Meet the world’s last fulltime silent picture organist
Ron West is a sprightly 83 years. He retired only four years ago – but his wasn’t any ordinary job.
He and his late wife, Mandy, were behind the only fully-operating silent picture theatre in the world, Pomona’s Majestic Theatre; and he was the last fully employed silent picture theatre organist in the world.
For 26 years straight, Ron accompanied silent films at the Majestic – that adds up to 4128 performances of Rudolf Valentino’s Son of the Sheik alone.
In fact, he could do it in his sleep – quite literally.
“I used to play something a bit bizarre if I needed to get Mandy’s attention. One night she heard it and looked over to see me and came over. I had been asleep for about 20 minutes then just snapped back into the score. I really could play it in my sleep.”
Ron was only five when he started piano lessons and switched to organ when he was 12.
He trained in classical music but gave it away for popular music and at 19, fell into his life calling at the Embassy Theatre in Wellington, New Zealand.
“A fellow had a little cinema and asked if I could play a silent film for him as he had the score,” Ron says.
“It was the 1921 film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse which starred Rudolf Valentino. I had no idea that this would be the start of a long association with Valentino.”
He was only five minutes in when he realised the score did not relate to the film so it was a steep learning curve, one which stood him in good stead for the rest of his long career as a theatre organist.
And while he had his own hair-raising moments, he best demonstrates the pitfalls with the story of Reginald Foort, an accomplished organist and Fellow of the Royal College of Organists who accompanied many silent films in the 1920’s.
“The cinema organ has a lot of sound effects specifically for silent film accompaniments and the doorbell/telephone bell is just one of them,” he says.
“Once the hero turned up at the heroine’s door with a big bunch of flowers, so Foort rang the doorbell but the hero only put his finger towards the button, then lost heart and turned away again. Even the best can get caught out.”
While there have been others who can play theatre organ, most play only one film. Ron has played 400 different feature films.
The music is in his blood. His father, a dentist by profession, played oboe in the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. He was born in 1879 and at 16, was playing at the local opera house.
“The first films were shown in 1896 and my father could remember watching these moving images on a screen,” Ron says.
“He played in a theatre orchestra until 1931 when sound came to the movies.”
Ron has tried his hand at everything theatrical – composing and arranging scores, acting, set design and conducting. He even learnt tap and ballet as a child.
“The only thing that I am not is a qualified electrician, although I grew up in an era when you did it yourself,” he says with a laugh.
After more than 50 years in the theatre world, handling film and projection, he retired in 2012, and the transition took time.
“For the first year, I felt guilty every Thursday night because I kept thinking I had to be at the theatre playing Son of the Sheik as I had done for the previous 26 years,” he said. “Eventually I got used to it and started to relax.”