Circle Cinema’s Historic Pipe Organ Brings Silent Films To Life For Movie Goers

Thursday, July 30th 2020, 9:41 pm

By: Amber Cannon, Chinh Doan


Going to the movies, and taking in the silver screen, has been a pastime for people for more than 100 years.

Movies have changed over the years, but even during the age of silent film, sound has been key to movies.

The theater organ was an essential instrument between 1910 and 1930, when silent films were popular. Now across the United States, there are only 40 pipe organs still at their original historic theaters, and one of them is right here in Oklahoma.

In Tulsa, Circle Cinema's original 1928 organ has been brought back to life thanks to the dedication of volunteers, including one who remembers going to the silent films.

At 87 years old, Phil Judkins still has the moves.

His passion for the pipe organ began as a boy, where he learned to play by listening to records. 

"An organ like this is the ultimate," Judkins explained. "It is built to duplicate an orchestra."

Now, there are fewer than a dozen public theater organs in Oklahoma, and it is even rarer for a theater to have its original organ.

This Robert Morton pipe organ is the same one from when Tulsa’s Circle Theatre opened in 1928, but movies were changing, and it was only used for a short time.

A few years after the opening, the organ was sold to the Tulsa Scottish Rite organization.

Then, in the 1990s, the Circle Theatre closed and stayed dark for nearly a decade.

However, in 2004, it transformed into Tulsa’s only nonprofit and historic art house theater. It reopened as the Circle Cinema and its silver screen came to life once again.

Clark Wiens is the co-founder and president of Circle Cinema. He said the Circle Cinema Foundation bought back the theater’s original pipe organ in 2005.

The organ’s 1,500 pieces had to be stored all over the city until it could be moved back into the theater.

“It's something we can, pardon the expression, toot our own horn about. Not many people have the original organ back in the theater,” Clark shared.

Wiens explained it took three years to rebuild and six months to install the organ.

He said it would not have been possible without the volunteers from the Sooner State Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society.

"Their 1,500 hours probably would have made it worth a quarter of a million dollars before it was done, but they did it," Clark said. "They didn't charge me, and we worked together. They have been great."

Rudy Geisler, a member of the American Theatre Organ Society Sooner State Chapter, recalled the restoration of the organ.

“Working on, and restoring, a theater pipe organ is truly a unique experience,” Rudy said.

He added it’s more than just working on the pipes.

“You have to be able to work in wood, metal, and a lot of people don’t realize the amount of leather-work in a pipe organ,” Rudy explained.

Rudy was among those who worked diligently to restore the pipe organ and help to fill the theater with all its unique sounds for another generation of movie goers.

Related Video: Interview Extra: What Makes Theatre Pipe Organs So Unique

The organ is a key element for Circle Cinema’s “Second Saturday Silent Series,” which attracted large crowds before the COVID-19 pandemic forced theaters across the country to close their doors. Circle Cinema temporarily closed in March.

The organ brings silent films to life for audiences and helps to tell the story.

“Accompanying a silent film, it’s said to take 17 unique talents,” Rudy said. “First of all, you have to be musically inclined, you have to know your instrument very well, you have to know the registration, what stops to activate or what buttons for creating the different sounds.”

Bill Rowland and Phil Judkins helped restore the organ and have been enhancing the silent films at Circle Cinema ever since.

"All the range of human emotions that can be played on the screen can be interpreted on the organ," said Rowland. 

Rowland said it's thrilling having so many options.

"We have a bird whistle, a train whistle and, one of my favorites, a claxon, also known as an 'ah-goo-ah' horn," Rowland explained.

These dedicated organists hope the joy they get from this instrument resounds with others while entertaining and educating people of all ages.

"This is a sound back in the 40s and 50s that you heard all the time, but then it was replaced by electronic instruments that didn't have the depth that a real theater pipe organ does," Judkins said.

Although the physical doors are temporarily closed at Circle Cinema because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the silver screen isn’t dark, and the organ is still playing.

Circle Cinema has, and continues to, offer virtual screenings, including for the “Second Saturday Silent Series."

Just like in the theater, the organ is played live as the film rolls.

For more information on the virtual screenings, Second Saturday Silent Series, or how to support Circle Cinema, see the links below.

Second Saturday Silent Series

Virtual Screenings

More information on Circle Cinema on their website and Facebook page.


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