Jan Chats with Mark Noller, Beloved Organist at Chicago’s Music Box Theater

Jan Chats with Mark Noller, Beloved Organist at Chicago’s Music Box Theater

(First Posted in 2003)

Jan: 
Tell us about yourself, Mark. Are you a Chicago native?

Mark: 
Born & raised in Chicago! I attended a Chicago grammar school & then CVS (Chicago Vocational High School). I grew up in a Chicago neighborhood that was known for having many churches & strong music programs. Altogether I’ve studied 12 years of piano, 4 years of classical organ instruction, & about 2 years of theater organ instruction. After CVS I went into the Navy; I ran the chapel on a ship for 4 years.

Jan: 
They had an organ in the chapel of a ship?

Mark: 
Absolutely! It was bolted to the floor!

Jan: 
So do you still continue to work in churches?

Mark: 
I sure do. Every Sunday, I serve 3 churches, 1 hospital (Advocate Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn), & the Music Box Theatre. I wear roller skates from 6:30 AM every Sunday morning. In September (2002), I celebrated 40 years as a Chicago musician.

Jan: 
So this keeps you busy during the week as well?

Mark: 
Constantly. I am on-call at about 20 different locations. My job at the Music Box has me playing every weekend. Friday, Saturday & Sunday, I usually play 2 intermissions. I’m also on-call for special events, such as the Chicago Film Festival. Not too long ago, we had a young couple decide that they wanted to get married at the Music Box. All the guests got their own bag of popcorn when they arrived <g>

Jan: 
So you love it, right?

Mark: 
Absolutely! I’m a very fortunate & blessed person in that I love the work that I do. It’s constant, yet it’s always changing. We’ve discussed the possibility of expanding what I do at the Music Box. For example, I recently started to greet people with the microphone before the show, to let them know about upcoming events, etc.

The biggest part of my job as an “intermission organist” is crowd control – keeping all the folks happy & getting them ready for the show. It’s sort of like playing for a living silent movie with a chase scene, except instead of the show being on the screen, it’s filling up the seats & adapting to the circumstances. We had an event during last year’s Chicago Film Festival: 5 minutes before show time the Chicago Fire Department Inspector came in. “Hi. We’re here. How are you? How many violations do you have? Let’s take a look.” So you never know what the circumstances will be, & people get restless when a curtain is late. So I try to keep things “in my pocket” all the time that can be used for a variety of circumstances, because you never know.

Jan: 
So when it’s finally “show time,” does someone peek out to signal you?

Mark: 
I have “the buzzer from hell.” It tells me I have 2 minutes left.

Jan: 
So the buzzer can go off at any moment? The first night the Music Box showed A TOUCH OF EVIL, the theater was mobbed. You were at the organ, so really, you had no idea there was chaos on the concession line…

Mark: 
I can guess. I can tell by the heartbeat of the audience. You can feel the tension. The Music Box has limited space for concessions & generally doesn’t have a huge crowd. So we just try to do the best we can under the circumstances, but sometimes it can get really ugly. So I find songs that we can all clap our hands & stomp our feet to.

Jan: 
And how do you signal that? How do you tell the audience to clap? Is it just spontaneous?

Mark: 
Oh no! You can usually tell just by what the song is; when the audience is supposed to clap, I pound on the organ. That’s the clue for audience participation. So being adaptive is a big part of a theater organist’s job. And the Music Box is the only theater in the city of Chicago that still has a theater organist.

Jan: 
The Music Box will show D.W. Griffith’s BROKEN BLOSSOMS (from 1919) in February. How do you prepare for that kind of program?

Mark: 
When you accompany a silent film, your responsibility is to accompany the action on the screen. So you can’t have your eyes on your fingers or on the stop controls. You can’t try to read music or any of those things. You’re looking at the screen while you’re playing, so you try to come up with 3 or 4 themes that will fit what’s going on.

I watch the film one time with the score that exists on the tape. The second time, I watch it with no music at all, just totally silent. And the third time I watch it in fast forward & by watching it in fast forward I can keep the continuity of the scenes together. And that’s the way that I do it.

Someone once asked me: “How do you do that? It’s cool!” And I said: “Well, you have to come up with a ‘Sneaky Pete’ theme for the villain. And there’s always a love story going on, so you have to come up with a ‘Kissy Face’ theme, & then you just glue it all together with what will fit the action & your sound effects & percussion sounds.”

Jan: 
Do you write the themes down or are they in your head?

Mark: 
No, they’re just stuck in my brain. It’s all original stuff.

Jan: 
So it’s almost like jazz… It’s almost like an improvisation?

Mark: 
Very similar. Exactly!

Jan: 
So how does the Music Box see its evolving niche now that the Landmark & the Water Tower Theater & other independent film options have opened up in Chicago? Are they going to use you more?

Mark: 
I believe that’s part of the plan. The “alternative” theaters are becoming more & more competitive. There’s more than one venue to see historical films now.

Jan: 
Even with video & DVD, it’s not the same as seeing a film on a big screen & seeing it with the audience.

Mark: 
Never. It never will be. I know the Music Box will be showing more 70 millimeter films like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA now, because they put the new equipment in a year ago. I think we’re trying to reinvent ourselves. The turnaround of the whole Southport neighborhood is an immense success story & the Music Box is a part of that.

Jan: 
So do you have input into this? I mean has anybody ever asked you: what silent films do YOU want to do, Mark?

Mark: 
I have been asked that question, yes. I’ve asked for a comedy because we haven’t had one of those yet. I’m also learning more & more about the profile of our patrons. I’m not sure I have it all figured out yet, because one person comes in wearing a $4,000 coat & then the next person comes with wonderful pink hair <g>

Jan: 
Before you go, let’s get a little philosophical, OK? What do you think the musical component of the film experience is from your own perspective both as a viewer & as someone who tries to enhance the viewing experience for an audience? As a musician who’s spent your whole life dedicated to religious & theater music, how do you understand the musical dimension of film? Is that a coherent question?

Mark: 
In today’s films, the composer’s responsibility is to convey the emotion of what’s going on. So if you were blind, you would be able to sense the emotion of the film, just the sensory experience appearing on the audio track, which is not necessarily always just music. And it was identical in the silent films, because the theater organ was designed & built to create music for a film using sound effects AND musical notes. You have an array of toys: horns, sirens, wood block drums…

Everything moves quickly, especially in a comedy. But you’re able to operate many controls with your feet, & there’s a memory system where you just push a button & a preset choice of sounds will automatically kick in. But it’s the organist’s responsibility, in the accompaniment of a silent film, to convey the emotion of the film. And, of course, in silent film everything is over-dramatized. The drama, as such, just goes on & on & on & on in the characters, & everything’s portrayed in such an exuberance of emotion. So by having the themes in your brain & the tools to get the job done, hopefully you will also have the physical stamina, because we organists don’t have a “pause button” & it’s exhausting!!!

Jan: 
What do you think the audience is aware of when you’re doing all of this? Do you think they know? How do you know you’re getting your affects across, your intentions as the composer?

Mark: 
That’s a very interesting question. I’m not sure that I do know. I know when it’s over & they have expressed their emotions & how they feel about it. We have a whole generation that’s discovering silent film now, & they seem to be fascinated by it rather than just tossing it out the window. And I find that very interesting. There are programs to bring children into the old movie palaces, to see what it was all about when great grandma & grandpa went there. And part of the programming is to explain silent film to them & what it was all about.

Jan: 
So you also lecture?

Mark: 
I have done some of that, yes. I show kids the organ, right.

Jan: 
So you have a heavy responsibility in terms of teaching the next generation to appreciate a classic art form?

Mark: 
Yes, & we all have a responsibility to try & save what few buildings we have left in this country. Many movie palaces have been recycled as purely performing art centers & the general film is gone & I am personally very saddened by that because the joy of a movie palace that still does film is that the building is open & operating on a daily basis, whereas a performing art center is generally only open on the weekends…

Jan: 
So who do you network with Mark? Is there an association of theater organists? Do you have an annual conference… that kind of thing?

Mark: 
Yes, it’s called the American Theater Organ Society, & this year we will be meeting in Sacramento, California.

Jan: 
And how many of you are there?

Mark: 
There are about 3,000 members.

Jan: 
Wow, that many?

Mark: 
These are all people who are interested in the instrument, not necessarily just performers. How many performers do we have left across the country? The number of people earning a living at it full-time as their employment is probably no more than 30, if there are 30 people doing that. There might be a hundred people total that perform concerts around the country, but they are gainfully employed in other professions.

Jan: 
So do you study film art?

Mark: 
I’m beginning to have a hunger for that. The predominance of my work has not necessarily been connected with film. It’s been more connected with worship. When you’re an “intermission organist” in a theater, it’s different than doing silent movie accompaniment. It’s different than any expression within the context of worship. Some of the tools of worship sometimes can float over, but it requires a constant openness: to feel the crowd & what’s going on.

One of the issues that I dealt with immediately when I came to the Music Box – the theater organist traditionally played so loud that he was offensive. You couldn’t talk to the person next to you. I make sure that I don’t do that except during the last couple of minutes before the curtain actually goes up.

Jan: 
Well, it’s time to relax, unless… Do you have any last words?

Mark: 
I think I given you some nuggets to play with.

Jan: 
That’s for sure! Thanks much, Mark!!!

© Jan Lisa Huttner (2/16/03) – Special for Films for Two. Reposted with permission. 

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Julia Lasker
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As an associate for FF2 Media, Julia writes reviews and features for films made by women. She is currently a senior at Barnard College studying Psychology. Outside of FF2, her interests include acting, creative writing, thrift shopping, crafting, and making and eating baked goods. Julia has been at FF2 for almost 4 years, and loves the company and its mission dearly.
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