Being the only theater organ in Maryland still in its original installation, one of our most asked-about features is consistently our mighty Wurlitzer organ. Purchased and installed in 1926, it has accompanied hundreds if not thousands of memorable performances at our historic theater! With our first Wurlitzer-accompanied silent film for the season screening on Halloween, we figured it’d be a great time to sit down with Weinberg house organist Michael Britt to get an insight into what’s so special about the heart of our theater’s silent film performances.
Based on our research, it seems like mastering the organ is quite the feat! It really sounds like you have a genuine passion for playing the instrument. What’s your story for discovering this passion of yours?
I come from a family of musicians—my mother’s family is compiled of organists, so I’d say I’m fortunate in that way. Other than my background in organ performance, there’s a lot of learning by listening. It definitely takes a lot of multitasking in order to be an organist—you have to look at the film while creating the score spontaneously. Most of the silent films in the ’20s, there was no music given! Queue sheets of scenes may be given, but that was it. Nowadays, that still is the case; however, sometimes we have the privilege of being able to watch the film before the screening.
Ray Brubacher was previously the house organist for the Weinberg and from what we understand, Ray played a part in your journey as a musician. Was there any bit of advice he gave you in his time as an organist that’s really stuck with you through the years?
I think one of the most important lessons Ray taught me wasn’t with his words, but with his performance. Watching Ray as house organist at the Tivoli and Weinberg taught me that the film is always the most important part—the music is the voice and soul of the story. What I mean by that is, you never want the audience to pay more attention to your music performance than to the screen.
What’s your favorite part about playing the organ?
I just love the instrument! I love the organ—it’s a living, breathing instrument that has incredible versatility. You know, that’s why it was chosen to accompany films. Back in the day, organs were as common as popcorn machines… they could create any and every sound imaginable to compliment what’s happening on the screen. Now imagine being the orchestrator of that! It never gets old—I’m always reassessing my performances, and never play the same song twice, because they’re all live performances.
Is there something special about the Weinberg Wurlitzer?
Well the first time I ever heard an organ performance in a movie theater was at the Tivoli. I think what’s so special about the Tivoli/Weinberg organ is how well kept and original it actually is, especially in comparison to others. In a time when most people didn’t, Mr. Weinberg had the foresight to restore and preserve the organ, even through hard times such as the flood in the early ’70s. That organ at the Weinberg has great history and it’s really special to hear something playing in its longtime home.
What’s your fondest memory performing at the Weinberg?
After Ray passed, I played at his funeral at the Weinberg, which was very hard. The organ came up out of the floor for the performance and to be honest, I don’t even remember playing. What I remember is how important it was to me… filling the shoes of someone I honored so deeply. I take performing at the Weinberg, and being an organist in general, very seriously. I love being able to look out at the audience during a film I’m performing for and seeing people having a good time! You can see the genuine excitement on their faces when the music begins.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I just really look forward to continuing my performances at the Weinberg. There’s something special about experiencing a different live organ performance every time and, like I said, it’s great to see such a diverse group of people getting excited about the music. I think what will always remain important is to continue introducing new audiences to the uniqueness of the instrument—so that ultimately, that special performance continues to be preserved.
Want to see Britt & the Wurlitzer live in action? Feel free to stop by our silent film series calendar for a list of all the upcoming screenings at our theater. And if you’re looking to learn more about the Weinberg Wurlitzer’s rich history, we’ve got you covered! Check out the short film below created by our friends over at Digital Bard that features loved & missed Ray Brubacher, who was house organist for the Weinberg Center for numerous years before passing away in February 2014.