Since 1979, members of the Alabama Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society (ATOS) have organized and produced the showing of the groundbreaking 1925 silent film, The Phantom of the Opera, featuring the Alabama Theatre’s Wurlitzer organ (nicknamed Big Bertha) and an original score for the film by Tom Helms.
Helms not only wrote original music for the silent film, he has been playing “Big Bertha” and his special score for The Phantom of Opera at the Alabama Theatre, for nearly every year for the past 39.
The annual production of The Phantom of the Opera is the prime fundraiser for the Alabama Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society, the organization that has maintained the Wurlitzer organ at the Alabama Theatre since the 1960s. Monies raised from today’s event will help the volunteer driven group maintain the organ and pay artists to showcase this rare and unique instrument to the public.
Big Bertha is one of the very few theater organs remaining in it’s original theatre.
How did the Phantom of the Opera tradition begin?
Earlier this week, we asked longtime ATOS member Pat Seitz how the Phantom of the Opera Halloween tradition was started nearly four decades ago.
“There wasn’t a lot going on in the late 1970s for Halloween in Birmingham, so we said, hey let’s do a silent movie. Let’s open up the theater (it was pretty much closed at the time), let’s do it the Saturday before Halloween. We got re-scheduled, so we moved it to Sunday, and lo and behold more people came on Sunday anyway,” said Seitz.
ATOS had Tom Helms accompany the film on the Alabama’s Wurlitzer organ, using the score he arranged and composed himself, and the rest is history.
How to attend today’s event
So, how does a showing of The Phantom of the Opera work?
First off, Helms will be playing the organ, like he has since 1979.
Seitz provided these additional tips.
“If you have never been before, sit on the main floor. If you want to hear better sit out from under the balcony. You can hear the organ better there. When you are sitting on the main floor you can see the special surprises that happen before the film begins and when it ends.”
Doors open at 1:00, and everyone must be seated (there will be some surprises) at 2:00. Wearing of costumes are appreciated.