Did you know Fargo-Moorhead still hosts silent movie events with American theatre organ music to tell the story? Did you know that the organization behind these events is our Partner Red River Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society (RRATOS)? If you didn’t, you do now, and it’s an organization with fun family events worth checking out. The RRATOS has been active in the community since it was chartered in March 1965, with its “founding instrument” as the theatre organ at Bud’s Roller Rink in Moorhead, Minnesota.
The organization later got involved with restoring the organ at the Fargo Theatre in the 1970s, and over the years, the organization has continued to grow and make an impact in the community. But in recent years, the RRATOS has been working on a strategic plan to further its impact and stay relevant for years to come.
To learn more about the organization, theatre pipe organs and the RRATOS’ new Strategic Plan, we asked RRATOS President Ryan Hardy some questions — and he didn’t disappoint with his in-depth responses below! Thanks for taking the time to inform us more about RRATOS, Ryan!
The Arts Partnership: How has the Red River Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society evolved over years since it was founded in 1965?
RRATOS President Ryan Hardy: Most of the traditions we know today (such as movie prologues, Silent Movie Night, and noon-hour Holiday concerts) got their start in the 1970’s at the Fargo Theatre. The first movie prologue music was played in December of 1973 before a showing of Walt Disney’s Robin Hood. The first Silent Movie Night was in 1974.
In 1983, the RRATOS purchased, owned, and operated the Fargo Theatre. A short while later, the chapter created the Fargo Theatre Management Corporation, which is the organization that still operates the theatre today. From the 1980’s to the early 2000’s, the RRATOS was very active in the community producing several silent movies each year, in addition to concerts featuring the Mighty Wurlitzer played by professional organists. The last professional concert was played in 2005.
Throughout the next ten years the Chapter seemed to adopt a “business as usual” mindset, with the same annual Silent Movie Nights, movie prologues, Summer Cinema Series at Minnesota State University Moorhead, and noon concerts in December. I was elected president of the RRATOS in 2015, after creating a website and reviving the chapter Facebook page.
Shortly after, some chapter members and I tried a few experimental events at the Fargo Theatre and Weld Hall to change up our usual yearly programming. These events were intended to be pilot events, as opposed to full-blown productions with high costs. This allowed us to focus more on what types of marketing and events helps us best reach our audience. They provided us with enough information to determine what could be possible if the chapter fully committed to new programming.
Throughout the past few years the number of members of the RRATOS Chapter began to dwindle, which sparked chapter-wide motivation to keep trying new things and ensure that the RRATOS and the Mighty Wurlitzer have a “survival plan” to be active and growing for many years to come.
In 2018 we created and implemented a strategic plan to help the chapter stay relevant in the community and ensure that the music of the Mighty Wurlitzer continues to entertain audiences in the Fargo/Moorhead area. Nearly a year later, we have make significant progress towards our goals. I am particularly excited for this upcoming year, as we have our first ever full season of programming in the works, including Silent Movie Night, a Pedals, Pipes, and Pizza event for local students to learn more about the pipe organ, and the return of full-length concerts on the Mighty Wurlitzer!
TAP: How have theatre pipe organs evolved, if at all?
RH: Theatre pipe organs are a relatively new instrument, but they still have changed a lot over time! The theatre organ’s original use was to accompany silent movies in the 1910’s and 1920’s. Movie theaters saw the organ as an inexpensive alternative to hiring a multi-piece orchestra to play for movies (The Fargo Theatre used to have an orchestra as well, in addition to the Mighty Wurlitzer). A pianist commonly accompanied films in smaller theaters, but a piano can only sound like a piano. Audiences were looking for the exciting sounds of a full orchestra, and theatre managers wanted to save money, so the theatre organ blossomed into existence.
The theatre organ was sometimes given the nickname “the unit orchestra” because it could recreate the textures and sounds of an orchestra with its real percussion instruments, sound effects, and pipes that replicate the sounds of violins, cellos, trumpets, french horns, and flutes. The theatre organ craze came to an abrupt end with the invention of “talking” movies in 1927. Movies made their own music, rendering theatre organs obsolete. Even during the early years of sound film, theatre organs were played for pre-show music, audience sing-alongs, and radio broadcasts.
Over time, instruments across the country fell into disrepair and were forgotten. During the urban renewal movement starting in the 1940’s, many movie theaters became unprofitable and were torn down. Theatre organs were often torn down with the building or made inaccessible due to remodeling. It was about this same time that people across the United States remembered how much they enjoyed the sound of the theatre organ. Seeing these movie theaters being torn down motivated many of them to save the instruments that remained.
Lance Johnson and the other charter members of the RRATOS are the ones to thank for ensuring we still have the Fargo Theatre and the Wurlitzer theatre organ around today. Many modernized theatre organs that are playing today are equipped with computers and software that allows organists to record and playback music, or augment the organ’s sound with drum machines or synthesizers.
There are about 80 chapters of the American Theatre Organ Society in the United States, Australia, and Europe that are all dedicated to preserving the music and art form of the theatre organ. Many show silent movies or produce concerts as well.
TAP: How does RRATOS plan to stay relevant for years to come?
RH: As mentioned earlier, the RRATOS developed a strategic plan to help us figure out what our purpose was in Fargo. Our plan is based on five primary initiatives:
TAP: Why does this matter?
RH: All of this is a good first-step to ensuring the future of the Mighty Wurlitzer and its music in Fargo. There are fewer than 300 theatre organs remaining in the world today and even fewer that are in a playable condition. The Wurlitzer organ at the Fargo Theatre is the only theatre organ left in North Dakota and is an iconic piece of Fargo’s history.
While there are electronic digital theatre organs being built, there is no substitute for the power and dynamic sound a real theatre organ creates in a historic movie theatre. I’ve heard many people say that playing the organ is a dying art form. I would say that is the general trend, but it is exactly that which gives every ATOS Chapter a reason to introduce the pipe organ to as many people as possible in as many ways as possible. Could the theatre organ ever make a comeback into the public eye? I think so, and the RRATOS is well on its way to making that happen.
TAP: How has getting involved with RRATOS impacted you as a person?
RH: My experience with the RRATOS has been truly invaluable. Even though I am only in my early twenties, I have learned so much by leading a small non-profit. I have been able to try out new programs, resolve internal issues, network with local nonprofit professionals, and grow as a musician. The RRATOS has allowed me to experience many aspects of non-profit work, such as social media, website development, budgeting, correspondence, networking, strategic planning, and graphic design. Many people my age might only experience non-profits through volunteering at events or with an internship, so to have all of this experience so early on will be a major asset to my future careers.
Stay connected with RRATOS:
Questions? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Silent Movie Night: October 19, 2019. 2pm and 7:30pm
All photos are courtesy of RRATOS.