A Re-found History
The Michigan Theatre
Through the Eyes of Bob Howland
Staff Organist 1928-1931
Excerpts from a fascinating interview between Roger Mumbrue and Bob Howland about his days as staff organist at Ann Arbor's Michigan Theater.
Bob Howland. MITH Staff Organist 1928-1931.
Robert (Bob) Howland was born October 5, 1905 in Flint Michigan. He was hired as Staff Organist at the Michigan Theater late in 1928 and remained until late in 1931 when the house was wired for sound film.
Surprisingly enough, even though he was hired in 1928, Bob Howland was actually the 4th organist to serve the theater since its opening on January 5 of that year.
Previous to his arrival, he recollects an interesting history of the first early days of the theatres musical operation. The first organist was supplied by Barton (as per company policy) and was summarily booed off the bench by the students of the University. The second organist (in Howlands own words) was fired for being a Dope Fiend and the third (described as a Flaming A-------) journeyed, perhaps in idle curiosity, up the long and narrow stage ladder to the very top of the roof where the organ blower was located at which point, overcome with a sudden fear of the lofty heights he had obtained, had to be lowered by the stage hands back to the stage floor. We assume he was relieved of his duties not long after. And that is how Mr. Howland, at h! is young age of 22, became principal staff organist of one of the largest theatre chains in the country.
The organ, built in 1927 by Barton, was one of the finest organs ever to be installed by this corporation, the nations 5th largest. At that time the organ cost $17,500 but was widely advertised as having cost $35,000. The federal government decided to believe the later figure and the theatre was taxed accordingly. Mr. Howland recollects that the organ was extremely reliable in its early years, having only ciphered (a mechanical malfunction causing a note to continuously sound) twice during his tenure. He was known to be a heavy smoker and customarily kept an ashtray under the console on a stand (and also occasionally forgetting to remove it when taking the organ up for a solo!)
The Customary routine during that period was for the organist to play for about 45 minutes, briefly overlap with the orchestra and then allow the orchestra to play for 45 minutes, alternating as needed throughout the evening. Silent movies were always sent with a score (which arrived with the picture) and the orchestra was sometimes required to run a picture without any rehearsal. Mr. Howland frequently worked out his scores and arrangements on the piano in his dressing room. He seldom, it is said, played without music. He was replaced in 1931 by Paul Tompkins.
Mr. Howland recalls several interesting facts and personalities about this era. Among these:
-His salary was $125.00 a week.
-Apparently, the manager of the theatre at the time, Mr. Jerry Hooag, would receive a bonus from Butterfield every time he could avoid giving the orchestra a raise.
-Paul Seiple was Head Usher in the 20s. He was later to go on to become president of the Butterfield Chain.
-Rusty Evans was the Orchestra Director
-Earnie Eichorn, a former dentist from Flint, was the pit pianist. He was considered to be the real talent of the theatre during that era, apparently able to read or play any type of music.
-The Michigan Theatre was the first theatre in Ann Arbor to be equipped with color projection capabilities (non film) and also apparently the last to be equipped for sound film (1931).
For a complete list of times and performers at specific events, please visit the MI Theater online film calendar at michtheater.com
Click here to read more about The Magnificent 1927 Barton Theater Pipe Organ at the Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor.
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