San Jose Church celebrates centenary of silent film

Franz Robert sits down at the century-old keyboard, takes off his shoes and begins playing “Misty,” the 1950s jazz standard. The resulting sound is huge, filling the main sanctuary at Grace Baptist Church in downtown San Jose, and spreading to the lobby and surrounding area where health workers are providing COVID-19 vaccinations.

However, more impressive than the sound is the equipment that is making it. One hundred years ago, this same Robert Morgan organ—at the time, a state-of-the-art instrument—was serving music and sound effects to silent film fans at the Liberty Theater in San Jose, about 10 blocks away.

For the first two decades of the 20th century, silent cinemas equipped with versatile pipe organs were all the rage. The Great Depression and the advent of “talkies” changed all that. By 1940, like many silent film stars, the organ had run out of work.

Enter Grace Baptist Church, which acquired the Liberty Theater organ in 1940—the horseshoe-shaped, two-deck series of pedals with its three-deck keyboards for recreating instruments and sound effects—and Almost all installed a year later. It’s in the church. Since then it has been in continuous use for eight decades, making the Liberty Theater organ the last active relic of San Jose’s silent film era and, church officials say, two such classic Robert Morgan still in public use in the country. is one of.

And he’s ready for his next close-up.

Grace Baptist is celebrating the Liberty Theater Organ’s centennial with an array of concerts and events running throughout the year and through to 2023. The next event is the Palm Sunday Concert which is scheduled for 11 a.m. (Entry to the concert is free. Get details),

“If we can work on them, attendees can expect to hear the tunes of Psalms, Handel, Bach” and maybe some old school show, says Robert. “I love all those old songs. It’s really fun to be able to emulate that stuff without actually hiring 50 people. ,

That’s the beauty of this organ, called “the orchestra of the one”, capable of what Robert described as an almost limitless array of sounds. It can feature those deep, soulful classic church chords as well as the old-time organ sounds that once accompanied the hijinks of Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin.

The organ can recreate percussion instruments, as well as strings, woodwinds and brass. Then there are all the classic movie sound effects, including – of course – the rumble and toot of a train running down the tracks. (Was there a girl tied to railroad tracks in every silent film, or so it seems?)

“I’ve never really heard another (organ) like it. And I’ve been to a lot of churches,” says Grace’s senior pastor, Rev. George E. Oliver. “To sing with this organ, you can’t be timid. It smells so bad.”

Oliver proved it, stepped onto the pulpit and called on Robert to play the Chris Tomlin song “Indescribable”. The result is captivating once again, as Robert weaves together a wide variety of sounds that would not be possible on a piano, while Oliver’s distinctive baritone rises over the top.

The goal of this century is not only to celebrate the pipe organ’s past, but also to ensure its future. The church wants the Liberty Theater organ to last for another 100 years.

Grace the Baptist is in the middle of a multi-million dollar development campaign that calls for, among other things, the construction of a larger main church building – and the Liberty Theater remains at the center of pipe organ plans.

“Our new building is being built around this organ,” Oliver says.

Oliver and Robert are still relatively new to this church. They reached out to Grace Baptiste in March 2021, but they quickly learned that the organ was incredibly special.

“We felt a tremendous burden to not only preserve but to strengthen the limb,” says Oliver.

Oliver says that means continuing to make it available to the community with silent film screenings (of course), concerts, lectures, live performances with theater students from nearby San Jose State University, and other fun and educational endeavors. Is. Bill Brooks on Church Campaign, working with longtime point person for the organ of Grace the Baptist.

“I want generations to come to hear the talents of those who came before and that means finding new breath for new songs,” Brooks says.

It adds a lot of starring roles to the beloved 100-year-old silent film-era part.

“It has a voice, and we want it to be heard,” Oliver says. “It’s alive.”

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