Gaylord Carter, who gave sound to silent movies as his fingers danced over the multiple keyboards of massive theater pipe organs imitating everything from a gong to a glockenspiel, has died. He was 95.
Carter, one of the country’s best-known theater organists for eight decades, died Nov. 20 in his Richard Neutra-designed home on a San Pedro bluff overlooking the ocean. He had suffered a stroke in 1993 and also had Parkinson’s disease.
Performing from the age of 10 until about five years ago, Carter played in churches, in cavernous movie palaces, on radio, on television, and again in the theaters as silents enjoyed a resurgence. He left, as he put it, “a little legacy” in the 1980s when Paramount asked him to score a dozen silent film classics for home video.
Carter, who played across the United States, Europe and Australia, was named organist of the year by the American Theatre Organ Society and inducted into its Hall of Fame in 1975.
In recent years, the white-haired musical sprite delighted the thousands of Los Angeles area movie and architecture buffs who trekked downtown annually for the Los Angeles Conservancy’s “Last Seats on Broadway” series screening of silent film favorites.
The late Times columnist Jack Smith, observing Carter at the Orpheum’s organ during the series’ onset in 1987, wrote: “Like the organ itself, Carter is a national treasure and ought to be designated a historical monument.”
In 1994, when Carter’s playing had been curtailed somewhat by stroke, the Conservancy hired another organist but made Carter its guest of honor for a showing of “Ben Hur,” a film and score he knew by heart. When it opened in 1926, the film lasted six straight months at the Million Dollar Theater on Broadway, and Carter was at the console every single night.
“I was bowled over by it . . . a phenomenal score,” he told The Times in 1994. “The music for the galley slave scene is tremendous.”
Carter composed much of the music he played to accompany films, and drew heavily on classical pieces. Film reels were distributed, he said, with thematic cue sheets for the organist or pianist, indicating whether the picture was a comedy or drama or cowboy picture, and including a few bars of suggested music for major scenes.
“The first time through, I’d have to wing it,” he said. “But if there was a bugle call or a steamboat whistle, at least I’d know it was coming.”
Bringing the musical pipes of Southern California to lyrical life, Carter accompanied the 1927 “The Student Prince” among others at the Orpheum and the 1925 “The Phantom of the Opera” at the First Congregational Church in Long Beach and the Avalon Theater on Santa Catalina Island. He played Forest Lawn’s Wurlitzer for the Burbank Symphony Orchestra and played other fabled organs in San Pedro’s Warner Grand Theater, the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, the San Gabriel Civic Auditorium, the Seeley G. Mudd Theater in Claremont and the Crystal Cathedral in Orange Grove.
Master of Special Effects
Carter also taught younger people to play, warning they had little chance of making a living as theater organists. During the silent era, about 7,000 of the gigantic organs were built, he often lamented, but only about 100 survive and many of those are relegated to restaurants and pizza parlors.
The keyboard was Carter’s lifelong playground, and he used it as a whole special effects studio for silent films--thunderous music for battles, ominous chords for villains, trick sounds for punch lines.
“At its best, the music is felt but not noticed,” he once told The Times. “When it’s right, you should lose yourself in the picture.”
Born in Weisbaden, Germany, Aug. 3, 1905, Carter immigrated to Wichita, Kan., where his father became a church organist and his mother taught piano.
“I got my training by absorption when I was a child,” he once told The Times, adding that he did take six months of piano lessons and six months of organ lessons.
At age 10, young Carter was playing the organ in Wichita’s Congregational Church, and at 14, he played for children’s matinees in a theater there.
In 1922, when Carter was 16, the family moved to Los Angeles. Then a student at Lincoln High School in Lincoln Heights, the teenager got into theater accompaniment for silent films for lack of a dime.
Unable to afford a ticket to see a movie at his neighborhood theater, he asked if he could play the music for it. He was hired and watched many movies as he played.
Later, at the Seville Theater in Inglewood, Carter was accompanying “The Kid,” a comedy starring Harold Lloyd, when the star himself came in to see how the film was doing. Lloyd was so impressed with Carter’s playing that he made him his personal organist and recommended him for a position at the prestigious Million Dollar Theater at Third Street and Broadway.
Hired in 1926 for $110 a week, the 21-year-old Carter dropped out of pre-law studies at UCLA to play the organ full time. Asked by a UCLA counselor if his reason for leaving were financial, Carter said: “Yes, I’m making too much money.” He put a brother and sister through college, but he himself never graduated.
Lloyd often kibitzed with Carter about the music for his comedies, telling him: “Gaylord, when they’re laughing, play softly. It’s when they’re not laughing that I need you.”
When Carter swung into “Time on My Hands” during Lloyd’s classic scene dangling from a skyscraper clock in “Safety Last,” Lloyd drolly told the organist: “Gaylord, I’ll do the jokes.”
As sound pictures developed during the late 1920s, Carter kept his steady job at the Million Dollar and later at the Paramount playing for intermissions and for audience sing-a-longs.
But by 1935, he moved into radio, with his own “Prelude to Midnight” program on Los Angeles’ KHJ and accompanying several network shows. Most memorably, for seven years he played “The Perfect Song” to introduce the popular show “Amos ‘n’ Andy.”
During World War II, Carter was a Naval motion picture officer in the Aleutians, joking that he was “the Louis B. Mayer of Alaska.”
Returning to Los Angeles, he played for radio’s “The Whistler,” “Suspense” and a show called “Bride and Groom” and later for television’s “Pinky Lee Show” and others. He also had his own local show, “Everybody Sing with Gaylord” on KCOP Channel 13.
In the late 1950s, Carter formed a production company, “Flicker Fingers,” that helped prod the revival movement of silent films, which put him back in the old theaters he loved.
Services for the lifelong bachelor are scheduled at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 12, at the First Congregational Church of Long Beach, 241 Cedar Ave., Long Beach.