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Organ-izing Some Tuneful Shows in Culpeper

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The following is a guest post by Mike Mashon, head of the Moving Image Section in the Motion Picture, Broadcast and Recorded Sound Division:

When I was a kid, I associated organ music with three things: church, baseball games, and roller skating rinks. As a teenager I became interested in silent films, and most of the prints I saw were on my local PBS station with accompaniment provided by either Gaylord Carter or Robert Israel, both masters of the instrument.

Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of attending hundreds (if not thousands) of silent films with live musical accompaniment, but only a tiny fraction of these featured a theater organ–there just aren’t that many installed in movie theaters. Plus, while the number of people who can play these instruments are small, the number who can play them while accompanying a silent film are even tinier. So while I was thrilled that plans for the Packard Campus Theater included an organ, I wondered if we could find anyone local to play it.

Turns out I had to go to Italy to find someone in our backyard who fit the bill. In 2008, I was at the Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, Italy, an eight-day festival featuring silent films from all over the world. It’s a test of endurance, but for silent film lovers like me it’s as close to heaven on earth as you’re likely to get.

I met Andrew Simpson, who was there to accompany several films. We got to talking, and I learned that not only was he a Professor of Music at Catholic University in DC, he could play the theater organ! Today, Andrew entertains as our regular accompanist for monthly silent shows. Usually he plays a piano and once performed with his group the Snark Ensemble, but now we’re ready to premiere our theater organ, a beautiful recreation of a 1929 Mighty Wurlitzer made for us by the Walker Technical Company of Zionsville, PA.

Andrew will be playing the organ for two shows, both designed to show off the instrument’s versatility. Friday, October 15, at 7:30 pm features “The Man Who Laughs” (Universal, 1928), a moody and atmospheric thriller combining lurid and romantic elements (including disfigurement, revenge, and love) in one of the silent era’s most compelling films.

Saturday, October 16, at 2 pm is a comedy, the hilarious “Seven Chances” (Metro, 1925), with Buster Keaton as a man who must marry by the end of the day or lose an inheritance worth millions.

In addition, Andrew will be play before each show and give a demonstration of the organ’s many features, including its “toy chest” of sound effects. Reservations are encouraged and can be made by calling the information line at (540) 827-1079 ext. 79994 or (202) 707-9994 Monday through Friday from 9 am to 4 pm. Reservations are held until ten minutes before show time.

Ed. note: See the organ in action below.


  1. What scores does Professor Simpson use when playing movie accompaniment? Write his own or are there preserved scores from the silent era?

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