It was a beautiful spring evening in the Hudson Valley, the elegant theater marquee was flashing, and Poughkeepsie area fans of classic cinema had assembled en masse to join the 75th Anniversary celebration of the Bardavon Theatre’s Wurlitzer organ. The crowd passed through polished wood and glass entry doors with gleaming brass highlights. It was like a scene from another age in the bygone days of Hollywood glamour. Inside the theater, the audience found the pristinely restored classical architecture and design that compounded the illusion of a time machine taking the visitors to an earlier era. The recessed ceiling dome that crowns the room is gently lit in soft electric blue.
The Wurlitzer organ in question began its life at the Bardavon in 1928. First used to accompany silent films, it later provided music for live shows and solo performances. In the 1960’s it was purchased and moved to a private home in Scarsdale where it remained until the early seventies when the home was sold. Stored for an extended period in a barn, the organ was rediscovered in 1985 by the New York Theater Organ Society. The Society made possible an eight-year restoration of the organ costing tens of thousands of dollars and requiring untold thousands of volunteer man-hours. All of the organ’s sounds are still mechanically produced – just like they were in 1928 – by pressure from a 5 horsepower blower located on the stage-left gallery.
For the occasion of this gala anniversary, gifted organist, Juan Cardona Jr. was at the keyboard warming up the audience even before the projector began to fill the silver screen with vintage Hollywood magic. Representing the New York Theatre Organ Society, Mr. John Vanderlee came onstage to give the audience some interesting background information on the instrument. Then it was Showtime!
First up was a 1920’s silent comedy short titled “Cops,” and starring Buster Keaton. With a great gift for adlibbing on the organ, Cardona provided a merry accompaniment for each disaster befalling the hilarious Mr. Keaton. One can only hope the Bardavon will make silent shorts (with organ) a standard complement to their regular cinema series. This film’s faded print lacked brightness and focus, but was nevertheless full of fun. An uproarious police chase seemed to have a cast of thousands, and the pipe organ chambers on either side of the stage offered an early version of stereo that added to the excitement.
Then came the feature film of the evening, Irving Berlin’s “Top Hat,” starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It was filled with sophistication, humor and elegant fashions and settings that must have lifted the spirits of many depression-era moviegoers. The soundtrack and audio for this film were a bit disappointing, but the towering dance genius of Astaire and Rogers on the wide screen was more than enough to make up any shortfall. Costumes full of satin and feathers for Miss Rogers, and the art-deco elegance of the hotel interiors added to the glamour. And speaking of elegance, how about the black-tie “class” in Astaire’s performance of the title tune. There were opulent Venetian canal scenes, glitzy evening gowns, and dance, dance and more dance in extravagant numbers like “Piccolino.”
During the unforgettable “Cheek to Cheek,” I glanced around the auditorium at the sea of beaming faces glowing in the flickering light of the screen. Yes, we will all see the film again on T.V., but somehow it will never be quite the same as this magical night at the Bardavon Theatre.