On a Thursday evening at the Chase Park Plaza Cinemas, the 7:10 screening of new Disney film “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” is still a good 20 minutes away. But in a sense, the night’s special feature has already begun.
Attired neatly in a white sportcoat and dark pants, seated at an electric Conn 652 organ just off to the side of the screen, Gerry Marian plays “One,” from the Broadway musical “A Chorus Line.”
For these few minutes a night, he pumps life into a vanishing art form. Audience members are still quietly shuffling into the theater, holding popcorn and sodas. Some are paying close attention to the pre-show music. Others chat or look down at their phones.
Marian’s nametag displays his one-word job title: organist.
He’s been playing here most nights for 20 years. This weekend, he’ll get some time in the spotlight when he plays his original score to the 1925 silent film classic “The Phantom of the Opera” at morning screenings on Saturday and Sunday.
The bright-eyed 70-year-old clearly enjoys his job. But he’s also serious about his work. He’s passionate about preserving the art of movie-theater organ, a tradition that goes back to the days when grand movie palaces regularly employed an organist as a sort of house band, to warm up audiences before the film.
It was at such a place — at the Fox Theatre in 1961, during its original incarnation as a movie theater — that Marian, at 11, suddenly knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. The grand Wurlitzer organ at that theater is connected to a lift and dramatically rises from the orchestra pit at showtime.
When house organist Stan Kann emerged with fanfare before a Saturday matinee of “Alice in the Navy,” Marian was instantly captivated.
“By him coming up out of the orchestra pit, full organ, spotlight on him — that was it,” Marian said in an interview at the movie theater. “I knew right then and there that that was my vocation. I told my dad that one day I would like to play just exactly like Stan. Which I did.”
Learning from the best
Kann was organist at the Fox for more than 20 years and something of a multimedia sensation in his day. He was a frequent guest on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” where he showed off his collection of quirky, vintage vacuum cleaners. Kann’s Saturday night performances at Ruggeri's On The Hill were broadcast on the NBC radio network for 10 years.
After high school, Marian interned under Kann at the Fox, and filled in for him there and at church or restaurant gigs. He earned his degree in classical pipe organ performance from Washington University, and during the 1980s, Marian was in the rotation of organists at the Fox’s Monday night movie series, after the theater closed and reopened principally as a performance venue.
Kann, who died in 2008, also taught Marian the ins and outs of scoring silent films with organ.
“By music, he was speaking to the crowd. Different scenes meant different emotions in the music. But it had to have been something original. Nothing kind of like: 'Oh, I’ll play something like the ‘William Tell Overture.’' You cannot do that. You have to be original. That’s how I was taught,” Marian said.
Marian also studied the art of cinema organ through private lessons with one of the greats of the field, George Wright, at his Hollywood Hills home. And Marian is a careful observer. He not only knows the date he saw organ pioneer Gaylord Carter accompany “The Mark of Zorro” at the Fox in 1962, but he notes that there were 2,300 audience members. He was a bit young to be attending the midnight screening, but his memories are vivid.
He also listened carefully to the score Stan Kann wrote and performed for “The Phantom of the Opera” in 1970. He’ll reprise some of Kann’s themes when he plays his own score for two screenings of the film this weekend. In December he’ll accompany the 1923 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
Though plenty of movie houses still stage special screenings of silent films with live, musical accompaniment, Marian knows of only one other U.S. theater — the El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles — that employs a full-time organist to entertain audiences before whatever film happens to be playing.
Work for solo organists was scarce by the 1980s, and Marian supplemented his gigs with a series of jobs, including nurse’s assistant. He purchased his electric organ not long before the Chase cinema opened in 1999, and offered his services.
“I told him I don’t have an organ,” said Harman Moseley, owner of St. Louis Cinemas, the chain of theaters that includes the Chase. “He said, ‘I do.’ Within two days he was set up and playing. That was 20 years ago.”
In his early days at the Chase, Marian would wait around between sets. When the staff found that they kept asking him to fill in and help out with other tasks, Moseley added him as a full-time employee.
When Marian’s pre-show sets are over, he darts directly back to the theater lobby and lends a hand wherever needed. His enthusiasm for every aspect of the moviegoing experience is evident. On a recent evening, he offered ice water to thirsty popcorn-eaters, made sure everything was shipshape in the men’s room, swept up stray kernels of popcorn on the rug and tore tickets for patrons at the door.
“He’s the best person to have at the door, the best person to greet the customers. He knows so many of our regulars,” Moseley said. “But more importantly, he’s always a pleasant and kind person to whomever it is coming through the door. He loves playing the organ, and he loves working at the Chase. I don’t know how you put a price tag on that. We all could probably learn a lot from Gerry.”
Marian frequently punctuates his conversation with laughter. As much as he enjoys himself on a given evening, he’s serious about his role as a link in the chain of theater organists, enthusiastically preserving a vanishing art form.
“Stan gave me the baton to carry the tradition on for a few more generations,” Marian said. “We want to keep it going.”
Jeremy can be found on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.
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