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Gaylord Carter, whose 80-year performance career defined "theatre organist," died November 20, 2000, at age 95. One of the world's renowned silent film accompanists and best-known theatre organists, this incredible human being gave sound to silent movies and introduced whole generations to the joy of the theatre pipe organ.
Observing Gaylord in action at the Orpheum Theatre in 1987, Los Angeles Times columnist Jack Smith wrote:
"...Carter is a national treasure
and ought to be designated
a historical monument."
The organ was Gaylord's lifelong playground, and he used it as his special effects sound stage for silent films, producing thunderous music for battles, ominous chords for villains, and trick sounds for punch lines. "At its best, the music is felt but not noticed," he once told the Los Angeles Times. "When it's right, you should lose yourself in the picture."
The Early Years
Born August 3, 1905, in Wiesbaden, Germany, Gaylord soon immigrated to Wichita, Kansas, where his father opened a conservatory of music and took a position as a church organist. Gaylord became a soloist as a choirboy at St. John's Episcopal Church, but the organ beckoned when his voice changed. He was playing in Wichita's Congregational Church when he was ten, and at age 14 he played for children's matinees at the local theatre.
In 1922, the family moved to Los Angeles where Gaylord attended Lincoln High School. He did not have a dime to see the movies, so he got a job playing the piano at a local theatre. He accompanied many films "cold" -- that is, without the advantage of having seen them in advance. Some films were distributed with thematic cue sheets for the accompanist, indicating what action was to occur in the film and perhaps a few bars of suggested music for scenes. "The first time through, I'd have to wing it," Gaylord said. "But if there was a bugle call or a steamboat whistle, at least I'd know it was coming."
At the Seville Theatre in Inglewood, California, Gaylord's work came to the attention of silent film comedian Harold Lloyd. Harold came to see how the audience was receiving the film and was so impressed with Gaylord's playing that he recommended Gaylord for what was to become his first important organist post.
The Los Angeles Movie Palaces
In 1926, Gaylord was hired as organist for Grauman's Million Dollar Theatre in Los Angeles at Third and Broadway for $110 a week. The 21-year-old Carter dropped out of pre-law studies at UCLA because he was making such good money playing the organ. Harold Lloyd advised Gaylord, "When they're laughing, play softly. It's when they're not laughing that I need you." Gaylord eventually played engagements at all of the major Los Angeles movie palaces -- the downtown Paramount, United Artists, Warner's Hollywood, the Egyptian, and the Wiltern.
Decades later, Gaylord and Harold Lloyd were to collaborate in putting organ scores together for all of Harold's films. These sessions took place at the Simonton home in Toluca Lake where Gaylord also recorded scores for the Mary Pickford films. When Gaylord swung into Time On My Hands during Lloyd's classic scene dangling from a skyscraper clock in Safety Last, Lloyd drolly told Carter, "Gaylord, I'll do the jokes."
With the advent of sound films, Gaylord continued to perform at the Million Dollar and later at the Paramount, playing for intermissions and audience sing-alongs. By the mid-1930s, however, he became increasingly involved with radio broadcasting. He played for such shows as California Melodies, Hollywood Hotel, The Packard Show, The Second Mrs. Burton, and Breakfast in Hollywood. But he will probably be remembered most for the seven years he introduced "The Amos 'n' Andy Show" by playing "The Perfect Song." Gaylord later took this theme as his own, delighting in telling audiences, "Mother always said 'play something you know,' and that was the piece."
Gaylord was a motion picture officer with the U.S. Navy on active duty in the Aleutians during World War II. He joked that he was "the Louis B. Mayer of Alaska." Returning to Los Angeles after military service, he played for The Whistler, Suspense, Bride and Groom and later for television's Pinky Lee Show and others. In 1961-62, he hosted Everybody Sing with Gaylord, his own television show on KCOP Channel 13.
Flicker Finger Productions
In the 1960s, Gaylord formed Flicker Fingers Productions and played a major role in reviving the interest in silent films and theatre organs. In the 1980s he was hired by Paramount Pictures to score a dozen film classics for home video release, including Wings, Docks of New York, The Ten Commandments, Running Wild (W. C. Fields) and others, many of which are still available through various vendors including Amazon.com and the Organ Historical Society.
He performed across the United States, Europe, and Australia, was named "Organist of the Year" by the American Theatre Organ Society, and was inducted into its "Hall of Fame" in 1975. Gaylord's audiences will always treasure the memory of when he would swing his short legs around on the organ bench and be absolutely charming with his engaging comments. He made each individual feel as though he was playing just for them.
Gaylord was a superb party-giver, and many were recipients of his gracious hospitality in his beautiful San Pedro home. Gaylord was a lover of people, fun, parties, and life in general. He lived an extremely interesting life, and he knew how to tell a story. He seldom took sides in organized politics, often saying, "I'm friends with everybody." He was not fussy about the instruments he played, and quipped, "It's a poor carpenter who complains about his tools."
A Man of Colorful Speech
"Gaylord had the best, most colorful and imaginative usage of the English language of anyone, and I do mean anyone, I have ever known," said Bill Teaford, long-time friend and host of many parties honoring Gaylord. "The last one I remember occurred about three years ago. I was looking for a friend of Gaylord's (we'll say Richard) to ask him something, and asked Gaylord where Richard was. Gaylord said he was in Boston for his mother's birthday. I said that Richard had just been in Pittsburgh last month for his mother's birthday. Gaylord's reply was 'They are awash in birthdays back there.' It completely broke me up. I would never have thought to use 'awash' that way, but I (and a number of my friends) now use it with relative frequency."
While Gaylord was a keen businessman, he was also a very kind and generous individual. He put his brother and sister through college and helped many of his nieces and nephews obtain bachelor and masters degrees. While he never finished college, he loved to learn and stay current on world affairs. He had an alert mind and enjoyed politics and economics. He always watched 60 Minutes and many PBS news programs, and he read Time and Life magazines.
I was honored to participate in several tributes to Gaylord, most notably in 1995 at his last major performance, when I shared the Oakland (California) Paramount Theatre stage with him on the occasion of his 90th birthday. Excerpts from this event are featured in the PBS television documentary, Pulling Out All the Stops: The Pipe Organ in America.
On December 12, 2000, a memorial service was held for Gaylord at the First Congregational Church in Long Beach as he had requested. Although Gaylord was not a member, he considered it his home church. He said that he wanted upbeat organ music played by his friends.
Performing at the service were Chris Elliott, Robert Israel, Lyn Larsen, Ken Rosen, Bob Salisbury, and Walt Strony. Pianist William Teaford and organist Shirley Obert closed the service with a piano and organ duet. The church was host to a sumptuous buffet supper for over 200 people following the service. Gaylord was laid to rest in Forest Lawn, Glendale, California, near his mother and father.