May. 30, 2020

Theatre/Cinema Organist Don Baker

Who was Don Baker ? ... and what would the ambiguous term "theatre organ style" have to do with anyone making a complete study of organ-playing ? ...
Let me first share an insider's insight ... it's a fact that any church organist of recognized ability who leaves the chancel for the orchestra pit and goes into picture playing discovers very quickly that simply knowing how to play the organ is only the beginning of movie work, that a separate art of fusion of music and action is involved the model for which is the modern orchestra, that any organ still in use at the local theatre/cinema will have many features and sound colors never found in a church organ, that a new study of registration and working the machine, repertoire, technique, creative arranging, improvisation, and orchestration to dramatize one's playing is needed, and that suddenly one finds that there are oceans more to learn.
It's also a fact that, save for a very restricted number of by-gone performers and those today who are following in their same footsteps, very little popular music currently performed holds the kind of artistry that can be heard on recordings made by the theatre/cinema organists of yesteryear whose talent and musicianship put "the Mighty Wurlitzer" on the map of musical history and in the consciousness of still growing thousands; one could go on and on about the lore and history of their art ...
But if all the "Unit Orchestra" theatre/cinema organ means to anyone reading these lines is a tubby- and brash-sounding affair that plays in the same ever-predictable "cookie-cutter" way each time, viz., with loudness and pizzazz, everything jazzed-up to the max -- in short, an aberrant by-product of the application of electricity to organ building with plenty of sauce, no beefsteak, and beckons not the serious musician ... THEN STAY TUNED ...
Donald Herbert Baker (Feb 26, 1903 - June 26, 1989), billed at the Staten Island Paramount as "the Dean of the theatre organ" and known among his many admirers in America as "Mister Medley," would be in the top 10 of the greatest theatre/cinema organists in history selected from a field flooded with outstanding and remarkable major talents [See menu bar, Slide Shows, Slide Show 9]; he was a superbly gifted musician and unique artist who possessed a virtuoso piano technique and could play in any key flawlessly, find a solution for just about every conceivable musical challenge, and was blessed with stocky fingers and large hands which could reach a 12th and easily hold common chords spanning 10ths and 11ths in open position.
He had three careers (moving picture accompanist, concert organist, recording artist), all of them brilliant enough to assure his place in the theatre organ hall of fame; his was the youngest of the great names to rise to prominence during the theatre organ's golden era, and, with fifteen long-play (LP) 33-1/3 rpm albums and more than fifty 78-rpm disks to his credit, he was a theatre organ recording star of the first magnitude.
A century ago pipe organs occupied a much more important and prominent place in American culture than they do today; theatre pipe organs were being manufactured by many organ building firms in tremendous numbers in the 19-teens and 1920's, and a great many were built with only 5-6 ranks (usually a Tibia Clausa, Concert Flute, Vox Humana, String Celeste, and Tuba Horn or Wurlitzer Style "D" Trumpet -- with maybe a Clarinet added); the theatrical organist back then not only worked the machine but was in command of a legitimate art form which was very much a part of musical culture in the way people were entertained in that time -- an art form which typically took many years to perfect.
The theatrical pipe organ, known in the UK as a "cinema pipe organ," was an instrument designed and schemed to be a one-man orchestra for the accompaniment of silent motion pictures, every theatre back in the Roaring Twenties had one, and over 7 thousand were built; there were 8 major builders -- Wurlitzer, Robert Morton, Kimball, Moeller, Barton, Marr & Colton, Wicks, and Kilgen, in that order, from most to least produced -- and altogether these 8 firms manufactured over 5K of them in their factories; about 80 other firms built the remaining ones, but fewer than 600 of these original wonder instruments are still in existence.
Baker was born in St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada, began taking piano lessons in 1911 at the age of 8, and went on to study piano at Mount Royal College in Calgary, Alberta and at the Conservatory of Music in Toronto, Ontario; his quick mind made him a rapid learner, and by the age of 20 he had built himself into a rapid sight-reader in command of a fluent piano technique and ability to improvise; this mastery instilled in him a quiet confidence to be able to handle any new music or work around any unexpected situation involving his instrument, the piano.
This man was one of those gifted souls who happened to come to picture playing with all the right stuff going for him -- a musical mind that worked very fast, a keen sense of what to look for in dramatizing an arrangement, a sharp eye and ear for genuine melodies, a willingness to make a never-ending search for new material that has a tune, appeal, and a throb in it, quick sight-reading skill, ability to improvise well when necessary, fluent technique -- he was the total package; feats of incredible musicianship at the last minute were standard-issue with him, and his fingers could fly over the keys at speeds that would have had the average player careening off the rails.
Baker came from Canada to New York City as a permanent resident in 1923 and found work as a pit pianist at the old Flushing Theatre located at 37-11 Main Street in downtown Flushing, Queens, Long Island, working alongside the 6-piece "Flushing Symphony" to provide musical accompaniment for silent motion pictures and vaudeville stage shows; on a certain night when the regular organist didn't show up, Baker, who had never sat at an organ console before, was drafted as an emergency fill-in; having all the requisites to ready himself for work at the theatrical organ, he could only come away having liked it and wanting more [See blog, The Pipe Organ Bug, That Look].
NOTE: The Flushing Theatre had one screen and 1,200 seats, was one of the first movie theatres in downtown, Flushing, Queens, and opened in 1917; the Wicks Company built an organ (Op. 315) for it in 1920, and that instrument would have been the one which Baker knew; it was upgraded and presumably enlarged in 1924 after only 4 years of service to a III/11 Robert Morton (Op. 2930); this organ was sold in 1930 and moved to the Theresa L. Kaufman Concert Hall of the new 92nd Street YMHA in Manhattan where it remained until the 1950's, then was moved to a private residence in Edmonds, Washington where it was enlarged to a non-RM, the console being lost; as for the Flushing Theatre, it was re-launched as the Taft Theatre on New Year's Eve 1931 and in 1938 was renamed the Town Theatre; it was operated by the Century Theatres circuit and then by the Springer chain in its final years; the Taft/Town was closed in 1955 and demolished to make way for a W.T. Grant variety store, which in turn closed in 1976 and was demolished; after a long history of ups and downs the site where Don Baker became inspired to launch his brilliant career as a theatre organist has undergone two demolitions and is now occupied by a supermarket, food hall, two jewelry stores, and a cell phone store.
After this light-bulb moment in 1923 Baker began coming to the Flushing Theatre every Friday morning to practice on the Wicks organ; he advanced very quickly at this, almost as if he had been given advanced coaching and already knew exactly how to train himself to play the organ for moving pictures, thanks to people like Edith Lang.
NOTE: The fact that in 1920 the Boston Music Company published the now classic book "Musical Accompaniment Of Moving Pictures" by theatrical organist Edith Lang and co-authored by George West, a work still available from Forgotten Books reprinted from an original master copy in the library of the University of Toronto, is most significant in this connection; this little book contains in capsule form all of the most essential coaching Baker would have needed at the time to guide his first steps as a theatrical organist; it's very likely that he was well acquainted with the contents of this book; thus theatre organ fans in general, and Don Baker fans in particular, will find this reprint of this century-old book of significant interest.
All who have had more than a nodding acquaintance with theatre organ know that veteran organist Don Baker earned a solid reputation in one of the toughest crucibles of all -- New York City in the 1920's and 1930's; he quickly developed a big playing style best described as "bravura" ... upon hearing one of his expertly phrased and attractively registered arrangements which could be an upbeat treatment of a tune which exudes charm, an ornamented tune full of impish chromatic embellishments, something bouncy, something a lot of fun, or something soaring and a real thriller, one gets the impression that it's "definitive," kinda sorta the last word.
He also developed over the years his own way of classifying [theatre] organs; rather than group them by the manufacturer's name he had his own system -- regardless of make, he classified them as "singing, non-singing, bombastic, pretty, or just fair."
Within the next two years he had scored successful engagements at the considerably larger Rialto and Rivoli Theatres in Manhattan, which have also undergone demolition, in 1935 and 1987, respectively; by 1925 he also had attracted the attention of the Wurlitzer Music Store in New York City where he was hired as a demonstrator and teacher.
The man was entirely self taught at the theatre pipe organ and referred to himself as a "pianist-organist", but his dramatic style of playing characterized by lengthy arrangements of songs with wide dynamic variations displayed an exciting technique that contrasted with most earlier American theatre organ recordings; one can imagine his recordings had quite a dramatic impact when released.
These arrangements of his were harmonically rich and, as stated, jam-packed with energetic technique which moved at a very fast clip and made them extremely difficult to imitate; his fingers raced all over the keys but typically not in a pattern fixed once and for all, as with written compositions.
A moment's thought shows this to be hardly surprising; the first theatre organists for silent films had to invent their own accompaniments on the fly, the theatre organ was designed around this need for improvisation, and anyone who plays it, even at an elementary level, finds themselves wading into arranging; it's said in fact that famed Radio City Music Hall house organist Dick Liebert never performed any of his arrangements in public twice the same way.
Baker therefore constantly exercised his powers of arranging which meant that it could come as a surprise that the rendition of a song one was given to hear at tonight's performance could be very different from the way he recorded it earlier.
Any Baker arrangement was an excellent example for study however, and separating it into its elements to see how they fit together to help dramatize a tune and then incorporating some of these techniques into one's own attempts at arranging has tremendous educational value; reconstructing someone else's playing note-for-note from a recording also can provide some valuable ear training for anyone with the courage, patience, and stamina to give it a try and stick with it.
Once all this detective work was done one then would be tempted to create an identical reproduction of it at concert tempo, and this, as one might expect, would jealously compete for available practice time; one should be warned however that this kind of exercise with someone else's recordings is a slippery slope which, for as long as one is preoccupied with it, puts the development of individual expression on hold and leaves them at a loss (about what to do with the next song to get it up to the same speed).
NOTE: In 1965 George Wright rerecorded for the Dot label using the Pasadena studio III/28 Wurlitzer a dozen tunes first recorded by his idol Jesse Crawford; Wright laboriously wrote out every one of these Crawford arrangements to ensure that the tracks on the new vinyl LP would faithfully follow the 78 rpm originals note -for-note with the exact same stops, touch, tempos, and dynamic changes; this copying project, a hugely daunting and herculean task, was a special circumstance however -- an act of homage and preservation of a limited number of not-to-be-forgotten arrangements reconstructed long, very long after Wright's own individual style had emerged.
For all other situations, the most important rule of theatre organ playing to keep in mind, as Baker stated on the first page of his book, is "ALWAYS BE YOURSELF: EXPRESS YOUR OWN FEELINGS AND NEVER COPY ANYONE ELSE'S STYLE."
When the New York Paramount Theatre of 3,700 seats opened at Times Square in 1926 theatre organist Jesse Crawford, brought East from the Chicago Theatre and known as "The Poet of the Organ," was hired to play the Paramount's brand new IV/36 theatre pipe organ, considered Wurlitzer's masterpiece; Crawford insisted that he did not design the instrument as some have supposed -- he simply specified the inclusion of certain String and Diapason ranks, 3 Tibias, and 4 Vox Humanas.
When the hugely spacious Brooklyn Paramount Theatre of 4,200 seats (now the Long Island University gym) opened in 1928 Baker was hired there to play half-hour concerts for movie-goers at the noon and supper hours on its IV/26 Wurlitzer; he recalled that in 1927, when "talkies" first came in, a development which dealt a body blow to the use of theatre organs, he and Henry Murtaugh used to play incidental music to sound films on this organ very softly, to cover up the surface noise of the old Vitaphone disks.
When Murtaugh left the Brooklyn Paramount, Baker continued to work there with Stuart Barrie, and to this day there still remains an inscription on the little door to the organ lift which reads, "Baker and Barrie -- their door -- keep out -- 'nuff said."
When the less spacious Paramount Theatre of 2,500 seats in Stapleton, Staten Island opened in 1930 Baker was hired there as house organist where his billing "Wizard of the Organ" attracted patrons as he performed on a smaller III/19 Wurlitzer; the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930's was a second devastating blow to the use of theatre pipe organs, caused theatres to struggle for patrons, theatre ticket sales dwindled, and the employment situation for everyone, including theatre organists, became dire.
All through the 1930's Paramount management produced films of acclaimed organists performing as portions of the popular Paramount Pictorials, or "short subjects," that were widely used in its theatres; some of these clips were filmed in different years on the spot in theatres and some in studios and later made into a single film, and the video sometimes did not perfectly synchronize with the audio sound.
"Famous Cinema Organists, 1930's -- Film 7501" is one of these films and has been posted for public viewing on YouTube; in this film Jesse Crawford and Ann leaf perform selections recorded on the Paramount studio IV/21 Wurlitzer in 1931, followed by Baker who plays four selections at the Paramount Theatre Wurlitzer in 1934 upon his return from England; two of Baker's numbers in this clip (Handel's Largo, Mendelssohn's Spinning Song) happen to be listed as recommended repertoire for the theatrical organist in Edith Lang's book; Baker demonstrated the technique of "thumbing down" to play two manuals with the same hand in "Danny Boy," and the clip ended with his sensational arrangement of Tiger Rag; this involved the use of all 4 manuals, double pedal glissandos, and multiple hand registrations, all executed with speed, flawless precision, and split-second timing.
Baker performed this feat HOODWINKED ! ... BLINDFOLDED !! ...
This demonstration was not a gimmick to selfishly advance his own career -- his respect for others would never permit him to deliberately try to upstage any of his fellow musicians, ever; in the context of the Great Depression this daring stunt recorded in one take with the cameras rolling was an attention-getting device whose signal purpose was to help out the Paramount management which was doing everything it could think of to encourage theatre patrons during desperate times and to create a drawing-card for the younger generation of movie fans who the management believed would react with favor in relation to the box office.
NOTE: Both Handel's Largo and Mendelssohn's Spinning Song happen to be included among 270 standard piano pieces selected and edited by Albert E. Weir and published in 1918 by the Carl Fischer Company under the title "Masterpieces of Piano Music"; Baker would have been 15 years old and involved in an intense study of the piano at the time of its publication; since over two dozen works from this collection are also listed in Edith Lang's book as suggested repertoire for the emerging theatre organist accompanying silent motion pictures, plus many more of its pieces are well suited to that use, it's more than likely that young Baker seized upon this resource and used it to develop his repertoire and playing skills during his formative years as a pianist (although thick and difficult to place flat against the rack, some pianists of today consider this still-in-print classic book a MUST for any serious student of the piano).
In 1932, as the Great Depression settled in and the economic motor which drove production of American theatre organs disappeared, theatre organists were either furloughed or, if their employment continued, had their salary reduced; Jesse Crawford, whose very name by then had become iconic, decided to leave the New York Paramount that year over a salary dispute, after which British organist Reginald Foort assumed the organist's job there for a time; the theatre's Wurlitzer fell mostly silent for the next three years.
In 1933 Baker found it necessary to leave New York City for an opportunity to tour England's Granada Theatre circuit as a guest organist, with daily performances opening first at the Granada, Edmondton, then the Granada, Tooting, London where he made some recordings; the latter also was the preferred cinema organ venue for radio broadcasts, and during his time there Baker also made weekly broadcasts over BBC.
Baker was destined to become a naturalized American citizen at some point, but evidently this happened after he returned from touring England since while he was there he was billed as "the Canadian organist, Don Baker."
After spending a year and a half in England he returned to New York City in late 1934 to resume performing at the Stapleton, Staten Island Paramount and continued performing there through early 1935.
Later that same year, following in Jesse's Crawford's shoes, Baker landed the coveted job of solo organist at the New York Paramount, and from then on he built up a tremendous following with his brilliant show-pieces and sing-alongs which brought the voice of the big Wurlitzer there back to life; he held this spot for an unprecedented nearly 14 years, longer than any organist at the Times Square house; it was during these years that he played on bills featuring top big bands headed by Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and others.
While he was at the New York Paramount, Baker also made his 78 rpm recordings for the Columbia label along with a host of singles for general background music and many community sing short subjects for Columbia pictures on the Paramount studio Wurlitzer; he also made frequent radio broadcasts from this organ [See blog, Slide Show 9].
NOTE: The New York Paramount recording studio located in a converted office on the 9th floor above the theatre was used for recording and radio broadcasts; both the theatre and studio were demolished in 1966, while the adjacent Paramount building was refurbished for other uses (both Paramount Wurlitzer organs were saved from the wrecking ball).
In 1948 a different opportunity knocked, and Baker and his wife pulled up their New York City roots, headed West, and bought a home in Las Vegas; while making his home in Nevada Baker played for 7 years at the Last Frontier and other clubs and hotels; this was followed by 3 years at the Harrah's Club at Lake Tahoe; meanwhile in 1948 a young California organist named George Wright was hired as house organist for the New York Paramount; Wright was to play there for the next 3 years (with Miss Rosa Rio filling in for him occasionally) in a style which was a good bit different from Baker's but nonetheless brilliant and much copied since; Baker was a hard act to follow, but so was Wright, and, after the latter returned to California in 1951 the New York Paramount Wurlitzer was used only intermittently.
After 1958 Baker is believed to have relocated his address to Golden, Colorado and returned to recording, made ten LP albums for Columbia records, and began recording and concertizing for the Rodgers Organ Company.
Beginning around 1959 Baker began a long stretch as a touring concert theatre organist for the Conn Company, a job which sent him all over the United States and occupied him three weeks of every month throughout the 1960's; during this time he made several LP recordings on Conn theatre organs and produced written theatre organ arrangements which found their way into many album books which were sold in Conn dealer stores; some of his written arrangements such as Intermezzo, In A Persian Market, and Schubert's Ave Maria were distributed for sale at his concerts while he was touring for Conn.
During the 1960's he also concertized on his own; when farewell had to be said to the New York Times Square Paramount theatre in 1964 the featured guest at the nostalgic, final concert on the Mighty Wurlitzer there was Baker, the organist who had spent more time at that console than anyone else, and he played many favorites "from the good old days."
The closing concert of any convention has to be a precarious one in that a superstar performer is needed; Baker superbly filled that role at the 1967 Convention of the American Theatre Organ Enthusiasts (ATOE), now the American Theatre Organ Society (ATOS), held at the Senate Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on the Fourth of July (photo); Don found the IV/34 Wurlitzer there very much to his liking, and with each succeeding selection in the concert the treatments became more daring.
When Don Baker was in a pipe-happy mood he threw caution to the wind and often broke a good many of the rules, with bold counter-melodies challenging the main stream, sudden and shocking key changes, and unexpected emphasis from sizzling reeds; at the same time he never departed from good musical form; he was a master of transitions linking tunes into a medley, and his modulations between tunes still included a bit of the ending tune while a hint of the coming selection rose from the ever-changing harmonies; he used a 2-handed trem effect some have called a "chop-chop" style, but he never used an effect long enough to give it any wear -- he was too impatient to get to the next thriller.
All this time the man would be sitting calmly at the console, his face a study in concentration, but knowing just where to find exactly what he wanted as though he had played the instrument for many years, sometimes generating mid-tune applause; he often had the pleasure of acknowledging a really meaningful standing ovation -- the audience had experienced a sense of greatness which had to be expressed.
Those who were blessed to hear him during these turbulent 1960's would leave the theatre, knowing full well that as they passed through the outer doors they returned to the world of race riots, Vietnam, increased taxes, the Middle East, unrest in Africa, and crippling strikes ... but they would carry with them the glow of a make-believe world which remembered the glittering theatre, living entertainers, and -- above all -- the wonderful theatre organs of a simpler and more graceful era fondly remembered; no one would deny that the effort had been worth it.
It was quite common for people leaving at the conclusion of these various concerts of his to lament that "NO ONE plays like that any more!" ... the fact of the matter is, no one played like that EVER ... save for him.
Baker authored a now out-of-print book called "A Study In Theatre Organ Style" which was published in June, 1968 by Peer International Corporation in New York City; this book included in a nutshell such subjects as what theatre organ style is, meaningful use of the swell pedal (a Baker trademark), explanations of stops, how to dramatize an arrangement and learn to read between the lines, the glissando, tricks of the trade, and emphasized the importance of thinking ahead, thinking orchestrally, and knowing the scales, chords, broken chords, and dominant 7ths in all the keys; this book also included 10 big stylized arrangements which illustrated the core of his teaching on large pages for easier sight-reading, and it came bound with a plastic comb binding made to sit flat on the rack; the stretch for the hands written into these arrangements is at times wider than someone with small hands might care to play, and, at times, one might prefer to practice two-handed glissandos a slight bit differently than the exact notes indicated on the page, but if one could have only one book on theatre organ playing this would be it.
NOTE: Volume One (2009), Volume Two (2010), and Volume Three (2013) of "The Art Of Theatre Organ Arranging" by Jelanie Eddington published by RJE Productions LLC are in-depth studies of the basics along with 5 big stylized arrangements in each Volume which illustrate the important principles involved; for the serious student of this art, all 3 of these Volumes would be important to get.
During the 1960's many theatre pipe organs were beginning to need rebuilding, and those which were not renovated in their original locations were sometimes sold and removed to private residences and restaurants peppered all over this country; many well-known theatre organists including Baker found employment at these special restaurants during the late 1960's and throughout the 1970's.
Baker was elected and inducted into the ATOS Hall of Fame in 1971; as he neared retirement he moved to Clearwater, Florida where he spent his final years; he lived a nice long life and passed away in Leesburg, Florida at the age of 86 having thrilled millions from all over the globe with his playing and having left his own unforgettable mark on his many friends, fans, and admirers in the theatre organ world.
In 1991, two years after his death, the Orlando Chapter of ATOS began raising money to provided an authentic III/18 Wurlitzer theatre pipe organ to Lake Brantley High School in Orlando, Florida as a memorial to his memory; the group chose this venue because it has the best auditorium in the Orlando area, it was where Don performed some of his last concerts, and the school promised to allow the group, once the instrument was installed, to hold 6 concerts a year there on the "Don Baker Memorial Wurlitzer" featuring organists from all over the country.
This capsule sketch cannot do justice to an artist of Don Baker's stature, outreach, and influence; he was a larger-than-life figure who deserves to have someone write his biography, a project which, in his case, would be a daunting task in terms of uncovering a complete chronological narrative of information: he was a private person who tended to keep his distance out of respect for the privacy of others, thus a good bit of the factual data which could be gathered into an account of his life written over 30 years after his death would have to come indirectly from newspaper reports, anecdotal stories which may still survive among his friends and former coworkers, or any information, interactions, or experiences which could be related by surviving family members, provided that they can be contacted.
How a pianist with no formal organ training could move into the art of theatre organ playing with such lightning speed, make a hugely successful career out of it, and even win fame from it here and abroad, is among the thousands of questions that remain unanswerable about this man.
He absolutely had a sense of humor, a keen one in fact, he needed it for his work, but he also was a gentleman and never ever -- repeat never -- made fun of or uttered a derogatory word against anyone in or out of the music business; he was always encouraging, a lifter, to anyone interested in learning to play regardless of their age or ability level; he also had a way of showing young students what they needed to work on most without finding fault; his life was filled with beautiful things, and it can honestly be said that whatever accidental sadnesses, heartaches, financial stresses, or professional jealousies he was forced to endure as he wandered through this life did not arise from anything he deliberately did to bring it upon himself or others.
He was a one-of-a-kind, of a type which will never come this way again, who stood head and shoulders above the general crowd of players, whose contribution to music made the world a far better and richer place than the way he found it, who thrilled millions with his playing, and who left an indelible mark in the hearts of those young and emerging players who learned from and idolized him ... as this author and so many others did.
Far from being an aberration lacking musical integrity, the "Unit Orchestra" theatre pipe organ and the specialized manner of playing that it demands is a matter of scholarly attention for the post-millennial student of the organ which would necessarily take into account the builders, types of installations, the sonic design, treatises and other instructional material, the organist's use of cue sheets or scores, improvisation, and the films themselves -- not because it's merely part of the history of the organ but because this specialized machine was the state-of-the-art "theatre surround sound" of nearly a century ago, the voice of the motion picture for the first 40 years of its history, and a major part of Anglo-American culture in the way people were entertained at that time.
It would also need to take into account the leading musicians, with Don Baker being one of the foremost on that list.
NOTE: A large work for organ 2 hands entitled "Variations on a cantus firmus" was composed in 2015 and dedicated to the memory of Don Baker [See menu bar, Bio & Works, Catalogue of Works]; this music consists of a Baker's dozen (13) variations on a fixed theme which may be performed on a one manual pipe organ with no pedals, a digi keyboard with pipe organ samples, or a reed organ (melodeon, harmonium); there is also an arrangement for piano; this recital-worthy piece in C Major is easy to read, contains a wide variety of contrapuntal devices, starts big and ends big, and is available for preview, playback, or download from SMP.