Silent Films Light Up Historic Ironwood Theater

Nov 13, 2014

On a recent Saturday evening, the classic marquee of the Historic Ironwood Theatre was lit on Aurora Street in downtown Ironwood, and a crowd bustled into the theatre. However, this wasn’t a typical night at the movies.  This was a silent film screening, complete with live organ accompaniment.

With popcorn and soda in hand, the crowd took their seats to watch the silent film classic Phantom of the Opera at the Historic Ironwood Theatre. 

The theater was built in 1928 as a vaudeville silent movie theater and then continued as a movie theater once the “talkies” or films with sound were introduced in the 1920s and 30s.  For over five decades, the Ironwood Theatre served as the local movie theater.

Bruce Greenhill, the manager of the Ironwood Theatre explains what happened after that.

"In the 1980s it closed to cinema," he says.  "Was dark for a little while.  And despite efforts by a number of people it was seriously in danger of being lost."

Greenhill says there was a push to knock it down to create more downtown parking.  But in the end the community stepped in to save the Ironwood Theatre.  The City acquired the building and a non-profit was created that managed a series of renovations that spanned over twenty years and restored each component of the original theatre bit by bit.  The community saved the theater, not only because it was right downtown and filled with memories of first dates and first kisses, but also because of its grandeur.

"When you enter the theater proper you sort of are knocked out by the plaster work, the gilding and the mural in the proscenium," Greenhill explains.

The mural on the high dome-like ceiling is especially striking.  It is of Bellerephon, a human hero from Greek mythology riding Pegasus in the sky surrounded by clouds and cherubs. 

Restoring this mural was difficult says Greenhill. "Everything was painted dark blue including this beautiful mural was covered in dark blue paint," he descibes.  "One of the biggest challenges when the restorations began was removing that blue paint from the mural.

Another renovation challenge was the restoring the original Barton organ that had been built into the theater to accompany silent films.  When sound was added to movies, the organs were often removed from the theaters.  But these are not simple instruments that can be moved easily given that they include the traditional organ pipes in addition to full sized instruments hidden in the balconies on each side of the stage.

"When that change over from silence to talkies happened, so many of the organs were ripped out and thrown in the dump or the local river," says Greenhill.  "Ironwood Theatre’s Barton Organ is one of only six in the world that has been restored to factory specifications.  There has been no digital taxidermy that has been done.  What you hear in there is what their grandparents heard."

Even though the Barton Organ has stayed in place over the entire lifespan of the theater, by the 1980s it was in very poor condition.  A group of dedicated volunteers spearheaded by Dr. Tom Peacock worked over a 14 year period to restore the organ to its original state by obtaining grants, donations, and putting in many hours of volunteer time.  Peacock who is a retired dentist, did not know anything about organ restoration before the project, but through the process became an expert.  

"It’s complex, but it is elegantly simple," Peacock describes.  "And the good part is that you don’t need a lot of high tech test equipment to find out what the problem is.  If you’ve got a soldering iron and some glue, and a test meter you can usually find the problem is and fix it because all of the materials are still available."

He continues, "There are 110 wood valves that control the presets, and I took that home and spent $700 and 230 hours restoring that."

Now that it’s once again ready for playing, Father Andrew Rogers is preparing for tonight’s performance of Phantom of the Opera.  Rogers is the main organist for the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, and specializes in live organ accompaniment of silent films. 

"The silent film 'The Artist' that came out several years ago drew a huge resurgence of interest in silent films in general," Rogers says. "That just spurred the interest and how many performances I do. A lot of younger people haven’t experienced a live silent film so when they come for the first time they are surprised. If I do my job right, you forget that I’m playing and you’re absorbed in the film.  It’s creating the mood and sustaining the mood."

Father Rogers is looking forward to returning next year to accompany another movie, possibly one of the silent Alfred Hitchcock films.  Bruce Greenhill says that now that the organ has been restored, the theater plays around four silent films a year.  In addition, the organ is played for the half hour prior to any other show.