Sounds of silents: Organist returns to Tampa Theatre for weekend show

- Long before movies had suspenseful music, explosions, or even dialogue, keeping an audience on the edge of their seats rested in the hands and fingers of a movie theater organist.

"The heyday, if you will, was about the first four decades of motion picture," said Dr. Steven Ball, a traveling organist now playing at the Tampa Theatre for a silent film series on Saturday.

Like Dr. Ball, from the mid 1890s until 1927, moviegoers could find an organist perched just below the big screen in nearly every movie theater across the country. They used live performance to bring movies to life.

"All the sound effects, all the music, you name it, if it happened in the picture, the organist did it," said Ball, 39. "If you do your job correctly, they forget you're there entirely."

The mighty Wurlitzer Organ was the instrument of choice, but by the late 1920s, when movies turned to "talkies," most theaters didn't have a need for organs. They were nearly non-existent by the 1950s.

Dr. Ball is working to keep the organ's legacy alive.

"It's a unique American art form, and it shows the important relationship between technology and art," he said.

On Saturday, April 28, Dr. Ball will present "Music in Film," playing alongside the 1925 silent epic ‘Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ’ at the Tampa Theatre in downtown Tampa. 

The film will show at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $12.

Prior to the movie, Dr. Ball will lead a lecture on the history of film music, from early silent films to present-day Blockbuster hits. Saturday's lecture series is from 9 a.m. to noon at the Tampa Theatre. Registration is $20.

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