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Jolly good bellows

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[Times photos: Stefanie Boyar]

By BRADY DENNIS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 29, 2002


Sure, you can have your cushy seat and commercial ads at the megaplex. But you won't experience pipes and personality from an old movie star.

DOWNTOWN TAMPA -- The movie starts in 20 minutes, but already it's show time at historic Tampa Theatre.

Bob Courtney climbs atop the "Mighty Wurlitzer" organ, hidden in the bowels of the building.

His feet pump pedals and his fingers tickle keys, as he dispatches the first few notes of a 1920s hit, If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight. The tune escapes from the windpipes like steam and lingers in the air.

He hits a switch, and the elaborate machine rises slowly through a hole in the weathered wood stage. Lovers and loners, maybe 80 in all, applaud his entrance.

Courtney keeps playing, doesn't miss a note.

He moves through fast pieces, slow pieces, carnival-like pieces, nearly all composed before anyone in the audience was born.

Courtney, 59, plays for love, not money, much like the other members of the Central Florida Theatre Organ Society. Together, they open films at the Tampa Theatre more uniquely than at any movie house for miles -- or generations -- around.

During a time when many old theater organs are disappearing, Tampa Theatre's 1926 Wurlitzer bellows boldly, and upcoming improvements promise even better days ahead.

The patrons know it. The organists know it:

They aren't just playing an instrument. They're playing a time machine.

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Bob Baker plays the final notes of a song recently as the organ sinks back into the stage floor at the Tampa Theatre. The theater is one of about 100 in the nation that still have an original organ.

* * *

Tampa Theatre's shiny Wurlitzer, like the old theater itself, is an anachronism, an artifact out of place in the 21st century.

It belongs to the years before the Great Depression, when theaters were larger and more ornate, like cathedrals of entertainment. They often included a house orchestra and vaudeville acts.

The theater organ's primary function was to accompany silent films, providing appropriate sound effects as well as background music.

But the organ itself was an attraction.

One organist could replicate the sounds of an orchestra of players, not to mention a bevy of zany sound effects.

But two events in the late 1920s delivered the "death blow" to the theater organ, according to the American Theatre Organ Society.

In the 1927 film, The Jazz Singer, Al Jolson spoke and sang. Soon, theaters across the country installed speakers.

Two years later, when the Depression arrived, theaters no longer could afford to pay legions of performers for live stage shows, much less spend thousands of dollars on elaborate organs.

They began to disappear.

But some endured, despite the growth of multiplexes that now serve nachos and chicken fingers and boast of stadium seating.

The organ society estimates that only about 100 theaters in the nation still have their original instruments. The organization lists only two in Florida: one in Miami, one in Tampa.

That's a source of pride for Tampa Theatre director John Bell.

"It's a part of the building's heritage," Bell said. "It harkens back to a different era. If you go to a multiplex today, you're bombarded with ads for orthodontists on screen. To have someone performing live, for your pleasure, is a nice thing."

* * *

Bob Baker is head of the local theater organ society and one of the regulars at Tampa Theatre.

He feels almost like a rock star when he plays the Tampa Theatre organ.

"You start playing, the spotlights come on, you push that button, and up you come," Baker said. "It's always amazing to get that organ going good and then bring it up. To me, nothing is more thrilling. People love it. It's kind of an ego builder."

Baker loves to play classic screenings, like Casablanca or Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz.

He loves using all the organs sounds: a xylophone, police sirens, car horns, bird chirps, clopping horse hooves, a train whistle, a doorbell, the bass drum, the snare drum and sounds of the ocean.

He loves the fact that there are no speakers, no amplifiers, only wind and pipes and personality.

In addition to playing the show, several organ society members perform regular maintenance on the Wurlitzer. It soon will receive a 10-horsepower blower, doubling the amount of wind that flows through the pipes.

A new set of pipes is on the way, bringing the total to more than 1,000.

"The organ will have a lot of punch to it when we're done," Baker said.

He should know.

Organ playing has been part of his life for more than 45 years. And with each season comes changing duties at Tampa Theatre.

The first weekend in December brings the Christmas show. Organists play holiday music and patrons sing along as words flash across the screen on stage.

Some days, history buffs tour the building.

Other days, lovers exchange wedding vows, organist and bride ascending to the stage on the lift.

Their only payment, Baker said, is "all the pop and popcorn we can eat."

Not bad compensation for 15 minutes of fame, week after week.

* * *

On a Monday night, Courtney's 15 minutes wind to a close.

He hits the switch and starts sinking back under the stage, still playing. The audience never sees his face, only the back of his gray sportcoat and his gray hair and his arms and feet flailing away at the mighty organ.

The lights go down, the movie starts. Courtney shuffles out of the theater, briefcase in hand.

He leaves them there in the darkness, the loners and lovers, suspended somewhere in the 1920s.

The time machine worked again.

-- Staff writer Brady Dennis can be reached at 226-3386 or dennis@sptimes.com.

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