Kool Kat of the Week: Silent No More: Organist Ron Carter Restores the Music to Garbo’s FLESH AND THE DEVIL and More at Marietta’s Strand Theatre

One might almost think it was the 1920s this week in Atlanta. This city is lucky to have two vintage movie palaces with mighty organs, and both are playing classic silent movies this week with live accompaniment. First at the Fabulous Fox on Thurs. Aug. 25 at 7:30 p.m.  is THE MARK OF ZORRO (1920), one of the final three features in this year’s Coca-Cola Summer Film Festival. Then on Sunday at 2:30 p.m., the Earl Smith Strand Theatre in Marietta presents FLESH AND THE DEVIL (1926), a dramatic romantic gem fraught with passion and betrayal that stars Greta Garbo in her first appearance in an American movie.

And just a few weeks from now on Sun. Sept. 11 at 3 p.m., Callanwolde is going to be hosting PIPES ON PEACHTREE, a program by the Atlanta Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society (ACATOS) on Atlanta’s movie palaces of the 1920s, ‘30s and 40s, and their organs including Joe Patten, Atlanta’s “Phantom of the Fox”; noted organist technician and teacher John Tanner; and John Clark McCall, author of ATLANTA FOX ALBUM and other articles about Atlanta’s theatres. Highlights include a pictorial tour, playing of Callanwolde’s own 60-rank Aeolian residence pipe organ and the opportunity to tour the 1920s Gothic-Tudor mansion.

Inside The Earl Smith Strand Theatre. Photo courtesy of The Strand.

ATLRetro caught up with Ron Carter, who’ll be playing the Mighty Allen Theatre Organ at The Strand on Sun. for a sneak preview of all these upcoming events and why in the digital age, it’s still an amazing experience to see a movie in a vintage venue with live musical accompaniment. And frankly it gives us chills that Ron also be accompanying DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1920), starring John Barrymore, on Oct. 30, at The Strand, closing out what has been a four-film silent series.

Let’s start with your take on what’s so special about seeing a classic movie at The Earl Smith Strand Theatre? Why should people in 2011 want to spend a summer Sunday afternoon watching a silent movie in a vintage cinema?

The Strand is a very unique venue. It was built in 1935 and at that time was the largest neighborhood movie theatre in the Atlanta metro area. Now it is the only neighborhood theatre in the Atlanta area which has been restored (I call it an adaptive restoration) to what it was originally intended to be and more! Our marquee is an exact replica (except for the state-of-the-art digital reader board) of the art deco one with real neon that was installed when the theatre opened in 1935 but then replaced with a “modern” one in 1964 during a remodeling by the Georgia Theatre Company. UGH—it was ugly!

Then when one walks into our outer art deco lobby and views the etched glass above our entrance doors, the ceramic tile floors and granite countertops, and the metal ceiling, you are transported back into a time when a theater was more than just four walls with some curtains hanging to cover up the cement block. Then you reach the inner lobby with its grand staircase, copper-painted ceiling, ornate chandelier and mosaic-covered lighting fixtures. All of this creates an expectation and wonder of what lies beyond the ornate auditorium doors! Samuel Rothafel (aka “Roxy”), who built the largest movie palace in the world in New York’s Times Square (over 6000 seats), had a famous quote. He said “The show starts on the sidewalk.” He felt that the building, the environment, the overall experience  was just as important to the patron as the show on the stage.

At the Strand, you are met with uniformed ushers in their red Strand vests, white dress shirt and bow tie as they “usher” you into the theater and make you feel “special.”  We begin every silent with an organ pops pre-show featuring several talented theatre organists from around the Atlanta area. They play music of all genres and times from the 1920s to the present. After all, this was one of the original purposes of the theatre organ—to play the popular music of the day! Unlike the classical/church organ. We end the pre-show have a sing-a-long and then a film introduction by a live person on the stage giving tidbits and trivia about the film. As the Grand Curtain rises slowly, the organ descends into the pit under its golden spotlight and the film begins. All of this just as was done in the deluxe movie theaters of the 1920s and ‘30s.

The art-deco stage at The Earl Smith Strand Theatre. Photo courtesy of The Strand.

What do you say to people who think silent movies are creaky and out of step with today’s ultra high-tech movies?

Because of digital technology and a concerted effort to save these wonderful films from destruction and deterioration, there has been created a whole new group of silent movie patrons and lovers of all ages. Many of the films have been restored with the imperfections of deterioration removed and are now screened at the proper speed. Unfortunately, many people still think of silent films as a jerky print, shown at the wrong speed, with musical accompaniment that has nothing to do with the action on the screen. Nothing was further from the truth during the silent film era. These films cost millions of dollars to produce, had fantastic lighting and camera work, wonderful actors who were true movie stars, and accompaniment scores written by the best musicians in Hollywood.

In the very large deluxe movie palaces, the film would be accompanied by a full size orchestra of 30 or so players, or a great theater pipe organ. Many of the musical scores could stand alone as musical masterpieces even without the film. I have found that the public is crying out for films that tell a great story, with stellar acting, and where one’s heart strings are tugged. Attending a silent film at the Strand is like stepping back in time when going to the theater was a real experience and treat! The building, coupled with a deluxe program, film introduction and great musical accompaniment is why our silent film audiences continue to grow.

Greta Garbo in THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL (1926).

Can you talk a little bit about FLESH AND THE DEVIL?

I just hope we have a great turn-out. We have a wonderful digitally restored print that is of the same quality as one might have seen in 1927. This is a great film, and the musical score will bring tears to your eyes at several times. It is a wonderful story of a strong friendship that could not be broken. Greta Garbo is at her finest in this film. At one point you hate her, and then at another you pity her. Great photography, especially the snow scenes. This film was made at the height of the silent film era with the latest electric cameras, lighting and when money was no object.

How you approached composing a period-authentic score for it?

The first time I ever attended a feature-length silent film was at the Byrd Theatre in Richmond, Va., in 1986. I will never forget that experience. Firstly, I did not want to go see an old silent, black-and-white movie, filmed in 1927, even if it had won the first Academy Award. It was WINGS. A wonderful film. But many of my ATOS friends encouraged me to go, so I went. Well, I was blown away. The organist had developed several themes for the film, a main theme and then one for each of the main characters. His musical style was one where when you left the theater that night, the musical themes would still be in your head. Great, haunting melodies, that stood on their own musically.

Think of the great themes from GONE WITH THE WIND, TITANIC, PEARL HARBOR, THE UNTOUCHABLES, CASABLANCA, the John Ford westerns, the Alfred Hitchcock films. This is music that you can sink your teeth in. It stays with you after you leave the theater. It is as important to the character of the film as are the sets, the actors, the dialogue etc. It musically follows the action on the screen. That is the type of musical score I write for my silent films. Unfortunately, what I have seen on TCM in many instances has nothing to do with what is happening on the screen, has no melody to it, and quite frankly sounds like doodling on the keyboard!!

Now, this is not true of all silents. The original music from METROPOLIS is unbelievable and has some of the prettiest passages as you might hear from a Puccini opera. I watch the film three or four times and then start looking through my musical library to get ideas. Then I prepare a main theme for the film and subsequent themes for the main characters. There are then certain other special music for chases, fights, horror, death that I take from these themes and put them in a minor key, play them in a different temp etc.

Is the live organ pops variety show and sing-a-long prior to the show similar to the one at the Fox? How do you pick the songs?

Our organ pops pre-shows range from county and western to 1920s ragtime. It is entirely up to the individual organist what music they play. But it cannot be a RECITAL!!! It has to be ballads, marches, polkas, rock and roll, waltzes etc and it must not be “stuffy’ or high brow. Our sing-a-longs come from a great selection of commonly known songs that are fun to sing. Many of these are from the early 1900s all the way to the present. The words are on a PowerPoint that is placed on the screen. Things like “Bicycle Built for Two,” “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” “Old MacDonald,” “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” the “Chicken Dance.” Songs that will get the audience involved by clapping their hands, stomping their feet. We have contests between the men and the women as to who can sing the loudest, etc.

Ron Carter at the Strand's Mighty Allen Theatre Organ. Photo credit: A Day in the Life Photography.

What can you tell us about the history, name and special-ness of The Strand’s Mighty Allen Theatre Organ?

The Strand’s Mighty Allen Organ is a spectacular instrument. Originally, our plans were to install a theater pipe organ. ACATOS had two instruments that we were going to combine into one that were from two historic Georgia theaters— The Atlanta Capitol and The Savannah Lucas. Unfortunately, because of the economy, our capital campaign to raise the $300,000 dollars for the restoration and installation just was not possible. The Strand was scheduled for its grand opening in January 2010 without an organ when Executive Director Earl Reece contacted me about getting an electronic organ to use for the grand opening.

Well, a theater digital organ is not something that one can just go out and find! There are only two companies in the world who even make these types of instruments as replicas of the real pipe organs of the 1920s. The Allen Organ Company of Macungie, Penn., and the Walker Organ Company of Zionsville, Penn. I quickly did some phone calling and located a small digital Allen instrument belonging to John McCall of Moultrie, Ga. John agreed to lease the organ to the Strand for the grand opening. We had it delivered to the theater and the speakers installed in the organ chambers. Well, it was a tremendous success and the hit of the Grand Opening. It was then used for movie pre-shows and other events for about 18 months. The ACATOS decided to purchase the instrument from Mr. McCall for placement in the Strand on a permanent basis.

Then the unbelievable happened. A friend of mine from Columbus Ohio, who was very instrumental in saving the Ohio Theatre and its organ, contacted me about his very large and new Allen GW4 Theatre Organ. In fact, it was the largest theatre organ made by the company at that time, having four manuals (keyboards), 260 stops, 32 ranks, 16 channels of audio. He was moving to a retirement home and could not take his large Allen with him. We worked out a great trade of the two instruments, where he took a tax write-off since his instrument cost over $100,000 and the smaller Allen we had only cost us $18,000. We had the instruments swapped and installed the new Strand’s Mighty Allen in the theater’s organ’s pipe chambers. It took us two weeks to do the install, 2000 ft of speaker cable and several days of voicing the instrument to the acoustical environment of the Strand’s auditorium. This instrument has 24, 90lb speaker cabinets and sounds just like the real thing.

Because of the excellent acoustics in the Strand’s auditorium, the use of the pipe chambers for the audio system and the great digital technology of this instrument, it reproduces the sounds of a large Wurlitzer Theatre Organ, never needs tuning, and now has its own elevator. The console rises out of the orchestra pit 9 feet high to stage level for organ concerts and descends halfway down to picture level for sing-a-longs and silent films. It also can make the hair stand on the back of your neck or bring its volume down to a whisper. It has all of the various sound effects—siren, horse hooves, train whistle, car horn, etc., and the various tuned percussions and traps of a symphony orchestra.

Are you hoping to make it to THE MARK OF ZORRO at the Fox on Thursday and can you share a few words about what The Fox with the Mighty Mo mean to you and the city?

Yes, I will be at the Fox on Thursday night to hear Clark Wilson, a good friend, accompany the great film THE MARK OF ZORRO!! In fact, ACATOS will have an information table in the lobby of the Fox. It is hard to describe in words what the Atlanta Fox and its Mighty Mo mean to me personally and to the city and, in fact, the nation. It is a national treasure, but if it had not been for just a few people with the vision to save the Fox, it would now be a parking lot. The Mighty Mo is the second largest theater pipe organ in the world, second only to Radio City‘s Wurlitzer. But the Mighty Mo is a much larger scale instrument than Radio City. Moller built them BIG back in the late’ 20s.

Larry Douglas Embury, Fox Organist in Residence is also a personal friend and has just celebrated his 10th anniversary there and is extremely popular with Fox patrons. Only one other organist can claim that same thing and that was the great Bob Van Camp. I think folks go to the Fox just like they come to the Strand. They want to experience some nostalgia, something from the past that is unique but that is of quality.

While you’re not scheduled to be on the PIPES ON PEACHTREE panel, I wondered if you could share a little bit about your favorite Atlanta theaters and organs that now are lost to history?

Paramount Theatre, Atlanta. Photo courtesy of Callanwolde.

The Callanwolde program is going to be extremely interesting to Atlanta history buffs. Nothing has ever been researched or written about Atlanta’s lost movie palaces. I am not on the panel, but I was responsible for producing this program with two good friends, John McCall and John Tanner, long-time ACATOS member and former Chapter President. Mr. Tanner has done a ton of research on Atlanta’s lost movie palaces, their organs and organists. We will have a great PowerPoint presentation with never-seen photos of the exterior and interior of these theatres and their organs.

My favorite was the Paramount and its Wurlitzer. To me, the Paramount marquee was to die for. If you will go to the Callanwolde Website and to our program, you will see a great photo fo the Paramount Marquee. Of course, we lost The Roxy, The Capitol, The Loews Grand, The [original] Rialto, which were all within blocks of Five Points. They were all grand movie palaces and only the Fox remains! Atlanta has a reputation for tearing down historic buildings and these are some of the greatest losses the city ever had!

Looking forward, can you give us a sneak peek to your performance of DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE on October 30? And there be any surprise tricks or treats such as you donning a cape/costume as you did with PHANTOM OF THE OPERA last year?

I am currently working on the musical accompaniment for DR. JEYKLL AND MR. HYDE to be screened Sunday afternoon, October 30 at 3 p.m. [singalong at 2:30 p.m.]. It will have its themes for both Jeykll and Hyde plus Jeykll’s love interest. When you leave the theatre and you hear those themes, you will immediately relate them to the character in the film! Yes, I will be in costume, with top hat and cape!! The organ console will be decorated with jack o’ lanterns, candles and spider webs. The ushers and staff will be in Halloween costumes. The film will be introduced by a mysterious Phantom character from the catacombs of the Strand. We hope to decorate the theatre and also hope that our patrons will come dressed for the occasion.

Ron Carter plays the organ as the Phantom of the Opera for a Halloween 2010 screening of the Lon Chaney Sr. silent horror classic at The Strand.

How did you start playing the organ?

I began taking organ lessons from the Stancatto School of Music in Decatur, Ga., after having played the accordion for four years. Back in the ‘50s, the accordion was very popular, almost as much as the piano. After hearing Mighty Mo at the Fox as a teenager, I was hooked. I had heard classical or church organs but had never heard a theatre pipe organ until the Fox. It could raise the hair on the back of your head with a big thunderous chord or it could become as quiet as a whisper and all of these great sounds controlled by a single person!

I approached our church organist wanting to take organ lessons. He was in law school at Emory, a great guy who did organ work part time and  who agreed to teach me. I then became the organist at Belvedere United Methodist Church at the ripe age of 15. I continued playing into my college years, and while a student at UGA, I took a position at Friendship Presbyterian Church in Athens. I transferred to GSU and began my career in public law enforcement and have served as an Atlanta Police Officer, Cobb Deputy Sheriff, Director of Law Enforcement Services for the Department of Juvenile Justice and then retired in 2005 as a Commander with the GBI. During all these years I held part time organist/choir director positions at various churches. In 1982, I heard about ACATOS while playing a large Wurlitzer Theatre Organ part time at the Music Grinder in Marietta. I joined and have served in some capacity on the Board of Directors since that time. Of course, ACATOS was very instrumental in saving the Fox Theatre, and Mr. Joe Patten (The Phantom of the Fox) was a charter member of our society.

How did you get involved with the Earl Smith Strand Theatre?

My wife and I have lived in Marietta for over the last 40 years and attended many movies and other events at the Strand before it closed. Every time I would go through the Marietta Square and look over at the darkened marquee and deteriorated building, I dreamed of bringing it back to life. In 2003 after having lunch with a banker friend of mine and discussing installing a theatre organ in the Strand if we could get the community and business support, he told me he thought it could be done and that the owner, Phillip Goldstein, who he knew, would be receptive to the idea. We then formed a committee of local business, community and governmental leaders, elected a Board of Directors, incorporated as a nonprofit and the rest is history!! After six long years of raising funds, planning programs, having feasibility studies completed, going thru a year-long demolition and then restoration, we opened in December 2009. I have been fortunate to have served as Secretary to the Board, Organ Project Chairperson and now House Organist and also Chair of the Strand Facilities and as a member of the Executive Committee. We have a great Board and a tremendous Staff of dedicated employees and volunteers who love the Strand.

Do you only play at the Strand?

As I stated earlier, I retired from the GBI in 2005 and recently retired as organist choir director for Hiram UMC. I spend a lot of time presenting silent films and theatre organ concerts at various venues throughout the southeast and most recently in North Tonawanda, New York. In fact, I have five silent films to accompany between now and Halloween and will be presenting four silent films in the next year at the Tennessee Theatre in Knoxville, Tennesee on their grand Wurlitzer. I also stay busy volunteering for our great Earl Smith Strand Theatre and enjoying both of my grandchildren.

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3 Responses to “Kool Kat of the Week: Silent No More: Organist Ron Carter Restores the Music to Garbo’s FLESH AND THE DEVIL and More at Marietta’s Strand Theatre”


  1. Steve
    on Aug 25th, 2011
    @ 11:43 am

    I, too, saw “Wings” at the Byrd in Richmond in 1986.


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