You have a chance to see history Thursday night at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. You can also hear some history, make a little history — and maybe even change history while you’re doing it.
The visual history will come in the form of “The Black Pirate,” the 1926 silent film that’s considered one of the classic swashbuckler movies of all time and was a pioneer in the use of color in feature films.
The history you can hear comes compliments of the Kimball organ in the hall’s Adrian Phillips Ballroom. It will be played by Steven Ball, the official organist and outreach director of the Historic Organ Restoration Committee, a musician with a resume and reputation that reach to Europe and beyond.
Ball will play along with the movie in the style in which it was orginally intended to be seen and heard by its star and co-producer, Hollywood legend Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
The history you can make involves being part of the audience for the first silent movie to play in Atlantic City in decades — although no one knows precisely how long that’s been.
“The Black Pirate” kicks off this year’s Garden State Film Festival, which moved from Asbury Park to Atlantic City for the first time. The movie festival is scheduled to run through Sunday in several places around town. And the silent movie — accompanied by an organ with the horsepower to be very, very loud — is designed to raise money for an even larger, louder organ.
That brings us to how you can change history by going out to catch a movie. The $15 ticket price will go toward helping with a long-running project to restore Boardwalk Hall’s world-renowned Midmer-Losh organ — “The most powerful musical instrument ever created by human beings,” in Ball’s words, but one that has been badly damaged since part of it was flooded in the hurricane that hit South Jersey in September 1944.
The new-in-town film festival got together with the historic organ through the help of Vicki Gold Levi, an Atlantic City historian and HORC board member. She called Diane Raver, the festival’s executive director, and “right away, we hit it off,” Gold Levi said.
They agreed on the plan to combine the classic movie — although this festival normally focuses on new films — with the classic music, and even an idea to encourage moviegoers to dress up like pirates for the night.
“Wear your bandana and eye patch,” Gold Levi said, “but leave your swords at home.”
She remembers hearing the giant organ more than 50 years ago and is so excited about the world starting to hear Boardwalk Hall’s built-in organs again that she’s been studying up on Fairbanks, the movie’s star. She even tracked down a local link to his life:
“In the early 1920s, Douglas Fairbanks Jr.’s son was a mascot to King Neptune in the Miss America Pageant Parade,” Gold Levi said.
People at the film festival are also happy about bringing movie history back to life to start their Atlantic City run.
“I think a lot of our filmmakers are excited — there’s been some buzz about going Thursday,” said Anne Kneuer, a festival publicist. “We’ve had a huge interest level.”
Ball, the organist, is also a scholar in organ history, with a doctorate in the instrument from the University of Michigan. He says silent movies were an important part of that history — about 7,000 organs were built into theaters around the U.S. from 1915 to 1930. But, he adds, fewer than 40 of those instruments are still in their original homes.
That number includes the Kimball organ in the Boardwalk-front Phillips Ballroom, which hasn’t been played much in recent years. Carl Loeser, the curator of the two instruments for the HORC, said the Kimball has been played in public probably just three times since Boardwalk Hall reopened in 2001, following $90 million worth of renovations.
Loeser is now on deadline to get the Kimball’s voice fully ready for Thursday — a job he got on rush notice. He said last week that he’s down to “odds and ends” on his to-do list, including individually tuning almost 4,000 pipes, in 55 sets, that are built right into the walls of the 85-year-old building. But he also had to work to reconnect the actual drums and xylophones and other instruments that are wired into the organ and controlled at the keyboard, 100 or so feet away.
“The whole idea was to be as close as possible to a 65-piece orchestra,” Loeser explains, from the days when audiences just assumed that the soundtrack for a silent movie would be live music. “If you invested a little more upfront, then you didn’t have to pay a whole orchestra.”
Ball has accompanied silent movies around the country for years — including “The Black Pirate” several times, most recently in Tampa, Fla. He has access to earlier scores for the movie and plans to play parts of them. But he’s working on his own version, a process that he says takes him a good 40 hours of creative time.
His preparation includes repeated watchings of a DVD copy of “The Black Pirate” — mostly as an actual silent movie, without the music track. As he watches, he hears and imagines the sound he’s looking to create.
But that doesn’t mean he plans to turn this evening into his own show.
“If I do my job right, you won’t even know I’m there,” Ball said, sounding like a veteran baseball umpire — and promising that all the power he has at his hands and feet doesn’t mean that watching a silent film is necessarily a deafening experience.
He quotes a bit of musical wisdom he heard from one of his first organ teachers: “There are no loud organs — only loud organists.”
Still, a bit later, in a tour of some of the workings of the historic Midmer-Losh organ — “There’s organ all over this building,” Ball said — he’s proud to make a matter-of-fact claim that the instrument, with its 33,000-plus pipes, could drown out any act that’s ever played Boardwalk Hall. And he knows the list of stars to work this stage includes some legendarily loud operations, among them the Rolling Stones, The Who and Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band.
“If we had a battle of the bands, we would win,” Ball said, sounding utterly unafraid of being proved wrong.
And in a few months, Ball looks forward to showing off the power of an instrument that he calls “one of the greatest artistic achievments of all times.”
He plans to open the doors and offer free, 45-minute organ recitals at noon every weekday of this summer. Those mini-concerts will then be followed by a free 30-minute tour of some of the highlights of the instrument — although Boardwalk Hall will continue offering the series of in-depth, two-hour tours it runs on the first and third Tuesdays of each month. The $20 suggested donation from those tours also goes to the HORC for the Midmer-Losh project.
So Ball points out that while the showing of “The Black Pirate” this week is the first event of its kind in decades, it is hardly the last. He plans a whole series of ways to get people in, and to “make the organ more a part of the life of the building.”
The HORC needs about $16 million to restore the Midmer-Losh to its full splendor — and has raised just 10 percent to 15 percent of that money so far, Loeser said.
Ball believes the key to getting where they need to be is to let more people see the magnificent instrument — but better yet, to hear it.
“The voice of the organ,” he said, “is far more eloquent in raising funds for itself than anything either of us can say.”
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