By Reem Nasr
Joe Amato strode down an abandoned corridor below the basketball court in the Long Island University Brooklyn gymnasium. “I was born too late,” he sighed.
Amato, 62, is thinking back to a time 20 years before his birth, when this corridor led to “opulence you can’t imagine” in what was once the grandest movie palace in the city — the 4,500-seat Brooklyn Paramount Theater with its “Mighty Wurlitzer” theater organ.
The former theater received the giant organ in 1928, in the era of silent film, when both American music and society were starkly different.
And, though you’d never guess it from LIU’s nondescript entrance at Flatbush and DeKalb Avenues, the organ — with its four-keyboard console and 26 sets of pipes — is still there, housed in several rooms above and below the gym floor.
“People took such pride in their work,” Amato said. “Everything was done by hand, every wire inserted like an artist.” He referred to the Wurlitzer’s complete originality, down to the wiring inserted almost 85 years ago.
An East New York native and musician who plays accordion, piano and organ, Amato retired from the NYPD after 30 years as a forensics detectives to become a private investigator. Talking to him about the organ is to be transported back in time to the theatre’s glory days.
A couple of years ago, he shouldered the responsibility of caring for the Wurlitzer. Since then, he has assembled a team of five volunteer crewmembers including Tom Stehle, Dan Minervini, Jesse Kohl and John Zych. They work on behalf of LIU and the New York Theatre Organ Society to make necessary repairs to the masterpiece.
While most theatre palaces and their organs were destroyed throughout the 20th century as their popularity waned and the city made room for newer attractions, a private university preserved this organ.
The vice president of LIU, Gale Haynes, called the crew’s volunteer work, “a labor of love.” She spoke about the organ’s mystique and is proud to have it on her campus.
“The organ is from another place in time,” she said. “That’s why it’s so attractive in a sense; it’s another part of history that people don’t enjoy anymore. It takes us someplace else. It’s magical.”
The university acquired the theatre and its organ in 1950, but movies didn’t stop playing until 1962 when it was transformed into a gym. LIU has since built another athletic center for its NCAA Division I basketball team and the former has become more or less a practice space.
The gym is a marvel in its own right. Above the basketball hoops, the scoreboard and bleachers are the dim walls and ceiling of the former theatre. Two brown, velvet curtains on the top right and left corners of the stage cloak the organ pipes. The organ’s console is mechanically lifted from beneath the floorboards when it is to be played or worked on.
The NYTOS plays about two to three concerts a year. The organ cannot be played while classes are in session because its deep, booming sounds shake the entire building. The next concert is scheduled for May 18 with renowned British organist, Richard Hills. Until then, Amato is keeping his team busy replacing the crumbling leather on some of the wooden blocks in the organ. He expects the project to be completed well before Hills’ arrival.
The era of silent films, jazz and rock and roll have all had their place at the Brooklyn Paramount. Michael Hittman is the curator of the university’s Brooklyn Paramount Museum Project. He has set up showcases with historical material about the theatre’s former glory. He lamented over the fact that when tour buses make their way down Flatbush Avenue, they will point to Junior’s Restaurant but never mention that the former Brooklyn Paramount is right across from it.
“No, the students don’t appreciate it at all,” he said. “I myself went to LIU in the early 1960s and we were never taught its history.”
Ben Model, a New York-based silent film accompanist and historian, explained that although there are only two theatre organs left in the city, there are still several church organs in use. Church organs are smaller in scale and do not have as much acoustical variety. Model plays the theatre organ to accompany silent films as a full-time career. He uses a digital organ program that he can play from his laptop to replicate the sound of a real organ. He doesn’t think that the silent film audience is waning.
“It’s been growing for the last 15 years or so,” Model said. “With the advent of the internet these people have found one another.”
Amato’s Brooklyn accent is as genuine as the original pieces that make up the “Mighty Wurlitzer.” Though he was never trained in organ maintenance, he said he has learned a lot on the job. More importantly, he said, is to be passionate about caring for this valuable relic.
“Everything is exactly the same as it was installed in 1928,” he said. “All of that old technology is still there and it’s my job to make sure it works well.”