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The late Gaylord Carter, famed Wurlitzer Organ entertainer, proudly performed in the days of silent pictures

Bob Cox • Apr 28, 2019 at 12:00 PM

I have been a connoisseur of Gaylord Carter for most of my adult life. My music collection displays my love of the Wurlitzer Organ and Mr. Carter.

I came across an interview of him where the famed organist comments about his long illustrious career at the keyboard of the mighty Wurlitzer.

Gaylord opened the interview by playing "Love in Bloom," on the organ. His mother once told him that he needed an opening song to identify him and launch his performance. He chose the hauntingly beautiful, "Love In Bloom." He soon became identified by it with his fans.

The reader may recall that the ditty was also the theme song of the "Jack Benny Show" that began on old-time radio and later migrated to television. Lum and Abner used it on radio for many years. Gaylord said it was a privilege to play the mighty Wurlitzer Organ for seventy years and wished he could do it all over again.

The Carter family came to California in 1922 from Kansas. He, his sister and brother went to Lincoln High School. Since Gaylord did not have a dime to get in to watch a silent film, he applied to the nearby Little Theatre for a job as piano player. He was immediately hired and played piano there for two and a half years.

The theater later bought a theatre pipe organ, which was how he began playing it. The theatre featured a different movie nightly.

Carter said that he saw all the movies that played there, sometimes repeatedly. He also played matinees on Saturday and Sunday, receiving additional compensation, being two dollars a night and three dollars for a matinee.

The organist noted that the theater was quite small for all the people attending a showing there, but they somehow squeezed them in and out. Even after all the years, he smiled and said, "I still play accompanist; I cannot get away from it. It is inside me."

They experimented with changes to attract patrons to their theater. One added addition was using a small orchestra. Although that was not done every day, they scheduled it according to its appropriateness for the film being shown on the screen.

Gaylord made it clear about using the words, "silent movies." He stressed the fact that silent movies were anything but that. He was there to add sound and accent what was happening on the screen. They were paid to pronounce the action on the screen to make it more lifelike. This took a lot of synchronization, but the result was always rewording.

The audience was not supposed to notice the music being played or the sound effects rendered. They were doing a good job when we could add sound affects and, at the same time, make the patrons believe it was coming from the screen, not the organ.

“We did not want to attract attention; our job was to add realism without receiving any credit for it. The patrons glued their attention to the screen without so much as looking at us, which was the way it was supposed to be. When that happened, they were achieving what the theater bosses wanted to hear,” Carter said.

Every picture had to have a love scene with rare exceptions. The patrons expected to see one, and they almost always got what they wanted. The organist or other workers memorized their parts and applied them with it effortless ease. It took some enduring practice to make everything happen without unplanned incidents.

Janet Gaynor was a popular actress on screens then. They acted their parts by not saying a word. Their role was critical. They acted but never spoke.

Another important feature was "The Chase." Music often enhanced a race of some kind on the screen. They had to memorize their parts and apply them accordingly.

Among the numerous sounds needed by the organ player was the tibia. Gaylord described it as being a "fat flute." It was actually a wooden pipe. All of the sounds had to be memorized and played at just the precise moment or the affect would be neutralized.

Carter played several sounds from his keyboard to give his audience perspective. They were often fast and furious. Like the old saying, "Practice makes perfect." It certainly did in those situations.

Gaylord was described as being a talent that stretched back into the silent era having "been there" and "done that." He entertained audiences for over 70 years. In the 1960s, Gaylord started acquiring and preserving old silent movies and traditional organ accompaniment. Many had already vanished by then. He salvaged what remnants he could.

Gaylord celebrated his 90th birthday with a farewell performance at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California. The aging organist passed away at age 95. His obituary read simply: "December 26, 1922 — July 25, 2018. He was quiet a musician." Fortunately his perfection of the organ can still be listened to long after his passing.

Note: The Majestic Theatre ad as seen in my article acquired a Mighty Wurlitzer Organ in June of 1926.

Reach Bob Cox at [email protected] or www.bcyesteryear.com.

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