Boardwalk Hall organ will again accompany a silent movie

Ball at the console of the Kimball pipe organ in the Adrian Phillips Ballroom at Boardwalk Hall that he will play Thursday as accompaniment to a 1926 Douglas Fairbanks silent movie.
Ball at the console of the Kimball pipe organ in the Adrian Phillips Ballroom at Boardwalk Hall that he will play Thursday as accompaniment to a 1926 Douglas Fairbanks silent movie.
Posted: March 31, 2014

ATLANTIC CITY - It is, as Boardwalk Hall staff organist Steven Ball puts it with the utmost affection, like the painting next to the Mona Lisa.

Colossally overshadowed, yes, but an enigmatic entrancer nonetheless. This is Boardwalk Hall's other organ, its console situated in an upstairs balcony in the ballroom, an instrument installed in 1929 to accompany silent movies.

Of all the things you knew about the monumental and still-pulsing Boardwalk Hall and its ballroom, this one may have slipped by. The ballroom, built for dancing and showing motion pictures, was equipped with the surround sound of the day: the pipe organ.

And it is for these works of physics, air, and audacity - two impossibly scaled but until recently silent instruments - that Ball, 34, organ scholar, performer, and composer (not to mention a person who can legitimately call the great Russian composer Tchaikovsky Uncle Pyotr), has taken up residence in an office deep in the cavernous creation of 1920s Atlantic City boss Nucky Johnson and his organ-designing sidekick, State Sen. Emerson Richards.

In July, Ball journeyed from safe digs in academia at the University of Michigan to take on the Boardwalk Hall organs as a mission. He's only the third staff organist in its history, paid for by the nonprofit Historic Organ Restoration Committee.

On Thursday, Ball will play a benefit for the committee, performing the music on the ballroom organ as the 1926 silent (but Technicolor) film The Black Pirate is screened.

The organ benefit begins the three-day Garden State Film Festival, which, having abandoned Asbury Park for Atlantic City, is expected to attract upward of 30,000 film fans and celebrities such as Laura Dern and Margate's own screenwriter celebre, Scott Neustadter ( The Fault in Our Stars, set for release in June).

Ball hopes to keep enough momentum going to restore both organs: the gigantic Midmer-Losh pipe organ in the main hall, recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest organ in the world (based on number of pipes), and the ballroom Kimball pipe organ, which fits with Ball's fancy of accompanying silent movies.

The organ in the main hall "has power to move hearts and minds as nothing else," Ball said, though 80 percent of it still requires restoration.

The organ was damaged in a 1944 hurricane, and its full range of sound has been lost to history. Once the organ is restored, Ball says, its sound will be both air- and mind-blowing.

The Boardwalk Hall organ is no less than a national treasure, he says. He soon will begin regular concerts there and looks forward to incorporating the organ into other events. You ask, he'll play.

"It moves the entire air space, the whole building is in motion," he said. "It's impossible as a matter of physics to replicate."

The film screening will be a fund-raiser for the organ restoration committee, which has been laboring since 2004 to restore the beast and its ballroom sidekick to their former glory. Only now has the committee completed enough of the planned $16 million restoration to begin showing it off in public.

The main organ in Boardwalk Hall was played publicly for the first time in 40 years during the Miss America preliminaries in September.

In July, Beyoncé dabbled on it before her show. She is, Ball noted, always welcome to play, as is pretty much any musician who would like to incorporate the organ into a show. Composers also are welcome to try their hand at the 33,000-plus pipes, placed in chambers behind ornamental grilles in eight places around and above the hall.

Taking a tour of some of the chambers housing the giant metal-and-wooden pipes that stretch five flights high is pure Alice in Wonderland.

These days, the Adrian Phillips ballroom is a caricature of multipurpose, with the boxing ring for Saturday's world light-heavyweight championship bout - Kovalev vs. Agnew - being set up even as Ball attempts to rehearse his score (a pastiche of cue sheets, including references to Douglas Fairbanks, star of The Black Pirate).

But history is always within earshot in this town of echoes and tides, and, down below, on a wooden floor currently marked for basketball, not ballroom dancing, Kathy Kuhn of catering was transported back to her Holy Spirit High School graduation in 1964, when the last staff organist, Lois Miller, likely played "Pomp and Circumstance."

Diane Raver, executive director of the Garden State Film Festival, said infighting between Asbury Park and the private developers who revived its boardwalk led her eye to wander to other hosts. Atlantic City, with new Mayor Don Guardian and its experience with crowds and hotel rooms, beckoned.

Atlantic City has a history of film festivals coming and going, mocking its glorious past as home to eight to 10 movie houses and as an inimitable location in such classics as Louis Malle's Atlantic City.

"We were courted by many, many locations," Raver said. "The stars aligned."

Beyond the silent movie Thursday, the festival proper runs through the weekend. Schedules, including workshops, films, and galas, and weekend passes are available at gsff.org.

With the town now the home of only one commercial movie theater - the IMAX at Tropicana - and one screening room, on the 13th floor of Resorts, the film festival will screen its movies at Dante Hall, Resorts, and the Taj Mahal, among other locations. Perhaps by next year, Shaquille O'Neal's long-promised South Inlet multiplex might be closer to reality.


arosenberg@phillynews.com

609-823-0453 @amysrosenberg

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