Not-so-silent films: A Wurlitzer organ for Buster Keaton

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IMG_8664Who says southern California has no history?

On the sprawling campus of Santa Monica High School are two hidden gems: first, the 1937 Barnum Hall, a 1200-seat theater done in “streamline moderne” style.  This is not your typical high school assembly hall.  It predates the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium that will soon be mothballed, and in fact, before that ill-fated structure was built, Barnum Hall had served as a civic center for the community.

It’s not just the WPA-era flourishes of the space that make it remarkable: inside is a classic 1921 Wurlitzer theater organ, an instrument that can simulate the sounds of an entire orchestra — a necessity back when space or money made hiring an entire orchestra to give “voice” to silent era films impossible.

“It’s a magnificent instrument that defies genre,” said one of the masters of the form, the composer and musician Robert Israel, who jettisoned plans to make films when, as a kid, he saw an earlier master of the organ in action.

MBDSHJR EC003Watching Israel maneuver the Wurlitzer, with all its knobs and pedals, is almost like watching an acrobatic performance.   Tomorrow night, you can see and hear him in action, accompanying two Buster Keaton classics, Sherlock Jr. and The Cook.

Earlier this week, I visited the theater and talked to Robert Israel as he rehearsed for the show: