The Coleman Theatre comes alive this weekend—in a mix of modern-day showmanship and vaudeville shtick.
Dennis James, known worldwide for mastery of the pipe organ, performs Musica Curiosa at 7:30 p.m., May 18, and 2:30 p.m., May 19.
“This is only the third showing of Musica Curiosa,” James said. “It will be very chatty, very funny, and the audience will be involved.”
James opens the evening with a performance on four glass instruments, including the glass armonica, an instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin, then on to the early days of the Coleman Theatre with the showing of the Harry Langdon silent movie “Long Pants,” and his accompaniment on the mighty Wurlitzer.
James learned to play the organ as a young boy in New Jersey, and by 16 he was traveling the world as a professional organist.
“I’ve played in Singapore, Sydney, Germany, Austria and with major orchestras all over the world,” he said. “I recently brought silent films to Korea for the first time, and they loved it there. It was really quite charming because it’s so rare to catch this kind of entertainment.”
James is a lecturer at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers (N.J.) University and a professor of glass-music studies. Yet he finds time to entertain, travel the world and visit the Coleman.
“It’s fulfilling to play the mighty Wurlitzer,” he said. “The (Coleman) building itself is the instrument. It still has the pipe organ from the silent-movie era, which provides the voice of the theater. This sort of thing is done in world capitals, and it’s just by chance that I happened to come to Oklahoma. I stopped by in one of my tours, and now I play here three or four times a year.”
Staying in Tune
When James is scheduled to play the Coleman, another organ connoisseur, Jim Peterson, comes to town to make sure the mighty Wurlitzer is in good shape and tuned.
“I’ve always loved pipe organs,” Peterson said. “I played flute and oboe for a long time, but I have never had a fascination with musical instruments like I do with the pipe organ.”
Peterson, 79, does his work in a tiny closet backstage. He climbs a thin steel ladder to the top of the pipe loft, where myriad welded pipes, springs, strings and dusty wooden planks pump out the rich sound of the mighty Wurlitzer.
This particular instrument, though an antique, is still a work in progress. It demands careful attention from both musician and technician. Peterson has been in the pipe organ business since 1956, and has mastered the tricky craft of tuning.
“The pipe organ has many parts, including some leather,” Peterson said. “If leather sits untouched, it becomes hard and cracked, so it needs to be flexed. By playing it on a regular basis, the instruments stay in good condition.”
Peterson rebuilt the Coleman’s mighty Wurlitzer 15 years ago. He also installed a system that uses electrical wires to record any musical performance on a floppy disk. This allows the performance to be played back at any time, giving tourists a chance to hear the magnificent sounds in their original state.
Despite James’ fame, Peterson’s magic and the organ’s accessibility many locals have yet to experience the mighty Wurlitzer firsthand.
Jessie Hess, a barista at Chapters bookstore in downtown Miami, has worked across from the Coleman for 10 years and is yet to hear the grand instrument played.
“I’ve been to the Coleman several times to see movies and local performances, but I’ve never heard the pipe organ in an actual performance,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to see the silent movies because I think it’s awesome to have a historic theater that can bring us those things.”
For those interested in experiencing Musica Curiosa, stop by the Coleman or call (918)-540-2425.