Keys to the Past: Ann Arbor’s Legacy of Theater Organs Creates Timeless Moviegoing Experience for Patrons


Bob Howland was the Michigan Theater's first organist.

Bob Howland was the Michigan Theater's first organist. Photo taken from Henry Aldridge's book, The Michigan Theater: Ann Arbor's Home for Fine Film and the Performing Arts Since 1928.

It was New Year’s Eve 2011 and we wanted a low-key way to celebrate.

My husband Brian suggested seeing The Artist, a critically acclaimed black-and-white-silent French film, at Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater that evening.

The theater’s Screening Room featured a couple of showings, and we opted for the 9 pm show. That way, we could see the film and still get home to watch the Times Square ball drop at midnight on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.

When we arrived at the theater, we saw a musician playing a Hammond organ about 20 minutes before The Artist started.

The organist provided pre-show entertainment and didn’t accompany The Artist during its screening, but his performance sparked our curiosity about the instrument, including the 1927 Barton pipe organ in the Michigan’s Main Auditorium.

For us, the theater organ served as a brief musical portal to the past, recalling a bygone era when it accompanied silent films at movie palaces from the 1900s to the 1920s.

Over the years, we’ve enjoyed seeing organists perform on Barton pipe organs at the Michigan Theater—the only one left in Ann Arbor—and Detroit’s Redford Theatre. Those beautiful theater organs offered warm welcomes as we took our seats to watch different films.

Nearly a decade later, I wanted to learn more about local theater organs, the theaters that housed them, and the organists who play them. 

The History of Ann Arbor’s Movie Theaters and Theater Organs 

To kick things off, I researched what movie theaters existed in Ann Arbor during the silent film era and at the theater organ’s height of popularity—circa 1907-1929: the Majestic Theater, Whitney Theater, Orpheum Theatre, Wuerth Theatre, Rae Theater, and Michigan Theater.

The Majestic Theater
316 S. Maynard St.

Ann Arbor's Majestic Theater in 1930

Ann Arbor's Majestic Theater in 1930. Photo courtesy AADL Old News.

A former roller-skating rink, the Majestic Theater became “a vaudeville and movie house in 1907,” writes author Grace Shackman in Ann Arbor in the 20th Century: A Photographic History. According to Aldridge, local historians also believe the Majestic had a theater organ, but I wasn’t able to find any information about it.

After it was renovated by lumberyard owner Charles Sauer, the theater “featured leather-covered mahogany seats for 1,150 patrons, four box seats on each side of the proscenium arch, and an auditorium floor that was slanted to guarantee good sight lines,” writes Henry Aldridge, author of The Michigan Theater: Ann Arbor’s Home for Fine Film and the Performing Arts Since 1928 and a Michigan Theater staff organist since 1973.

The Butterfield Theater chain operated the Majestic and later the Whitney, the Wuerth, and Orpheum theaters. During the summer of 1912, the Majestic started showing movies and added more films to its programming over the next five years.

By the 1920s, the theater replaced vaudeville shows with movies. 

In 1942, the Butterfield’s lease on the Majestic ended, and city officials declined its request to improve and modernize the theater. Six years later, the Majestic was demolished and became the city’s second parking structure (aka the Maynard Parking Structure) in 1953.

The Whitney Theater
117-119 N. Main St.

The Whitney theater and hotel in 1938

The Whitney Theater and Hotel in 1938. Photo courtesy of AADL Old News.

Previously known as Hill’s Opera House (1871-1906), the Whitney Theater opened in 1908 after it was purchased and remodeled by B.C. Whitney. It had two floors and became one of Michigan’s largest theaters at the time.

The newly renovated theater’s interior displayed a “neo-Renaissance style with imported chandeliers and Italian marble floors” and included “two balconies and 35 box seats and could hold more than 1,500 people,” writes Aldridge.

Originally built for stage shows, the Whitney boasted productions starring some of the era’s leading actors and actresses, including Ed Wynn, Katharine Cornell, Helen Hayes, and John and Ethel Barrymore.

By 1914, it started showing movies on Sundays and screened D.W. Griffith’s controversial silent film The Birth of a Nation three years later. Large orchestras and a theater organ accompanied the Whitney’s stage shows and silent films. (The Whitney’s theater organ later went to the former Elks location on Main and William streets.)

Movies grew in popularity, and the Butterfield Theater chain acquired the Whitney in the 1930s. Nearly 20 later, the theater closed in 1952, and its former site is now a parking lot.

The Orpheum Theatre & The Wuerth Theatre
326 S. Main St. & 320 S. Main St.
1913-1957 & 1917-1957

Ann Arbor's Orpheum Theatre opened in 1913

Ann Arbor's Orpheum Theatre opened in 1913. Photo courtesy of AADL's Old News.

As the first Ann Arbor building designed exclusively for movies, the Orpheum Theatre opened in 1913, courtesy of local business owner J. Fred Wuerth.

It “seated approximately 800 people and had a balcony and box seats, its arched façade was reminiscent of Louis Sullivan’s 1889 Auditorium Building in Chicago,” writes Aldridge.

The Orpheum often screened first-run art movies and became part of J. Fred Wuerth’s expanded business block, which included a clothing store and later the 1,000-seat Wuerth Theatre in 1917.

The Wuerth Theatre organ

The Orpheum and Wuerth theatres shared an organ. Photo taken from Henry Aldridge's book, The Michigan Theater: Ann Arbor's Home for Fine Film and the Performing Arts Since 1928.

“Set perpendicular to the Orpheum, the Wuerth was reached from Main Street through a skylighted arcade to the north of the owner’s clothing store. A Hope-Jones [pipe] organ was placed so it could be heard in both theaters,” writes Shackman in the Ann Arbor Observer’s “Cinema’s First Century.” Both theaters had separate entrances and a common stage.

Located inside the Wuerth, the theater organ was “a small instrument with a piano keyboard from which a piano and a few ranks of pipes could be played,” notes Aldridge.

By 1929, the Wuerth became the first local theater to convert from silent films to “talkies” and specialized in matinees showing serials (short, episodic films) to children. J. Fred Wuerth installed the town’s first sound system after the first “talkie” The Jazz Singer was released.

By 1957both theaters closed, and their interiors were remade for other uses. “[The] Orpheum was remodeled into a store and both buildings were covered with expanded metal mesh screening. The façade of the Orpheum (later Gratzi’s restaurant) was renovated in 1985, but the original front of Wuerth’s office building remained covered until 2005,” according to AADL’s Old News.

The Rae Theater
113 W. Huron St.

Ann Arbor's Rae Theater was the smallest of its kind at the time. Photo courtesy of

The Rae Theater was the smallest of its kind at the time. Photo courtesy of Cinema Treasures.

Named after the first letters of the given names for co-owners Russell Dobson, Alan Stanchfield, and Emil Calman, the small Rae Theater opened in 1915 and included nearly 400 seats.

Stanchfield served as the Rae’s on-site manager and “took tickets (he knew the ages of all the kids and could charge accordingly), climbed a ladder to run the projector, and hawked refreshments up and down the aisle between reels,” writes Shackman in the Ann Arbor Observer’s “Cinema’s First Century.”

The Rae also featured a “Seeborg” concert organ, or a Seeburg, for the screenings of Torrent starring Ricardo Cortez and Greta Garbo and Tie That Bull, or ‘Tis the Bull, with Bobby Vernon, according to a October 9, 1928 ad in The Ann Arbor Daily News.

Stanchfield eventually bought Dobson and Calman out and frequented theaters in Michigan and Illinois to learn more about their operations.

While the Butterfield Theater chain later operated the Orpheum, Wuerth, Majestic, and Whitney theaters, the Rae remained independent until its closure in 1929 when it caught fire after flammable nitrate film ignited.

The Michigan Theater
603 E. Liberty St.

The Michigan Theater opened in 1928 as a silent movie palace. The next year they switched to talkies.

The Michigan Theater opened in 1928 as a silent movie palace. The next year they switched to "talkies." Photo courtesy of Bentley Historical Library.

A grand movie palace, the Michigan Theater opened its doors on January 5, 1928 to feature vaudeville and show silent movies, but switched to “talkies” the following year.

Built by entrepreneur Angelo Poulos and designed by architect Maurice Finkel, the theater featured “a fully functioning stage, a sizable orchestra pit, an elaborate Barton theater organ, grand lobbies, and over 1,700 seats, all designed around its core capability of being a theater intended for film exhibition,” notes the Michigan Theater’s website.

Like its neighboring venues, the Michigan Theater was operated by the Butterfield Theater chain and featured the Majestic’s Gerald Hoag as its new manager.

On the Michigan’s opening night, “The 11-piece Michigan Theater orchestra played an overture especially written for the occasion. Assisting the orchestra at the pipe organ was Floyd Hoffman, an employee of the Barton Organ Co. sent from Chicago …” writes Aldridge

Patrons enjoyed a stage production of From Rags to Riches starring Ida Mae Chadwick and Her Dizzy Blondes and watched the 1927 silent comedy A Hero for a Night with Glenn Tryon and Patsy Ruth Miller.

For the next 50 years, the Butterfield Theater chain operated the Michigan Theater and decided not to renew its lease with the Poulos family in 1978.

Instead, a group of organists, led by Aldridge, saved the theater with the help of the local community. By 1979, the Michigan Theater Foundation nonprofit was established to operate the venue.

Aldridge’s Journey to the Barton Pipe Organ 

Michigan Theater organists Henry Aldridge, Rupert Otto, and Newton "Bud" Bates

Michigan Theater organists Henry Aldridge, Rupert Otto, and Newton "Bud" Bates gather at the Barton pipe organ in 1979. Photo taken from The Ann Arbor News, February 11, 1979.

Nearly three decades earlier, Aldridge discovered his love of film and theaters at another movie palace, the 1,800-seat Tivoli Theatre in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His maternal grandmother took him there to see different movies throughout his childhood.

“I was raised by my maternal grandmother, who was a schoolteacher, and we lived in an apartment that was close to downtown. My grandmother was very smart in providing me with every conceivable resource,” said Aldridge, an Eastern Michigan University emeritus professor of electronic media and film studies.

“We went to the library all the time, and we read all the books in the children’s section. We went to concerts, we went to plays, and we went to church every Sunday. We [also] went to lots of movies.”

While attending the Tivoli one day, Aldridge’s grandmother wondered what happened to the theater’s organ.

“I thought, ‘Why is there an organ in a movie theater?’ and I was puzzled about that for a long time,” Aldridge said. “I knew about the organ at church, of course, and the organ at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium. I knew what pipe organs were.

“When I was in college, I took a journalism course, and it was a criticism and reviewing class. And every week, we’d [either] do a movie, a play, a television program, or a novel. One time the assignment was for a nonfiction book.”

While attending the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, Aldridge read Ben M. Hall’s 1961 book The Best Remaining Seats: The Golden Age of the Movie Palace.

“There was a chapter about Wurlitzers, and I thought, ‘That’s what my grandmother was talking about.’ Two weeks later, my girlfriend and I went to the Centre Theatre in Durham to see a movie, and there was a theater organ,” said Aldridge reflecting on the memory from winter 1963.

“I said to the manager, ‘Does this thing work?’ and he said, ‘Next week we’re actually having a concert.’ I had a car that semester, so I drove back to the theater after the movie, heard this concert, got to know the guy who played it … and we became good friends.”

That organist was Don Hall, who taught Aldridge the “rudiments of theater organs.” He honed his skills on an electronic organ located inside a UNC practice room.

By June 1970, Aldridge arrived in Ann Arbor to pursue a doctorate in radio, TV, and film at the University of Michigan. He knew there was a theater organ downtown somewhere.

“The second day I was here I walked downtown, looked at the State [Theatre], and thought, ‘Nah, that’s too new,’” he said.

“There was a modern marquee on the Michigan [Theater] at the time, and I thought, ‘Well, wait a minute. What’s that?’ I looked behind the marquee, and I could see the ornate façade of the building. I thought, ‘Ah, it’s in there.’”

Inside the Michigan Theater, Aldridge met then-manager Gerald Hoag and asked to look at the 1927 Barton theater pipe organ. He removed the organ’s blue cover and played the instrument, but it was in need of repair.

“There was a staff organist, Paul Tompkins, here until 1952,” he said. “We think Paul never did silent movies, but he would play a prelude or overture with the song slides and a little feature before the movie. [Once] Paul left … the organ sat for about 18 years.”

While the entire organ was still intact, Aldridge wrote in his book that the “organ was damaged in the early 1960s when water leaked into the left pipe chamber and soaked wooden pipe chests and electrical switches, rendering at least three ranks of pipes unplayable.”

To fully resurrect the instrument, Aldridge commissioned local organ builders to repair it. He also met with several volunteers, including David Lau, Ben Levy, John Minick, and Howard Rolston, on Sunday mornings to work on the organ.

They removed and cleaned the pipework—more than 1,000 metal and wooden pipes—from the theater’s chambers and covered the chambers’ ceiling with drywall to prevent damage from falling plaster, notes Aldridge in his book.

Aldridge also highlighted efforts to repair wind leaks, especially “a large hole in the metal conduit that ran over the theater’s proscenium and carried wind supply to the left pipe chamber,” as well as console repairs.

By September 30, 1972, the repaired organ was ready for a concert sponsored by the Motor City Theatre Organ Society. Lyn Larsen performed solo works and accompanied the 1921 silent film The Sheik.

That same year, Rupert Otto, Newton “Bud” Bates, and Aldridge each played the organ three times a month, but only on Fridays and Saturdays.

“We would play it regularly in the best interest of the theater,” said Aldridge, who co-led efforts to save the theater from being turned into a retail food court in 1979. “We started playing the organ before the movies started. The decision to [later] have it played on a daily basis was a very good one. We’re still doing it.”

Michigan Theater’s Staff Organists

Henry Aldridge with the Michigan Theater's Barton organ

Henry Aldridge has played the Michigan Theater's Barton pipe organ since 1973. Photo courtesy of the Michigan Theater.

Today, Aldridge and four staff organistsDavid HuffordLance LuceAndrew Rogers, and Stephen Warner—play the 96-year-old organ each week. Encrusted in red and gold, the organ rises from below the main auditorium stage for the organists’ daily performances.

“Equivalent to a 60-piece orchestra,” the organ’s powerful sound ranges from “the soft, sweet tone of a cathedral organ to that of a mighty band,” noted in AADL’s Movies Come to Ann Arbor retrospective.

The organ includes a console with three keyboards, a semicircle of stop tabs, and a large pedal board to control the instrument’s sound effects and mechanics.

According to the American Theatre Organ Society's (ATOS) website, electrical signals are sent from the organ's console to the relay, or “the brains” of the organ. Signals are generated when keys are depressed or stops are changed, alerting the appropriate pipes and/or traps to sound.

Next, a blower, or large fan, provides the pressurized air that blows through the pipes and operates the organ’s mechanical devices.

Then, valves in the organ’s windchest “are opened and closed remotely by the relay to cause the correct pipes to sound when the organist depresses the keys,” notes the ATOS website.

Meanwhile, percussion instruments are located in the pipe chambers. They’re played from organ keys and alerted to sound by pneumatic action, or through the use of compressed air.

“It’s very enjoyable, and I’m very glad that I can play it reasonably well. I’m not a professional musician, but I’ve done it long enough,” Aldridge said. “It’s fulfilling, and I love the instrument, and the way it sounds. It’s part of what I feel when I come to the Michigan Theater, which is ‘Gee, I’m glad this worked out.’”

According to the Michigan Theater’s website, only a few hundred organs exist nationwide and fewer than 40 still remain in their original locations, including five in Michigan, one of which is the Ann Arbor organ.

“There were about 7,000 theater organs built from 1912 to 1932. We’re talking about an instrument that was built for a specific purpose, which is to accompany silent movies,” Aldridge said. “They are a modification of the big romantic organs you would find in churches, auditoriums, and other places.”

A Restored Barton Pipe Organ

Andrew Rogers plays the Barton organ at the Michigan Theater

Andrew Rogers plays the Barton pipe organ at the Michigan Theater. Photo courtesy of Andrew Rogers.

To keep the organ fully functioning, the Michigan Theater started a restoration project in 2014 with Hufford’s Renaissance Pipe Company. The organ’s keyboards and console were removed, dismantled, cleaned, repaired, and reassembled, while the pipes and chambers were repaired and restored during the summers of 2018 and 2019.

The organ “now uses a computer to direct its electric signals from the organ’s console to its pipework which also lets the instrument play prerecorded performances,” according to a November 5, 2022, MLive article

Hufford said the organ’s pipework was still in excellent condition, despite its age and the number of people who entered the chambers over the years.

“The re-leathering work that we did up there to rebuild the stuff … was still good after 80 years,” Hufford said. “It could last 50 to 80 years, but the electronic equipment doesn’t last forever. The guy who designed the system said he thought it could probably be expected to work for a good 40 years.”

Head organist Andrew Rogers ensures the theater’s keyboardists are ready to entertain moviegoers before, during, and after films. Rogers creates their monthly performance schedule and places it in the theater lobby and on the theater’s website.

“The first thing I do is ask them for their blackout dates so I know when they’re not available,” Rogers said. “Then I communicate with Nick [Alderink] who’s in programming and [ask], ‘Does this event want an organist?’ Once I know when we’ll be using the organ, then I’ll compare that to [the organists’] blackout dates and create a schedule for the month.”

A longtime organist, silent film accompanist, and film scoring lecturer, Rogers started performing at the Michigan Theater in 2008. He’s accompanied several silent films there, including Robin HoodNanook of the North, and Show People.

“[After a show], two ladies came up to me and said, ‘You know, we were trying to name all the songs,’ and then I realized they’re not paying attention to the film, they’re paying attention to the music,” said Rogers, who learned how to accompany silent films by studying old Warner Bros. cartoons.

“It was from that point on I composed everything from scratch. I’d come up with an outline to decide when to focus or emphasize the music to play underneath the scene, when I need to move the scene along, what character on screen am I playing the emotion for, etc.”

Rogers also accompanies silent films at Detroit’s Redford Theatre and Senate Theater, Traverse City’s Music House Museum, and Saginaw’s Temple Theatre.

“The thing about doing silent films … I’ve got the outline in my head, and I’ve got the certain themes, but how I knit it together each time I play it could be different,” he said. “If I played a film for you now and then played it for you tomorrow, it wouldn’t be exactly the same.”

As for the Michigan Theater, Rogers plans to accompany a couple of silent films that have been proposed for the year. Those films won’t be scheduled until closer to the screening dates. 

“The interest in silent films really exploded when the French film The Artist [came out],” Rogers said. "It was after that that all these different venues were asking to do silent films.”

Eleven years later, I’m ready to revisit the magic of silent films (hopefully The Artist again) and applaud the organists who keep those timeless instruments alive for generations to come.

Lori Stratton is a library technician, writer for Pulp, and writer and editor of


The Michigan Theater: Ann Arbor’s Home for Fine Film and the Performing Arts since 1928 by Henry Aldridge

Ann Arbor in the 20th Century: A Photographic History by Grace Shackman

“Cinema’s First Century” by Grace Shackman for The Ann Arbor Observer, September 2003

“First installed in 1928, Michigan Theater’s Barton pipe organ still making music” by Makayla Coffee for MLive, November 5, 2022

“Our 1927 Barton Organ,” Michigan Theater website

The Silent Era, 1888-1929 website

“Butterfield Lease on Majestic Ends,” The Ann Arbor News, December 31, 1947

“The Whitney Theater” by Grace Shackman for The Ann Arbor Observer, August 1994

“Whitney Changes Hands in Big Real Estate Transaction,” The Michigan Daily, March 4, 1921

“The Orpheum,” AADL Old News

“Wuerth Theatre,” AADL Old News

“Orpheum, Wuerth Theaters Closed,” The Ann Arbor News, March 26, 1957

“A Brief History of the MTF,” Michigan Theater website

“Jerry Hoag, City’s Dean of Movies, Dies at 84” by Julie Wiernik for The Ann Arbor News, May 1, 1984

“Uptown Theaters,” AADL Old News

“Saved: City Votes to Buy Michigan Theater,” The Ann Arbor News, November 6, 1979

“Our Barton Organ’s History,” Michigan Theater website  

“Area Film Co-ops Offer Paradise of the Arcane” by Constance Crum for The Ann Arbor News, November 15, 1980

“Our Staff Organists,” Michigan Theater website