‘Is that a Wurlitzer I Hear?’

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Rick Parks at the Historic Elsinore Theatre, where he plays the organ during silent films. Photo by Lori Cain.

Parks sits at the Elsinore's Mighty Wurlitzer organ. Photo by Lori Cain.

Rick Parks strolls out from the left wing of the auditorium to a roomful of applause. With short, precise movements, he takes his seat, the audience hushes, the house lights fade out and he begins.

Out of the late June darkness rises a crescendo of reedy chords, whistling from nearly century-old pipes within the walls of Salem’s Historic Elsinore Theatre. For several seconds during the silent film’s overture, before the titles illuminate the screen, the only light in the auditorium comes from a lamp on an organ console, sitting just below the stage on the far left.

As the opening scene begins for “One Week,” Parks gazes up at the screen, his fingers and left foot keeping pace with Buster Keaton and Sybil Seely’s farcical attempts to build their own house. He glances down at the console every so often, but mostly keeps his eyes on the action as parts of the house (and the people around it) fall down, over and over and over again.

He punctuates each pratfall with a slide down the keyboard or a crash from one of the organ’s attached drumkits. The audience shouts with laughter, but Parks’ focus remains steely and steady.

There is no sheet music on the console, no guide for how to work three keyboards, a pedalboard and rows upon rows of colorful stop tabs to provide the film with sound and music. Parks doesn’t need it — not after supplying the soundtrack to the Elsinore’s silent film nights for more than 20 years. Not after installing the organ in the theatre with his father and maintaining it on a regular basis. Not after having played that organ for almost his entire life.

An Early Start

Parks has a sharp, almost encyclopedic memory when it comes to organs, especially those manufactured by the Wurlitzer Company in the early 20th century. Mention just about any Wurlitzer organ, venue or even the name of a town, and he will summon that instrument’s life story from memory: the year it was built, what type of wood was used, how many ranks of pipes it has, the names of the owners, where it wound up and when.

“I’ve always enjoyed history, so I like researching things,” the 50-year-old explains before describing how a Wurlitzer factory superintendent compiled a list of almost all the organs it made. “I can remember all these things, no problem!”

The Elsinore’s Mighty Wurlitzer, for instance, is made up of two organs, identified as Opus No. 244 (Parks rattles off the details: built in 1919; fairly small; modified by Seattle organ manufacturers Balcom and Vaughan to fit in a funeral home in Vancouver, Wash.) and Opus No. 1070 (1923; wound up in a Lutheran church in Helena, Mont.; had a rare set of pipes).

Parks particularly remembers the moment his organ-playing career started: one morning in 1966, when a moving truck rolled up to his West Salem home — the same house where he and his wife, Katherine, live today — with Opus No. 244 inside.

Three-year-old Parks watched the crew bring the disassembled pieces into the house. The parts “didn’t look like much until it was all put together, but it intrigued me,” he says. “It was being brought into the house from the moving van, piece by piece, (by) a crew of about four people, I guess. I was too young to help out. … I knew I wanted to play it.”

Clayton Parks had raised Rick and his siblings on plenty of organ recordings, both theatrical and classical. Both Clayton and his wife, Carol, played the organ for their own enjoyment, and Clayton and his eldest son, Jeff, briefly took lessons.

Clayton, however, felt the original instrument lacked all the parts to sound properly theatrical. Three years after installing the first organ at his house, he went up to Montana, came back with Opus No. 1070 and combined the two instruments to form the Mighty Wurlitzer that sits at the Elsinore today.

By then Rick was old enough to start learning the ins and outs of organ rebuilding and maintenance. He also started to teach himself to play his favorite theatre organ pieces, figuring them out by ear.

It may have been a valiant effort, but organ playing could be complicated — particularly for a 7-year-old who had yet to learn basic musical notes.

“I would listen to songs on recordings my parents had, but I had to listen to it many, many, many times,” he recalls. “My parents wanted me to take lessons because when you play by ear, sometimes you don’t always play things exactly the way they are supposed to be played.”

Still, he kept at it until age 11, when his parents signed him up for formal music lessons in Salem.

The Wurlitzer produced a distinct sound in his then-small neighborhood of about a dozen houses, distinct enough that when former Wurlitzer owner Ralph Bell moved into the house next door in 1978, he dropped by the Parks residence one day to ask, “Is that a Wurlitzer I hear?”

Saving the Elsinore

As Parks got older, he continued to play, eventually taking his talents well outside Salem. From 1985 to 1986, back when live organs were enjoying a renaissance in pizza parlors, Parks drove three times a week to a place called Uncle Milt’s in Vancouver, Wash. He enjoyed playing there, and the restaurant’s owners and regulars loved his performances.

But after a year of balancing the thrice-weekly, 140-mile round trip with his social science studies at Western Oregon State College and early-morning maintenance sessions on the family Wurlitzer, it got to be too much.

“It was a fun thing once I was up there to play the organ, but just having to take the time to get up there, usually getting back (at) 12:30 or 1 in the morning” eventually wore him down, Parks says. “I’m not a night person.”

At about the same time Parks left Uncle Milt’s, he and his father started talking about moving the organ out of the house. They’d had it for 20 years, but they needed space for a woodshop to build and repair small pieces for the organ, and the Wurlitzer needed a proper home where the public could listen to the instrument as it was meant to be heard.

The Elsinore Theatre, which had given up its own original organ in 1962 and left its chambers vacant, was a perfect fit. With the encouragement of Tom Moyer, who owned the theatre at the time, the Parks family moved the organ over in 1986. They remained the instrument’s owners until 1994, when they donated it to the Elsinore.

Rick Parks’ silent film performances started in 1991 as part of the “Save the Elsinore” campaign that preserved the historic space and converted it from a movie theatre into a performing arts center. He played about 12 nights a year until 2005, when the Elsinore started its Wednesday evening film series, alternating “talkies” with silent films and live accompaniment.

His performances have been popular, says Elsinore executive director Steve Martin.

“The community embraces the organ and Rick as the organist,” Martin says. “He has his fans.”

That includes his wife, Katherine, a cellist, music teacher and church organist who met Parks at one of his performances in 2009. She had never heard a theatre organ before, and had come along with a church group to see one of the Elsinore’s silent films — the name of which escapes Parks. It’s one of the few things he doesn’t remember.

The community embraces the organ and Rick as the organist. He has his fans.

He let Katherine play the piano in the auditorium after finding out about her musical training. When she came back a few months later to see another silent film, Parks let her try out the Wurlitzer.

She gave him her business card, and he eventually asked her out on a date. They married in August 2010 and had their wedding reception at the Elsinore.

Parks became a volunteer house manager during the Save the Elsinore campaign, joining the theatre’s staff part-time in 1993 and full-time in 1995. He trained volunteers, conducted theatre tours and answered patrons’ questions at every Elsinore event until the position was eliminated in 2012, but he still plays the organ at silent films, and intends to keep doing so for a long time.

Bells, Whistles, Trains and Dogs

Feature-length silent films sometimes come with written scores — in fact, many of Charlie Chaplin’s films may only be screened with the provided soundtrack — but those are fairly rare. More often, the organist only gets a list of suggested sound effects, if anything at all.

Parks, however, improvises most of the night’s score on the spot. His movements are deft and controlled, fingers thrumming across multiple keyboards and rows of stop tabs while his left foot glides across the pedalboard, but his eyes only occasionally flicker to the console he’s playing. Most of the time, he watches the screen right along with the audience, producing sound effects with barely a second’s delay.

“It comes to me really easily and it’s just a tremendous amount of fun,” he says.

He doesn’t perform completely on the fly. Once the films are chosen for the season, Parks gets the DVDs of the movies anywhere from two weeks to a few months in advance. But he doesn’t actually watch the films until a night or two before the performance.

“Typically I remember things better that way,” he says. “I only watch it once, then I’m ready.”

Sometimes he’ll listen to the accompanying soundtrack for ideas. Occasionally, he’ll disagree with it.

“Sometimes (the provided music) doesn’t fit the mood,” he says. “What you’re trying to do is make the mood music. … When there’s a love scene where the hero and his girlfriend are in love with each other and embrace, it’s got to be love scene music. If there’s a chase, there’s got to be a chase (theme) happening.”

It comes to me really easily and it’s just a tremendous amount of fun.

In “Safety Last!” — shown the same night as “One Week” — Mildred Davis swoons over a letter from co-star Harold Lloyd to a lilting melody, created by Parks’ fingers in a tightly coordinated dance between keyboards and stops. But at the classic film’s climax, when Lloyd clings for dear life to a skyscraper clock 10 stories up, Parks’ hands vibrate on high chords, making the audience’s hearts race in tempo with the music.

Suddenly, a dog confronts Lloyd at the window — and it barks.

That’s one of Parks’ favorite sound effects to make on the Wurlitzer. It’s “done with just pipes, the typical organ voice, called the tibia clausa,” he says.

Another of his favorites is the chug of a steam train — part of a pivotal scene in “One Week” — which is a bit more complicated.

“You’re typically using your right hand on the lower part of the keyboard, you hit a bunch of notes on the low end, then the steam button on the left (side) with a push button, and a bell also with a push button,” Parks says.

With the booming voice of the Wurlitzer echoing through the room, a train crashes right through Keaton and Seely’s painstakingly-constructed house. The audience gasps and guffaws, but Parks hardly blinks.

Carrying On

Even though the Wurlitzer now lives at the Elsinore, both Clayton and Rick Parks continue working on the instrument. They head over to the theatre with a crew of six volunteers almost every Monday night to clean the pipes and replace springs, bellows and leather pieces, some of which are original to the organ from 1919. They call in professional organ repairmen every five years or so to make the instrument sound the best it can.

“Unfortunately, all it takes is a speck of dirt that can mess up a reed pipe,” Parks says. “We try to do things right — we’re not going to mess anything up.”

Clayton Parks, now 82, can still climb the ladder and steps to the organ chamber 35 feet above the stage, but he has gotten too old for some of the more strenuous repair work, and Rick is well aware that eventually he’ll have to pass the Wurlitzer on to the younger generation as well.

Occasionally Rick takes on students to teach the art of playing a theatre organ. His current student, Straub Middle School orchestra teacher Will Balch, heard Parks play several times before finally asking him this past May about how to become a theatre organist.

“I didn’t expect him to answer, ‘If you play piano, I’ll teach you,’” says Balch, 28, who had trained as a church organist in his teenage years. He has only been taking lessons from Parks for about two months, and each session can go for three to four hours.

Not that Balch is complaining. He calls Parks “a very confident teacher. … Theatre organ lessons are all about the sound you make. Rick is constantly telling me not so much how to work with your hands, but how you cause your theatre organ to make the sound you want.”

Parks hopes that when he is ready to finally call it a day, Balch will take over the silent film nights. But Balch says that won’t happen for a long time.

“He’s really darn good at what he does,” Balch says of Parks. “I am a long, long way from being able to play a silent film night at the Elsinore — several years away from that. … I hope he doesn’t go anywhere, because if he does, the Elsinore goes silent.”

Parks says he will keep playing “hopefully for many years to come. Hopefully at least another 15, if not longer. I’ll work on it as long as I can.”

I hope he doesn’t go anywhere, because if he does, the Elsinore goes silent.

Parks’ aim is to keep theatre organ playing alive by exposing the art to as many people as possible, especially the young.

“It’s a sound you just don’t hear too much anymore, unfortunately,” he says. “One thing I’m trying to do is keep that sound around, so people know what it’s about. That’s why I got involved with the Elsinore years ago. … I’m going to make sure (theatre organ playing) has some hope, as long as I am able to expose people to what theatre organ is, and they can hear it live at the Elsinore.”

The size and diversity of the crowd gathered to see “One Week” and “Safety Last!”, on the last night of the theatre’s silent film season, indicates that won’t be a problem. After the final chords ring through the auditorium, the lights come up and the applause fades away, numerous audience members linger by the organ console to chat with Rick and Clayton Parks about their long years with the legendary Wurlitzer. A few teenagers and small children approach Rick — some are already budding organists, others have never seen such an instrument.

One young boy points at the console, asking how Parks plays it. Patiently, Parks start to explain the process, and he smiles.

Tiffany Vu is a writer and recovering hermit who had never seen or heard a live theatre organ before researching this story. Call her a convert.

Having left journalism for a career in teaching, photographer Lori Cain juggles her time between her husband, son and 120-plus students.