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70 Years of Pipes and Pedals


The mighty Wurlitzer rises out of the Orpheum Theater orchestra pit and a slight, white-haired figure is boosted aboard. Gaylord Carter, 89, is about to blast the dust out of the big pipe organ.

The cavernous, carved and gilded theater is empty save for our little group, which includes a contingent from the Los Angeles Theater Organ Society who come early every Saturday to fine-tune the 64-year-old organ.

To them, Carter is Gaylord the icon. He was playing theater organ when theaters were theaters and movies were silent.

But even icons have to deal with glitches. The Wurlitzer has gotten itself hung up on a note. "It gets out of whack, just like me," joked Carter, after calling it quits for the day.

But on Wednesday, he'll return to the Orpheum at 8th and Broadway to help kick off the L.A. Conservancy's "Last Remaining Seats" series of classic films in historic theaters.

It'll be Carter at the Wurlitzer as Buster Keaton romps through "One Week." Seventy years ago, Carter was playing for Buster Keaton films their first time around.

Carter is remembering those days as we head home to his classic Richard Neutra house, high on a San Pedro bluff overlooking the ocean. Most days, he does a turn at his triple keyboard electronic organ, where his only concession to age is a booster seat to steady him.

Today, there'll be an impromptu concert for his visitor. "This is battle music" (thunderous) . . . "This is villain music" (ominous). . . .

Then, as quick as the flip of the vibrato key, the instrument becomes a church organ and Carter segues into the doxology ("Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow").

The keyboard is Gaylord Carter's playground. Age (he'll be 90 on Aug. 3) and infirmity (Parkinson's disease, a stroke) have slowed him a bit, but at the organ he's still the 17-year-old playing for silent movies at the Sunshine Theater in Inglewood--"$2 for the Sunday matinee."

That was in 1922, the year his family moved West from Wichita, Kan. A few years later, he moved to the Seville Theater in Inglewood where, during the run of "The Kid Brother," the film's star, Harold Lloyd, popped by "to see if he was getting his proper percentage."

Impressed, Lloyd recommended young Carter to management at Grauman's Million Dollar Theater at 3rd and Broadway and, in 1926, Carter was hired.

He remembers Lloyd telling him, "Gaylord, when they're laughing, play softly. It's when they're not laughing that I need you."

Before talkies, the organist would be given a scene-by-scene description of the film and a few bars of suggested music. The rest was up to him. "Some of my best ideas would come to me while the picture was going," Carter says.

One of those was vetoed by Lloyd. In scoring "Safety Last," the famous film in which Lloyd dangles from a skyscraper clock, Carter recalls, "I swung into 'Time on My Hands.' Harold said, 'Gaylord, I'll do the jokes.' "

In 1923, Lon Chaney made "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and, two years later, "The Phantom of the Opera." That was Gaylord Carter at the organ.

To please his father, a Midwestern church organist who didn't think people made good money playing organ, Carter enrolled in pre-law at UCLA, but quit a year short of graduating.

When asked by a college adviser, "Is your problem financial?" Carter said, "Yes. I'm making too much money."

By 1927, the movies had moved on to sound ("We all thought it was just a phase," Carter says), and by 1930, he had moved to the Paramount Theater, at 6th and Hill.

Despite the fact that theaters had dumped their orchestras, the Paramount kept Carter on as organ soloist--"For years I did sing-a-longs." But by 1935 radio and the "Amos 'n' Andy" show beckoned.

Carter stayed seven years, doing two 15-minute live shows a day (one for each coast) for seven years.

During World War II, he spent three years as a Naval officer in the Aleutians. As motion picture officer for his unit, "I was the Louis B. Mayer of Alaska," he quips.

Returning to Los Angeles and to radio, Carter went to CBS for "The Whistler," "Suspense" and a prize-driven show called "Bride and Groom."

"I played a wedding five times a week for five years," says the lifelong bachelor.

In the '50s, that new medium, TV, came courting. That was Carter on KCOP's "Everybody Sing With Gaylord.' Then, in the '60s, another generation discovered silent films, reviving Carter's career as theater organist with bookings throughout the United States, Europe and Australia.

He was in demand, he insists, partly because "a lot of concert organists didn't like the spotlight to go off them and onto the screen. I was happy to be in the dark."

But a perusal of his "ego trip wall" at home tells a different story. Citations from cities, states and counties. An Organist of the Year award from the American Theater Organ Society. A plaque from Paramount, for which he scored a dozen classic films--including "Wings"--for home video in the '80s.

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