The COVID-19 pandemic has taken away countless opportunities to gather for shows. The yearning to get back into a venue and be treated to a live concert has never been more present. Others may long to view a movie with their friends. The Red River Theatre Organ Society has offered a solution to both dilemmas.
The Red River Theatre Organ Society’s annual Silent Movie Night will be held on October 17 at 7:30 p.m. The event will be broadcast virtually on the group’s Facebook page and its YouTube channel.
After speculation amongst the society’s planning committee, the RRTOS realized they “have the opportunity to create a completely new, fully online Silent Movie Night experience.”
Silent Movie Night is a long-celebrated showcase that has been around since 1974. The event revolves around performances on the Mighty Wurlitzer, a large theatre pipe organ housed in the Fargo Theatre. The machine was invented to incorporate all of the instruments from a pit orchestra into one machine to accompany films before “talkies,” and has been inside the theater since its opening in 1926.
This year’s recital will be divided into three sections. First, a wide selection of music ranging from old charts to contemporary hits will be played by local organists. After that, Ryan Hardy will play an original live score to accompany Georges Méliès’ 1902 silent film “A Trip to the Moon.” To finish off the night, Lance Johnson, a founder of the society’s Red River area chapter and maintainer of the Mighty Wurlitzer, will accompany the 1920 silent comedy “One Week” starring Buster Keaton.
“For those who have never seen a silent movie before, this is a great way to get into it,” said Hardy. “Both movies are under 25 minutes, so you get a taste of some action and drama as well as some lighthearted comedy with a lot of great music thrown in there as well.”
This is Hardy’s first time composing an original score for a film. His organ experience dates back to a decade ago when he saw he visited a restaurant themed around one of the largest Wurlitzer pipe organs, after which he begged his parents for organ lessons as a birthday gift. Since then, he has competed in the Young Theatre Organists Competition, which brought him to Indianapolis, IN; Philadelphia, PA; Tampa, FL and Santa Monica, CA. He and Johnson are now the only two regular organists at the theater.
One of the local organists playing during the first act is Alex Swanson, RRTOS’s treasurer and historian. Even though he has been playing organ for 15 years and has held various positions in the organ society, this will be his first time playing for Silent Movie Night. In fact, it was during a Silent Movie Night in 2011 when he was recruited to the RRTOS when members saw him looking at an older organ console on display in the Fargo Theatre’s mezzanine.
“We’ve got quite a gem here, and we try to garner public appreciation outside from the appreciation our little club has for it,” said Swanson.
Each film will be introduced to give cultural context. Introducing the Keaton picture will be Fargo Theatre executive director Emily Beck. For the Méliès, Concordia College film professor Greg Carlson.
“So many people that have been around the community for a long time can attest to the magic of participating in Silent Movie Night,” said Carlson.
Silent Movie Night used to be a consistently sold-out event. It was a two-day occasion, and up until around 1996, there were also Silent Movie Nights in the spring.
“We can get out of the house without needing to get out of the house. The use of creative enterprise to figure out how to do something that can still be entertaining,” said Carlson about the community impact he anticipates Silent Movie Night will bring. “That’s what Ryan and the Red River Theatre Organ Society have accomplished. “We can still have this feeling of community with the live musical component.”
There used to be around 7,000 theater pipe organs in the country, and now fewer than 500 remain. Of those 500, only 40 are in their original venues.
“The Fargo Theatre is fortunate enough to have one of the few theatre organs in the country that are in their original installation location,” said Swanson. “It’s been expanded greatly, but the original few sets of pipes are still there.”
There is no entry fee for Silent Movie Night this year, however, this event is the main fundraiser for the RRTOS, and the Mighty Wurlitzer needs consistent and costly upkeep. In lieu of admission, the organization asks audience members to donate.
To stream, visit rrtos.org or the Red River Theatre Organ Society Facebook page.