FORUM

  • Vivian Phillips

TEDDE GIBSON, THE MIGHTY WURLITZER ORGANIST

What do silent film and pizza have in common? Pipe organ accompaniment! Silent film dates to the 1800s, with the first “talkie” coming to the screen in 1927. Not every silent film was accompanied by organ music, yet the presence of those mighty pipe organs alongside silent films has helped to revive the silent film genre in modern times. As far as pizza goes, entrepreneur Bill Breuer was one of the first to combine the harmonious tunes of the organ with your piping hot pizza. He opened his first restaurant, Pizza and Pipes in Santa Clara, California in 1962, and brought the concept to Seattle's Greenwood neighborhood in 1973, eventually opening additional restaurants in Tacoma and Bellevue. Interestingly, in the 1970s and ’80s, live pipe organ music could be heard in more than 100 pizzerias across the country!


Tacoma native Tedde Gibson has made his mark in the world of pipe organ mastery and years ago was a mainstay at the Tacoma location of Pizza and Pipes! He is now a regular at The Paramount Theatre’s Silent Movie Monday series, having notably accompanied silent films there by Black filmmakers like Bert Williams’ Lime Kiln Field Day. Tedde can be found touring around the country, bringing emotion and punctuation to silent film screenings with his skilled organ playing.


On Sunday, August 29th, you have another opportunity to witness Tedde’s mastery as he accompanies Mario Cantone in the PBS broadcast of Wicked in Concert. Plus, he will be back at The Paramount Theatre on December 6th to accompany the silent film Aelita: Queen of Mars.


In the meantime, Tedde took the time to answer a few questions and share some of his musical history with Arté Noir. As a bonus, he gave us a quick explanation of how a critical piece of organ functions to create its voluminous sounds.


You began playing the organ at age four! Wasn’t that a monstrous instrument for a four-year-old and how did you even approach it, physically?

I started playing the piano at age four and began playing the pipe organ at age sixteen. I grew up in a church where the pipe organ was a major part of worship, and we also had a restaurant in my hometown of Tacoma, Washington that had a theatre pipe organ as part of the entertainment, so I had both religious and secular exposure to the pipe organ.

You’ve done extensive piano and organ study. What drew you to expand into mastery of the pipe organ?

Its complexity and how one must use their whole body to make the instrument work. Hands, feet, core muscles, ears, eyes, and brain must all work as a cohesive unit to master the instrument.

How long did it take you to learn to play it?

I am a life-long learner and I am still learning to play it.

How did you enter the world of theatre organists and are you an anomaly as a Black person in that field?

I entered the theatre organ world through an organist at the Tacoma Pizza and Pipes and her husband, the late Jane McKee Johnson and Homer Johnson. Homer was the local pipe organ repairperson for many of the Tacoma churches and his wife Jane originally played the organ for local radio. They mentored me and took me under their wings and were a major impetus for my theatre organ exposure. I became active in the American Theatre Organ Society after a concert performed at a local residence (see picture below), which houses the largest theatre organ in Washington State. I began to study theatre organ with the artist, Jonas Nordwall of Portland, OR; who would make monthly trips to teach students. I performed for the Puget Sound Theatre Society, a chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society (ATOS). Upon moving to the East Coast in late 2003, I began performing annually at another residence housing a theatre organ, which created additional concert opportunities. Through Vicky Lee, retired education liaison with the Seattle Theatre Group, I began accompanying silent films in 2015. I joined the board of directors of ATOS in 2017, was elected vice-chairman 3 consecutive times, and I am now the chairman of this organization, the first African American to hold this title in its 66-year history.
Check out NBC News' piece about Tedde and The Paramount here

Photo courtesy of the artist

You not only play music for silent films, but you also compose. How do you approach composition for a silent film?

In a silent film, the music has several roles. It must lay the groundwork for cohesively blending subject matter, dialogue, and emotion. It must give the characters the ability to communicate conversation, inner emotion, conflict, love, hate, and any other situation. It must undergird tension, tell the story, and engage the audience. It must seamlessly merge with the film to the degree that one forgets there is a musician during the entire film to create all the moods needed to enrapture the audience into the story. My approach gives reverence to the story, but cannot dominate the story.

Are your compositions different if you are scoring a Black silent film? And if so, how?

Scoring any silent film must take into account the storyline. Having scored films dealing with women’s issues, Indigenous people, European ethnic issues, horror, and of course comedy, scoring any Black silent film is no different, except I know the audience and include thematic material that they can identify. One must be careful not to include music of a stereotypical nature, but understand the stereotypes in Black film and use thematic material that identifies the stereotype.

How many scores have you composed?

I have probably have created over 60 different scores for silent films of varying genres.

What’s coming up that most excites you?

I am excited to be playing the Mighty Wurlitzer accompanying Sex in the City alum Mario Cantone in the PBS production of Wicked- In Concert. It will be broadcast on PBS Sunday, August 29, 2021@ 9:00 PM.
I am looking forward to visiting the Seattle Paramount Theatre on Monday, Dec. 6 @7:00 PM to accompany the silent film Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924).

What is a Pneumatic?

A Pneumatic is an air motor made of leather and wood used inside the pipe organ mechanism (wind chest, where the pipes sit) that allows the pipe to play in a pipe organ. For each pipe, there is a minimum of two. So think of The Paramount Theatre’s Wurlitzer Organ which has 20 sets (ranks) of pipes ranging from 61 notes to 97 notes that have thousands of these devices to make the instrument play, and they must be lightning fast in order to respond to the organist.

Learn more about Tedde here


Photo courtesy of the artist