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The mighty Wurlitzer returns to five movie palaces.

The mighty Wurlitzer returns to five movie palaces

The opulent sights and sounds of the 1920s and '30s film era have returned to five Western movie palaces. At each theater --in Denver, Oakland, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco--you can hear a mighty Wurlitzer organ (four of the organs have recently been renovated).

Veteran organists play the elaborate keyboards of these powerful instruments, filling the air with melodies before film performances, during silent films, and in concerts. They evoke an era when movie theaters combined architecture, film, and music to create an entrancing world of fantasy, a place where viewers' eyes would never rest.

Movie-palace organs became endangered in 1927, when the first major sound film, The Jazz Singer, was released. Of the 2,000 Wurlitzers that were built, only 500 remain in playable condition today, many at pizza restaurants and roller rinks around the country.

Often combining classic, baroque, Moorish, Arabic, Byzantine, even Polynesian and Mayan influences, theater architects created extravagant illusions of starry skies, verdant courtyards, tropical rain forests, Greek amphitheaters, and art deco shrines. The organist synthesized symphonic sounds that "spoke' from massive pipes hidden behind ornate grilles above both sides of the stage.

Victims of television and neglect, many movie palaces were torn down in the 1960s and early 1970s. New uses have been found for some survivors, including for symphony, ballet, and opera performances. But at the five listed here, you can hear old organs in period settings.


Paramount Theater, 1621 Glenarm Place; (303) 534-8336. Reopening this month after lengthy restoration, this 2,000-seat art deco theater, built in 1930, will feature live shows, but it also plans four concerts this year on its dual-console Wurlitzer. Call for dates.


Grand Lake Theatre, 3200 Grand Avenue; (415) 452-3556. Classical architectural styles were used in this 970-seat theater, built in 1926 and now divided into two theaters. The main auditorium houses the Wurlitzer, installed in 1983.

The newly released science-fiction film Dune runs this month. The organ rises on a hydraulic lift to play before the first and second evening performances every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Admission is $5 for adults, $2.50 for seniors and children under 12; the first screening Saturday is $3 for adults. Silent films with organ accompaniment are occasionally scheduled.

Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway; (415) 465-6400. Built in 1931, the restored 3,000-seat theater has art deco architectural motifs that have attracted international interest. Elegant lobby furniture made from exotic woods and cleverly designed light fixtures made of frosted glass adorn the sitting spaces outside the auditorium; nearly everywhere inside, reliefs of men on steeds, ladies in repose, and flowers, vines, and leaves greet the eye.

The organ, installed in 1981, is in walnut and gold leaf, and matches the gilded walls.

Guided 2-hour tours ($1) of the city-owned theater are offered at 10 A.M. on the first and third Saturdays of each month. No reservation is required. The organ is played before films in the Explorama travel series, and during the intermissions: dates are January 26 (Paris), February 16 (Norway), March 16 (the Alps), April 20 (the Orient Express), and May 25 (Yugoslavia); shows are at 2 and 8; tickets cost $6.50.

The Paramount Organ Pops Concert Series features Lee Erwin accompanying silent film comedies on March 2 at 8:30 P.M. On Sunday, May 12, Jim Roseveare and Peter Mintun combine music from the Wurlitzer with the concert grand. Tickets cost $6 to $11.

Salt Lake City

Capitol Theatre, 50 West 200 South; (801) 535-7905. Built in 1913 as a vaudeville house called the Orpheum, the plush 1,900-seat theater, now owned by Salt Lake County, premiered its restored house organ in 1983. Crowned with a dazzling crystal chandelier, the baroque auditorium is home for the ballet, opera, and two modern dance troupes. An organ pops series and silent film showings are planned. Call for upcoming schedule.

San Francisco

Castro Theatre, 429 Castro Street; (415) 621-6120. Built in 1922, the theater has an ornate, tent-like ceiling that hangs above the 1,550-seat auditorium--designed to resemble an elegant baroque garden. Trompe-l'oeil murals in orange, rose, and pink decorate the walls. The organ is played by Elbert LaChelle every night before the first show and during the intermission of double bills.

December 21 through February 7, you can see some of MGM's greatest films. Gone with the Wind starts the festival December 21. On January 15, Bob Vaughn plays the organ to the silent film The Big Parade at 7:15. It's double-billed with Three Comrades, a sound film, at 9:45. On January 25, The Wind, also silent, plays at 8:30, billed with Camille, a sound film, which runs at 6:30 and 10:15. Admission is $4.50 for adults, $2.50 for seniors, and $2.50 for the first show on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

Photo: San Francisco: Spanish baroque ceiling of Castro Theater dwarfs big gilded organ

Photo: Denver: left hand selects stops as right hand plays manual of 1930s Wurlitzer at Paramount Theater, reopening this month

Photo: Oakland: Paramount's grand lobby features leaded-glass "fountain' filled with amber light

Photo: Oakland: lighted starburst overhead lures moviegoers into Grand Lake cinema palace
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Date:Jan 1, 1985
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