Big Sound for Silent Film

ACT I

When Madison’s Capitol Theatre opened its doors to State Street in 1928 at the height of silent film, uniformed ushers guided moviegoers to their seats to watch silent features unfold to the tune of the Grand Barton.

That would be the Grand Barton Organ, built in 1927 by the Barton Organ Company of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The organ was crucial in the construction of the Capitol Theatre, which was designed to emulate the grandiose silent movie houses of the time. Before movies had sound, films were shown with live musical accompaniment to help set the mood for the photoplay. Theater organists were hired to play a movie’s soundtrack. Music was essential to the silent film experience, contributing to the atmosphere and providing the audience vital emotional cues.

The Grand Barton’s 141 stop keys, 14 ranks of wind-blown pipes, two chambers, a wall of shutters, and a powerful electrical switching system, and the ability to rumble like a thunderstorm, wail a warning, and sing a cascading story of romance as required by the films of the day. This organ is particularly special because of its pipes, located in shallow chambers on either side of the auditorium, which creates a naturally stereo sound. With a mere 14 ranks, the Grand Barton ignited a sound through the Capitol Theatre equivalent to that of an organ of colossal size possessing 100 ranks. The instrument was cutting edge at its time, and accompanied films with a full orchestral sound.

For years the Grand Barton facilitated silent films with its powerful sound, filling the audiences with laughter, suspense, and thrill as cinema legends like Chaplin and Valentino graced the screens before them. However, with the advent of “talkies” in the 1930s, came the demise of silent film, thus vanishing the need for theater organs.

And yet, the Grand Barton did not vanish.

As the Capitol Theatre was repurposed and refurbished to keep up with innovations in theatre, film, and entertainment, the Grand Barton was not touched or played, but also, it was not forgotten.

ACT II

Fast forward to Madison in the 1980s. The Captiol Theater still inhabited State Street, but as a part of a much larger Civic Center, which is now known as the Overture Center for the Arts. A group of elderly volunteers working at the center exchanged memories of attending films at the Capitol Theatre when the Grand Barton still accompanied movie screenings.

Knowing the Grand Barton was tucked within the walls of the Capitol Theatre, untouched and yearning to be played, the group of volunteers inquired about starting a program to get the organ back to working as it did 50 years prior. The inquiry struck the interest of a Civic Center employee, Rudy Lienau. Lienau got right to work on the resurrection project, so to speak, and found an opportunity for the Grand Barton to thrive in the Capitol Theatre once again.

Noticing a resurgence of silent film at the time, Rudy found that the Grand Barton would have a most propitious comeback in the 1980s by functioning the exact same way it did in its prime: as a theater organ accompanying silent films.

After reaching out to professors at UW Madison, Lienau was put in touch with Gaylord Carter, and the two quickly struck up a friendship. Gaylord Carter was a theater organist who played back in the Herald & White days of silent film when actors like Chaplin, Keaton, and Valentino were all in their prime. Gaylord brought the Grand Barton back to life when he began playing for Rudy at the Civic Center, marking the beginning of the organ’s second wind of success.

Carter taught Rudy how silent film was really done back then- it was not just walking into a theater and sitting down on a chair to see a film; there were certain rules and traditions of silent film, which made it unique. Live music was played as people walked into the theater, and a certain lighting shone on the stage to ensure the projection screen was never white or always had an image on it. When Mr. Carter started playing the theatre organ, there was also always a live element to the movie, such as Vaudeville acts before the movie’s screening.

With the inspiration of elderly theatergoers, the help of UW professors, and the guidance and musical talents of Gaylord Carter, Rudy Lienau produced the “Duck Soup Cinema series,” which put on events that reincarnated the original experience of silent film in the Capitol Theatre. This not only brought life to one of Madison’s previously ignored treasures, the Grand Barton Organ, but also revived one of the city’s historically significant arts: the silent movie theater.

Ultimately, Carter taught Rudy everything he needed to know in order to recreate silent film movies in the 80s the same way they were originally put on in the 1920s. Rudy owes the beginning and long-term success of the Duck Soup Cinema series and the Grand Barton’s revival to Gaylord Carter, and says Carter’s stamp still remains on the series as it continues to flourish 30 years later in the present day.

ACT III

It is 2014 and Rudy Lienau is still producing Duck Soup Cinema events in the Capitol Theatre. The series has come a long way since it began in the 1980s. According to Lienau, it took 20 years for the event’s original audience size of around 350 people to reach the 1,600 it is today. A larger audience also brought a wider age demographic. What began as an event attracting mostly seniors, age 50 and up, now lures an age demographic of around 25 to 50. Whereas the amount of seniors in the audience has most likely remained relatively constant, Lienau notes, the amount of young couples, parents, and young children coming to the series is continuously expanding.The productions usually incorporate Vaudeville acts that are family-friendly, so as to keep the younger audience entertained and families coming back.

Duck Soup’s growing success is partly a result of a strong membership and positive word-of-mouth, but Lienau puts it simply when he explains there is not anything else quite like it. According to Lienau, Madison is the only place to have a “full-service” silent film series running this long.

Not only are the films shown in an original movie house accompanied by the original Grand Barton organ, but they are also shown on an authentic film projector, legitimizing the “full-service” production of the series.

The projector and film equipment used in Duck Soup productions is so rare and of such high quality, that it is not even made in the United States anymore. Rudy curates almost all of the films exclusively from archives such as the Museum of Modern art, the Herald Lloyd Estate, the Chaplin Estate, and others. Of course, the specific equipment limits the accessibility of films, so Duck Soup screenings are bound to repeat themselves. However, this has never affected an audience’s turnout. In fact, people often make a point to return to view screenings of their favorites.

Unfortunately, Rudy alludes to “full-service” silent film production as an endangered species of sorts. As new technology is continuously developing, the oldest kinds are quickly getting left behind. Rudy anticipates that soon enough silent films will only be accessible on DVD, thus completely eliminating the truly authentic experience of watching a silent film.

Even as everything around it changes, one thing that will remain the same indefinitely is the Grand Barton Organ. The instrument’s bellowing keys and pipes powerfully evoke emotion in Duck Soup audience members. Whether it is through laughter or fright, the Grand Barton ultimately bridges the gap between the past and present, unifying generations under a classic form of entertainment.

THE NEXT EPISODE...

Rudy Lienau’s biggest goal in producing Duck Soup is for the series to remain a sustaining experience. He wants to make sure the program is so successful that it still continues after he is no longer in charge of it.

Besides maintaining strong membership and promoting positive word-of-mouth, Rudy is working on expanding the Duck Soup Club, which was created to generate proceeds toward the complete restoration of the Grand Barton Organ.

The Duck Soup Club targets silent film aficionados who appreciate and wish to sustain the “full-service” production of silent film. Members receive special promotions for Duck Soup events in return for their contribution toward the restoration project. The club has already raised $18,000 in two years, and is working toward raising $200,000 to $250,000 for the full restoration of the Grand Barton Organ. The level of success the club has already generated exceeded all expectations, and they hope to continue growing.

It has been nearly 90 years since Madison’s Capitol Theatre first welcomed moviegoers through its doors to watch silent films accompanied by the Grand Barton Organ. The experience, however, is not anywhere in the past. The Capitol Theatre’s Duck Soup Cinema series is a treasure unique to Madison that should not be missed.