Play us a song, you’re the organ man

Abbie Vansickle

It’s 7:50 p.m. on a Friday. The lights come up in the theater as the credits roll. The people, munching their last bits of popcorn, begin to pull on their scarves, mittens and coats and head for the door. The magic of the silver screen is gone for now, and it’s time to go out into the bitterly cold Chicago night.

Then, a light turns on near the front of the theater and the music starts.

Full and hearty, the notes ring out. A police whistle sounds. A bird calls. Then comes the thud of a woodblock. The metallic crunch of two cars colliding.

The people pause.

The music swells, pulsating through the theater. Trombones. Cymbals. Tubas. It sounds as if an orchestra is hiding in the room.

Slowly, a few audience members approach the front.

Then, they see the source of the music. They see the organ, a mammoth, wooden monster with rows of flashing buttons and colored keys. Finally, they see the stocky silhouette of Mark Noller, the organist.

Wearing a black jumpsuit with pastel embroidery down the front and a red plaid jacket, he hunches over the keys, bouncing to the music, fingers flying.

“Hi, folks. How ya doin’ tonight?” he asks, turning from the keyboard.

Timidly, they approach, eying the flashing beast.

“I remember my high school English teacher used to play one of those,” a man says.

“What was his name?” Noller asks. The man answers and asks if the name sounds familiar.

It sure does, Noller says. After all, he’s met practically every organist in the city after more than 10,000 performances and 40 years of playing the organ in Chicago.

After answering the questions, Noller turns back to his instrument. Flipping a series of switches, he pulls a heavy cover over the organ. His time is done, he says. It’s time for the next film.

The lights dim, the red curtain rises and Noller heads for the lobby. Plopping down on a chair, he grabs a bucket of popcorn, waiting in the wings until it’s time to begin again.

It’s a routine Noller is used to. Although he’s only been working at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave. in Wrigleyville, for a year, he’s been pumping the pedals of organs since he was a child.

Noller, 53, began taking organ lessons in 1955. After school he would race to his teacher’s house, just across the alley from his own home. Once he got the basics, he began playing for kids’ sing-alongs at a local movie palace with an organist nicknamed “Two-ton Baker.”

After high school graduation, Noller joined the Navy, but his love affair with the organ continued and he soon became the official organist of the cruiser U.S.S. Columbus, playing for chapel services and ceremonies.

Returning home, he took a desk job for the Conn Organ Company in Oakbrook. It wasn’t long, however, before he started playing for talk shows, silent films and chapels in area hospitals, including Advocate Healthcare, where Noller said he had his most unusual organ experience.

“They were celebrating the opening of a new operating room and they set up the organ right next to the operating table,” Noller said, chuckling. “They had munchies and everything set up right next to the surgeon’s area.”

Noller said he found out about the job opening at the Music Box, a renovated movie palace from the 1930s that plays independent films and documentaries in its two theaters, and sent in his application.

“I wanted to play here because there’s nobody to do this anymore,” he said. “The Music Box is the only theater with an organist.”

He was hired immediately and began to play at intermissions and for special theater events, including, what he calls “the Rock Horror Picture Show for Catholics.” This event is the theater’s annual showing of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music” – an event that draws hundreds of people and is complete with subtitles of the lyrics of the songs and “plenty of truckers dressed up as nuns,” he said.

Making the 360-mile round trip drive to the Music Box each weekend from his home in Kankakee, Ill., Noller said playing the organ at the theater is a fulfilling experience.

“I know my music brings pleasure to people and every time I play, I learn something,” he said. “What do they say? Music is the universal language.”

Music Box manager Charles Rogers said Noller’s music adds something special to the audience’s experience.

“It makes the experience more of an event,” he said. “This place is just like home for me, but for many people, there’s a certain kind of mystique here … we have a lot of little things that make it special. The lights change colors throughout the night, we have old-fashioned tickets and we have a live organist.”

Noller said his music helps to make the Music Box unique.

“It is said that when there is an organ operating in a movie palace, it’s like the theater has a heart,” he said. nyou