Gary Jones

StudioPipe Dreams

Written by Brett Levine    

Photo by Jerry Siegel


For theatre organist Gary Jones, understanding how to perform with Big Bertha—the largest Wurlitzer pipe organ in its original installation in the Southeast, lovingly cared for and regularly played at the Alabama Theatre—is all about muscle memory. “With 285 stops, you simply have to visualize and understand where everything is and allow your practice to make the performance,” he explains. Jones, who has been involved with the Alabama Theatre Organ Society since 1982, outlines how the Wurlitzer changed the experience of the cinema: “It is actually called the Wurlitzer Unit Orchestra, and it allows a single person to replace a 41-piece orchestra.”

With 32 sets of pipes, tuned and non-tuned percussion, an upright piano, and a range of sound effects among many more choices arrayed across the keys and physically contained behind sets of curtains above each side of the stage, the possibilities for composition and arrangement are almost endless. “There is an effect for horse hooves,” Jones says with a laugh, “but it only hits a single note. You literally have to play the rhythm you want to get the effect.” This range of possibilities is not lost on Jones. He is constantly writing new arrangements, constructing new works from familiar classics. “I start with the sheet music, and I play through it on the piano. Then, I sing it. You have to know when to breathe, because since the organ is wind-driven it actually ‘breathes’ too,” he says. “I always tell myself if I can’t sing it I don’t need to be playing it. Then I begin just the way a band leader would, thinking, ‘Who would take this part?’ You arrange for an organ just like you would arrange for a band or an orchestra.”

Jones loves working with tunes from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, the original heyday of the Alabama Theatre. And he is quick to differentiate between keeping an audience’s feet tapping to a George Gershwin or Cole Porter tune and playing an original score to accompany a move. “There is a huge difference between being a house organist and accompanying silent films,” he says. “Tom Helms, who is performing his original score for Phantom of the Opera this October, as he has done every year for 30 years, is a true genius of film accompaniment. He understands the subtleties of character and theme, but more than that, he understands the true challenges of providing a musical element to a film that helps audiences emote almost without being noticed.”

Having a three-tier organ at home makes practicing and arranging a little easier. “One of the biggest challenges I have every day is getting rehearsal time on the organ. You would think this would not be the case, since I am also the facilities manager for Birmingham Landmarks,” he says. “But the Alabama Theatre is a working theatre, so on many weekends the organ is bottom of house while another production takes place on stage.” None of this truly deters Jones, whose enthusiasm for both performing itself and for the preservation and care of Big Bertha is palpable. “I have had the chance to play a lot of organs in theatres up and down the East Coast, and this one is my favorite. It is not just because I’m familiar with her, but it is also because I have a good understanding of what is expected of me as a player,” he says. “The organ is from 1927, and we have an incredible team, led by Larry Donaldson, who maintain and care for the instrument every week. It could not be more of a pleasure to work with such incredible people.”

The true measure of Jones’s love for the organ can be heard about 200 nights a year as he shares his ever-evolving repertoire of original arrangements with captivated fans. “They know what is new and what isn’t,” Jones says with a smile. “It is so important to keep the programming fresh.”

When you enter the Alabama Theatre, there he is. On the stage, seated at the organ (which is fully painted on the back, too, because the Alabama Theatre was originally going to have a rotating platform to lift the organ to the stage). When the lights dim, he will lower Big Bertha to picture level, out of your line of sight, but where he can still see the screen. His real job is to make sure that you don’t even know he is there. You may hear the faint strains of a song, the trailing notes of a memory from Irving Berlin. When the house lights come up, Big Bertha will be heading down to the bottom of the stage for the night, in the capable hands of theatre organist Gary Jones. While you file out of the Alabama Theatre onto Third Avenue North, he is covering the organ with a red velvet cover. Proud to share this experience, he has only one more remark to make: “This is the whole reason the Alabama Theatre was saved.”

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