Imagine traveling through time and having a movie-going experience from a bygone era. Back at the turn of the century, movie technology had not yet evolved to synchronized sound–hence the term silent movies. But in reality, films were never shown in silence.
In the early days of the cinema, theater managers employed a pianist or small orchestra to play music to accompany films. As years went on and larger and more grand movie theaters were constructed, there was a need for another form of accompaniment that a single pianist or small orchestra could not fulfill.
Theater organs were invented specifically to accompany silent films. They are different from their classical or church counterparts as they were designed to sound like a full symphony orchestra. The organist had a full buffet of sound effects to play for the film, including tuned percussion such as piano, xylophones, glockenspiels and marimbas, as well as other effects like car horns, ambulance silence and literally all sorts of bells and whistles. The idea was that an organist could fulfill the entire job of a full symphony orchestra for silent films, as well as perform organ solos and accompany any stage shows that may need music.
When sync sound films emerged in the late 1920s, many of these precious instruments were literally ripped out of theaters and sent to the junk yard as theater managers had no use for them. Luckily, many of these instruments were removed and saved from destruction. They were reinstalled in skating rinks, restaurants, churches and even in private homes.
The organ that I play in this project is located at Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo, Calif.—a theater that originally opened as a silent movie house in 1921. Old Town Music Hall was designed to give the movie going public a little taste of what it was like to go to the movies back in the 1920s and 30s. The theater’s Mighty Wurlitzer Theater Pipe Organ was built back in 1925 and was saved from its theater by two Los Angeles musicians, Bill Coffman and Bill Field.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the theater shut its doors for an “extended intermission” for the first time in its 52-year history. As the house organist for Old Town Music Hall, I miss playing at the weekly shows and silent films. I still practice regularly on the Mighty Wurlitzer, but it’s a bittersweet feeling performing for an empty theater. After practicing a tune or honing an accompaniment for a silent film, I turn around to the sea of empty chairs and imagine how many people have sat there since the doors opened in 1921.
A movie theater is a magical place. Within these walls there has been so much laughter and so many tears—all from pure joy. I’m looking forward to the end of this tragic pandemic when the pipes will be playing for audiences once again. In the meantime, I’ll be playing for the ghosts of a bygone era who are as eager as I am to share the sounds of the past with anyone willing to listen.
From an early age, Los Angeles native Edward Torres had a passion for music. He started taking piano lessons at a very young age and, after a few years, he learned about the wondrous musical instrument called the theater organ designed to accompany silent films back in the 1920s. The theater organ is an extremely complex instrument, usually with multiple with keyboards, a pedal board for your feet and all sorts of knobs, switches and levers for the organist to control.
After many years of hard work, and with the help of the late legendary theater organist Bill Field and his world Mighty Wurlitzer theater Pipe Organ at Old Town Music Hall, Torres soon became an accomplished theater organist. At the age of 22, he became the house organist at Old Town Music Hall and a substitute organist at the historic Paramount Iceland ice rink.
Torres also performs in other venues around Los Angeles and performs in other cities around the country where these rare instruments have survived. When not performing at Old Town Music Hall, Torres continues his musical studies at Santa Monica College and teaches elementary piano for the Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation.
What comes to mind when you hear "For the love of L.A."?
When I first heard this question, a couple of things came to mind. Number one is that I grew up here—I was born and raised here in L.A. and it’s always been home. Every time I think of Los Angeles I just think, “Oh, that’s where my friends, my family, my favorite restaurants are….” But the other thing I think about is that growing up, my dad had a lot of friends all over L.A. and we would visit all these different neighborhoods. We personally lived in Venice, but I went to school in Culver City and he had friends in Echo Park, La Puente and Highland Park. The love I have for L.A. was not bound to just one place, ever. It’s just always been amazing to me how different each neighborhood is and has its certain characteristics unique to them. So for me, “For the Love of L.A.” really just means a place I can call home.
How does puppeteering/movement inform your craft?
I’ve thought about this question a lot. You’re absolutely right that there’s something that our two founders Bill Field and Bill Coffman purposefully did to invoke puppetry. Usually when these instruments were installed in theatres in the late teens and 20s, the only part of the instrument you would ever see was called the “console” and it was where the organist sat with the keyboards and switches. But when the two Bills moved here, they wanted to unmask some of the mystery behind the sounds. So for the particular organ at the Old Town Musical Hall where I work, everything comes to life and people really aren’t sure what exactly is coming to life. When I perform, I run through everything they can see and explain what the musical instruments ar., I explain how the organist can control those things at various pitches and rhythms.
In terms of movement, I always see an audience member point up to a moving part of the instrument when I turn it on and things start to happen, exclaiming “Look at that!” It is so much fun to be able to educate audiences, not only about the movement and intricacy of the instrument itself, but also the time period that came with it.
How has this moment influenced your work?
First and foremost, the current times have really impacted what I do as a profession. I started coming to the Old Town Music Hall when I was 14 and just fell in love with the music and, of course, was enchanted by our founder Bill Field who was playing at that time. As years went on, I was trained to take over the shows and take over playing, talking with the audience, all that sort of thing. So four years ago, when I took over all of the shows, that experience of live performance really became my entire life. Every week, I was prepared to do the best job I could. And now, in a way, I feel sort of left out because something I was passionate about has been taken away. For a while I felt lost because I couldn't entertain, which is what I fell in love with— the organ, playing music—but that’s when I started doing late night broadcasts at home on my small theater organ. My intention was to basically show people that, first and foremost, we were still here, but second to invite them to take 20 or 30 minutes out of their day and come with us to sit down around the computer screen and forget about the day, and let us entertain them. Let us do our best job to take you to a better place than where you are right now.
What do you have ahead of you? And what is inspiring you?
What’s the tricky thing because in terms of the future we are still on the fence of what we want to do, and what I can do as an organist. I want to continue letting people know the Old Town Music Hall is still here, providing live streams and giving people who want to tune in the chance to do so.
In terms of inspiration, our founder Bill Field is who inspired me. He started the Music Hall when he was just out of high school and I can’t imagine the hurdles he faced in setting up all the various aspects of his life and everything going on in starting a performance space from scratch. It sort of makes you want to toughen up and say, “Well if he did it… well we can try it too.” We just can’t throw in the towel; we have to give it our best shot. He has certainly been one of the greatest inspirations to me.