The anonymous celebrity behind the Wurlitzer organ
You probably know Jim Riggs best by the back of his head. He's often seen rising out of the stage in Bay Area movie theaters playing the organ. He is among a handful of people in the world who can tame the Mighty Wurlitzer, a massive instrument with eighteen hundred pipes, 244 keys, and 32 foot pedals. April Dembosky sat down with Riggs at the Paramount Theater in Oakland to talk about the history of the organ, his technique, and what it's like being an anonymous celebrity.
DEMBOSKY: Can you explain the anatomy of the organ? It seems very complicated.
RIGGS: Well, they are really the most complicated musical instrument devised. You have the key desk, or the console, and that has the keyboards that your fingers and feet play plus the stops, in this case they're little celluloid tongues. On a classical organ, they're little knobs that pull out from the side. Now, what actually makes the sound are the organ pipes and those are way up in the organ, in what people used to call organ lofts or chambers. And then providing all that wind is the blower and that's down in the basement. All those little buttons and stop-tabs and keys mean next to nothing to the general public, but I can't tell you how many times I've heard, "Boy that looks like the cockpit of a 747!"
DEMBOSKY: You actually write some of the compositions for some of the silent films that are shown here at the Paramount. What's your creative process for doing that?
RIGGS: Well, there's a lot of ways you can do it. The most authentic method would be to play the original score. All silent films came with a score of some sort. However, a lot of those scores do not survive. The next most authentic method would be to employ only music that was contemporary with the film. What I like to do, rather than just a straight improvisation, is a prepared improvisation and the key to that is to know the picture really well – to view a DVD or a VHS copy many times so I know when somebody gets shot, when a kiss happens, when some dramatic moment is coming. You've got to know the sequence of a narrative very intimately. Then, I compose motifs, slight, short themes for the major characters – sometimes major scenes if it's dramatically warranted. And then, having prepared all that and knowing what's going to happen when, I can weave together all of those elements in this prepared improvisation.
DEMBOSKY: What happened in the 50s and 60s that led to the decline in the organ that we are now resurfacing from?
RIGGS: The little screen, television, that's what did it. That's what nearly killed off the movie industry. And, of course, property values of old movie palaces like the Paramount Theater became high enough that it was more profitable to actually tear down the theaters and build a parking lot or some sort of development. That happened all over the country. We were losing these wonderful buildings. Northern California has been a real center for the rebirth of this kind of instrument – and there are a lot of people that play it.
DEMBOSKY: A lot of people that come to the theater know of you, but not a lot about you.
RIGGS: Isn't that the truth? They know me from the back. I mean, I've played for over a million people in the Bay Area in the last 20-something years, but they don't know what my face looks like. Matter of fact, years ago I took a Craigslist personal ad out and it went something like, "You ever wondered who that organist playing at the Paramount or the Castro Theater, what he's like? 'Cause you never see his face." Actually, I got a couple of nice responses, too.