The type of music played as an accompaniment to silent films was often of a serious nature. This was probably due to the greater proportion of drama compared to comedy in full-length films.
Classical overtures, movements from symphonies, and excerpts from the lesser known operas were frequently played as film accompaniments.
By the 1930’s though, the “talkies” had arrived and the organist’s role changed. He was to provide two or three interludes each day, and fill in where necessary between films and newsreels etc. The organist was given a far greater opportunity to show off what could be done on the theatre organ. But, no longer was he hidden away in the bowels of the orchestra pit. The organist now rose up in full view of his audience. Or in the case of Walsall, the console was wheeled from the rear of the stage, to centre-stage. An illuminated surround was added to the console at Walsall during the 1930’s. Organists became a solo artists, “billed”, featured, and spot-lit!
The task of a cinema organist was not always fully realised. Many would say two or three 20-minute appearances each day can hardly be called “work”. In the organist’s eyes, he had to please his audience, please his manager, and give his theatre the prestige which ultimately increased box office takings. A new show every week, the same audience every week, different tastes in music every week - this is what kept the resident organist busy. When planning his programmes the organist had to think of them all. Whether he played a sing-along, a programme of requests, or the life story of a musical personality, the organist had to make it a show.
Last, but not least, the resident organist also had to be prepared for any emergency at any time. He had to be ready to fill any gaps in the programme, and ready to take over should there be any technical hitches.
The 1920’s and the 1930’s were two very different decades from the point of view of a cinema organist. In the 1920’s films had no sound and it was therefore the role of the organist to provide a suitable accompaniment. Picture Fittings had to be arranged by the organist for every possible situation. Organists sat at the organ console for hours at a time, with their eyes glued to the screen.
It was highly interesting work. Organists would see the film for the week on a Monday morning, and would make notes using a stopwatch. They jotted down every change of mood in the film, all the action shots which required special effects, and notes on every scene. The organist would then sit at the organ and work out what music would fit to each scene. However this was not always easy, as when the cinema was closed the organist had to contend with the sounds of the cinema’s cleaning equipment, the projectionist checking his newsreel, operators holding a conversation between the balcony and the stage, etc.