'The Audiences Love It' : Silent Screen Organist, 79, Still Making the Scene

Times Staff Writers

In an era of giant screen color, Dolby sound and stunning special effects, Gaylord Carter spends a lot of time touring the country with the movies that started it all--silent pictures.

"I've never been busier," said Carter, who is still doing what he learned to do 60 years ago as a king of the theater organ: weaving musical spells as mute actors on the screen tell stories or incite paroxysms of laughter.

"It's the movies, the organ and me," said Carter, an energetic man with a ready smile who started his career as a teen-ager and could fool anyone into believing that he's not really 79. "The audiences love it, especially the comedies."

Last week, Carter--who lives on a Paseo del Mar cliff top with the ocean at his feet--took "King of Kings," DeMille's sweeping story of Christ, to Pasadena. This week, he traveled to Portland, Ore., with that same film, along with "Ben Hur," which is most famous for the thunderous Roman chariot race pitting Ramon Novarro against Francis X. Bushman.

Carter does a Harold Lloyd festival in Akron, Ohio, on April 13 and by the end of May, he said, he will have presented 30 programs in three months.

Despite the revolution in films that started with sound, Carter said the combination of the organ and pictures without dialogue is still very compelling.

"With dramas, the music is hypnotic," he said. "The image and the music create an effect and you get lost in it. And with comedies, which are all gags, you can do tricks on the organ to make them funnier."

Carter said a combination of curiosity, nostalgia and simply a desire to be entertained brings out his audiences. "This is all out of the past and it's fun," he said.

He prefers playing in ornate old movie palaces with restored theater organs that are capable of sounding like a full orchestras and creating a range of sound effects. "That way," he said, "I get both the organ and theater buffs."

The lack of a dime to go to the movies transformed Carter, who planned to be a lawyer, into a musician in 1922, while he was still a student at Lincoln High School in East Los Angeles. "Since I couldn't afford a ticket, I got a job playing piano at a local movie house," recalled Carter, who had been taught the instrument by his mother.

Moving Up

Later, he moved to a more prestigious theater--the Seville in Inglewood--where comedian Lloyd liked to preview his pictures. By then, Carter had switched to the organ and Lloyd was impressed enough to help him land a job as chief organist at the opulent Million Dollar Theater on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, which he described as the city's motion picture "cathedral." That was in 1926 and Carter was 21.

"I was at UCLA then, and I went in and said I had to withdraw from school," Carter said, relishing the story. "They asked me if I had financial problems and I said, 'Yes, I'm making too much money.' I was making $110 a week and that was a fortune then. I put a brother and sister through college, but I never finished myself."

Going to the Million Dollar during the silent era was an event, Carter said, and the most expensive seats were 65 cents. A symphony orchestra and the organ provided music, and a stage show, called an "atmospheric prologue," set the mood for the film. "When we played 'Ben Hur,' we simulated a chariot race with horses on stage," Carter said.

Usually Cue Sheets

Sometimes the studios sent out complete musical scores with their films, but usually there were only cue sheets suggesting melodies that Carter and other organists of the day improvised. And lacking those, Carter said, "we would look at the picture in advance and come up with the music," grabbing a classical theme here and a popular tune there.

The scores Carter uses on his tours are the ones that have been old friends for decades.

After the movies found a voice, Carter continued as an organist at several Los Angeles theaters, including the Paramount and the United Artists in downtown Los Angeles and the Egyptian and Warner's in Hollywood, until live music became an unaffordable luxury.

In the mid-1930s, he switched to radio, later went into television, was musical director at the Forum when it was owned by Jack Kent Cooke, and even did a 16-year stint as a church organist in La Canada.

He gave up that job--"It was too far to drive"--after a boat brought him to San Pedro in 1968. "I had a sailboat that I kept at the marina here and I wanted to be closer to it," he said. "But with this house, I had the ocean and didn't need the boat any more, so I sold it."

Sticking to Silents

But Carter has never really strayed very far from the silents. He has scored and recorded music for the films of Lloyd and Mary Pickford and does projects for the American Film Institute and Filmex. In 1975, he was named organist of the year by the America Theatre Organ Society and is a member of its Hall of Fame.

He recently made his video debut, playing his own organ score for "Wings," the winner of the first best picture Academy Award in 1927. The film was released early this year by Paramount Pictures' video division.

Carter said open heart surgery in 1983 failed to slow him down--and he doesn't intend to let his 80th birthday in August do it either.

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