Guest organist John Barratta sits at the Grand Theater's 1923 Marr & Colton 2 manual, 7 rank theater organ as the character Quasimodo from the 1923 silent film "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" appears on the screen. Barratta provided the accompanying music, which he wrote for the film, for a show this past Sunday afternoon.
The silent story of Quasimodo never sounded so good.
On Sunday, The Grand Theater finished their 2012 silent film series with the 1923 “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” featuring the musical accompaniment of organist John Barratta. Customers were treated to a digitally restored version of the film along with Barratta’s original score to highlight this enduring story of friendship and redemption.
The 1923 Marr & Colton 2 manual, 7 rank theater organ came to The Grand Theater in 2009. It had been originally installed in the Rivoli Theater in Chicopee, Massachusetts. In the late 1970s, the organ was purchased as a gift for Carl Black, who serves as The Grand Theater’s house organist. Black and his father painstakingly restored the antique organ, with the accompanying pipe work housed in his family’s garage.
Today, over 480 pipes are tucked into the space behind the theater’s stage and screen, along with an assortment of chimes, bells, drums and horns to complete the ensemble. While the installation of such an elaborate instrument was a massive undertaking, theater owner Ed Buchinski explained it was a labor of love after restoring the theater to its original ambiance.
“We wanted to do something that showed how a theater like this one operated during that time, not just how it looked,” Buchinski said.
Ironically, Buchinski went on to explain that the original theater owner, Warren Fenstermacher, served as the conductor for the East Greenville Orchestra and therefore used musicians rather than an organ for theater accompaniment. The Grand’s former rival theater, The Aurora in Pennsburg, did have an organ, although it was much less intricate than the one installed at The Grand today.
While theater customers are treated on most weekend evenings to a pre-show recital, one of the crowning accomplishments of any theater organ is its ability to accompany a silent film. Since the organ’s installation, the theater has run a series each year of three silent film dates that can be nostalgic for some while introducing others to a lost art.
Over 480 pipes are crammed into spaces behind the theater’s stage, screen and areas surrounding the screen along with an assortment of chimes, bells, drums and horns to complete an the ensemble needed for a show.
Guest Organist John Barratta has kept the art form alive by continuing to produce original scores for silent film showings. Barratta explained that, while a few silent films did have written scores, most left the task of accompanying the films to a house organist.
“This was not the real work,” Barratta explained, referring to his Sunday performance. “The real work is at home for literally hours outlining the film, writing music that’s appropriate, assigning themes for each character if needed and adding sound effects.”
In addition to his work with silent films, Baratta serves as the house organist for the Newtown Theater in New Jersey and the Director of Music for Grace Evangelical Church in River Edge, New Jersey. Barratta’s musical abilities have garnered numerous awards. Having recently retired after teaching music for over 30 years, Barratta has more time to spend on the often labor intensive undertaking of scoring silent films. He estimates spending over 25 hours reviewing “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” to create his original score for Sunday.
“It’s a lot of fun but you really have to know the movie,” Barratta said.
Whether for the historical significance, love of classic films, or mere curiosity, close to one hundred patrons of all ages turned out on Sunday to see “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” While the next silent film series will not take place until 2013 (The 1921 film “The Sheik” starring Rudolph Valentino may be on the roster), theater patrons will have many opportunities to hear house organist Carl Black throughout the holiday season.