Fifty years ago, Columbus came this close to losing its beloved Ohio Theatre to the wrecking ball and rendering the theater’s Mighty Morton organ homeless.
This Sunday you can raise your voice along with the organ called “the voice of the Ohio Theatre” in a sing-along marking the 50th anniversary of what, in February 1969, was billed as the final performance in the Ohio Theatre and the subsequent founding of the theater’s owner, the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts, CAPA.
The Mighty Morton Organ Free Concert & Singalong takes place in the Ohio Theatre at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 17, featuring resident organist Clark Wilson and noted British theater organist Simon Gledhill.
Wilson will lead a recreation of the February 1969 sing-along with the Mighty Morton organ, and Gledhill will perform solo numbers that tie in with the theater’s unique history.
“Simon Gledhill is one of the finest, if not the finest, theater organist in the world,” Wilson said in a recent phone interview. “He’s played for us in the past, so having him back will be a real joy. He’s working very hard to make everything that he plays that day significant to 1928 – when the theater opened – 1969, the farewell year. And I think he has a couple of surprises as well.”
Wilson says he’ll also recreate some of the showmanship that made Roger Garrett, Ohio Theatre house organist from 1933 to 1942 and a guest organist thereafter, so popular with his audiences.
“Roger was known for his sing-along work and intermission work at the Ohio,” Wilson said. “Roger had this patter that he used through the whole thing of coaxing the audience, or having the balcony (sing) versus the main floor, or having people whistle, or having people sing a round – things like that.
“It was all great fun,” Wilson continued, “and left the audience in stitches and laughing and having a wonderful time. And I’d just like to use that same thing that he did, the same words, basically, the same coaxing that he did. It worked so well.”
The songs will mainly be hits from the 1930s, and song lyrics will be projected at the front of the theater from reproductions of the original glass lantern slides that were used in the 1969 concert.
“Absolutely knocked out”
Wilson is recreating the February 1969 sing-along based on the audio recording of that concert, in which Garrett led an audience 3,300 strong, and from his own recollections of the concert.
Wilson was a kid and in the early years of studying the organ when family friends brought him from East Liverpool, Ohio, to Columbus for what was thought to be the final concert in the so-called Loew’s Ohio theater before the theater’s scheduled demolition to make way for an office building.
“It was the first theater like that that I’d ever seen and the first theater pipe organ that I’d ever heard live,” Wilson said. “And I was absolutely knocked out. That was the thing that galvanized me into deciding to have some sort of a career – I hoped – with theater organs. All I can remember is thinking at the time I couldn’t understand how anyone in their right mind could possibly think about tearing down a building that looked like that.”
Now a National Historic Landmark, the Ohio Theatre is known for its sumptuous red velvet seats and its shimmering gilded wall and ceiling ornamentation. Equally impressive and historically valuable is the theater’s Morton organ.
“It is one of about a dozen really large theater organs that the Morton Co. built,” Wilson said. “And out of all of those, it’s the only one that still remains in its original home and is being played on a regular basis. So it’s an important instrument and very unique.”
Wilson’s first experience hearing the Ohio Theatre’s Morton organ in 1969 definitely made an impression.
“I’d heard some theater organ records,” he said. “But to actually experience that in the flesh – it was a type of sound, that vibrating orchestral-like sound. And then, of course, having all of the bells and the drums and the different sound effects.
“Here was this man sitting up there in the spotlight, controlling an entire symphony orchestra himself,” he continued. “And as a kid, that was just the coolest thing in the world I’d heard. And frankly, it’s still the coolest thing I’ve ever heard.”
If you’ve been to a film on CAPA’s Summer Movie Series, then you’ve heard the Mighty Morton organ and all of its bells and whistles – literally.
In addition to creating the sounds of all the instruments in the orchestra, the Mighty Morton can produce a full array of sound effects, which were originally used with accompaniments to silent films – bird whistles, train whistles, fire sirens, fire gongs, the sound of the surf, the sound of a horse galloping – even an old-fashioned ooga horn.
The Voice of the Ohio Theatre
The fates of the Ohio Theatre and its organ are inextricably linked with the creation of the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts. CAPA emerged in 1969 from the efforts of Columbus community members to renovate the theater’s historic organ and spare the theater from destruction.
“It’s always been the voice of the Ohio,” Wilson said of the Mighty Morton organ, “and it was one of the major cries to save the Ohio Theatre.”
Members of the American Theater Organ Society banded together in 1966 to have the organ restored.
Scott Whitlock – a founder and former trustee of CAPA and one in a group of Columbus residents who helped create the plan that eventually saved the Ohio Theatre from demolition – remembers that those devoted to restoring the organ were among the people who were active in efforts to spare the Ohio Theatre from demolition.
“I think they hoped that the theater would be saved so that the organ could be restored and played in the theater,” Whitlock said.
A flurry of activity among Columbus community supporters in the first half of 1969 rescued the Ohio, and the theater’s Morton organ was allowed to remain in its original home.
The group that purchased the Ohio Theatre in 1969 was incorporated that year as the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts for the purpose of rescuing the Ohio Theatre and with the broader mission of supporting performing arts in Columbus.
“What happened was the Columbus community came together,” Whitlock said. “This wasn’t any one person. It was the effort of, I believe, hundreds of people who, each one of them, if they hadn’t done what they did when they did it, the Ohio Theatre wouldn’t have been saved.”
Recognized today as the official Theatre for the State of Ohio, the Ohio Theatre is arguably the crown jewel of Columbus’ priceless collection of historic theaters. Sunday’s sing-along stands to bring the Columbus community together to celebrate the theater, just as the community had come together 50 years ago to save it.
The Mighty Morton Organ Free Concert & Singalong takes place in the Ohio Theatre at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 17.