Milton Charles; Organist for Silent Movies, Radio Shows


Milton Charles, one of the last of the silent-film organists whose understated, often improvised accompaniments added to the eloquence of the plush theaters of long ago, has died.

His daughter, Stephanie Brown, said her father was 94 when he died Friday in Corona.

“He had been in good health and giving monthly concerts (at the retirement home where he had been living) until September,” she said Monday.


Born to a musical family in San Jose in 1897, Charles was taking piano lessons at the age of 7, and at 13 was a church organist, earning $25 a month. Two years later he had moved to San Francisco and was earning $50 a week in its palatial film houses. But the move was not without some anguish--his music teacher refused to continue his lessons because he disapproved of a boy working in the film business.

Even back then, Charles said, he tried not to play the same music twice for each film, although he would repeat themes for various characters and settings.

Sid Grauman, of Grauman’s Chinese Theater fame, heard of him and asked him to come to Grauman’s new Million Dollar Theater in downtown Los Angeles, where he shared the organ duties with Charlie (C Sharp) Minor. Minor would often leave the theater for hours at a time, Charles said in interviews over the years, so the teen-ager often worked 12 hours or more a day.

“And then Sid would call me late at night to go back to the theater to entertain his guests.”

Those included Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, Jack Coogan (Jackie’s father) and Carter de Haven, a famous actor of the day.

At the time, Charles was one of only a dozen or so theater organists in the country used at major movie houses, and he began to move around, to Chicago’s Tivoli Theater and then back to Los Angeles, where the Paramount had just been built at 6th and Hill streets.

He also gave concerts in Philadelphia and Europe, often accompanied by symphony orchestras.

After sound films became prevalent at the end of the 1920s, Charles moved to radio, scoring background music for “The Amos and Andy Show,” “Ma Perkins” and “The Road of Life.” He later worked on the Roy Rogers and Gene Autry radio shows, was a staff organist with CBS in Los Angeles, and spent the last 20 years of his career as organist and vocalist at the Kings Arms restaurant in Toluca Lake.

He retired about 20 years ago.

Survivors include four sons, three daughters, nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.