in theater organs is a positive trend for the Senate, which is working to raise $150,000 to restore the 1949 marquee that fell into disrepair and was removed from the Michigan Avenue façade two summers ago. A fundraiser, “Rockin’ the Holidays at the Senate Theater” was held on December 17, 2016. The three-hour event included live music (including the organ), a sing-along, and raffles. The Senate has a full schedule of organ concerts slated for this year as well.

“Most people don’t even know we’re open,” Brown says. “We can’t advertise without a marquee. No one has any idea we’re here. We’re like this little secret in Detroit nobody knows about.”


This article also appears in the Winter 2017 Print Issue of TBD Mag. Click here to order now