Lee Erwin, Theater Organist and Composer, Dies at 92


Lee Erwin

Lee Erwin, a theater organist who composed scores for more than 70 silent films and whose performances helped create a revival of interest in silent films during the 1970s, died on September 21st at his home in Greenwich Village. He was 92.

Mr. Erwin was an energetic musician who maintained a fairly busy performing schedule into his 90th year, but after a fall while touring was forced to retire. During his long career he composed for everything from comedies by Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin to epics by D.W.Griffith to classics like Lon Chaney‘s 1923 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Fred Niblo‘s 1925 Ben Hur.

He performed many times in silent film series presented by the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and maintained a regular circuit of jobs that took him to theaters in Atlanta, St. Louis, Oakland, Akron, Wichita, Boston, and Miami. He also appeared in Woody Allen’s Radio Days as a roller rink organist.

Accompanying silent films was one of several musical careers that Mr. Erwin pursued. He was born in July 1908 in Huntsville, Alabama. By the time Mr. Erwin graduated from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, he was an experienced theater organist, having started his career as a high school student in Huntsville.

In 1930, Mr. Erwin went to Paris to study with the French organist André Marchal. He also took composition classes with Nadia Boulanger, and spent his Sunday mornings first hearing Marchal perform an early Mass, and then taking the subway across Paris to hear Olivier Messaien play at Trinity Church.

Mr. Erwin returned to Cincinnati in 1932, and the next year began a long radio career as a staff organist at a Cincinnati radio station, WLW, where he became famous for playing the music for “Moon River.”

After 11 years at WLW, he moved to New York to join the staff of CBS radio and television, where he worked as an organist and arranger until 1966. Among his jobs at CBS was to appear as “Moneybags Erwin” on the Arthur Godfrey Show. By the mid-1960’s, when radio and television divested themselves of their staff orchestras and musicians, Mr. Erwin found his way back to the movie house. In 1967 the American Theater Organ Society commissioned Mr. Erwin to compose a score for Queen Kelly, the 1929 Erich von Stroheim silent film starring Gloria Swanson.

After Queen Kelley, dozens of requests for scores came his way. Among the films for which he composed were The Eagle, with Rudolph Valentino; My Best Girl, with Mary Pickford; Irene, with Colleen Moore; and the entire collection of Buster Keaton films. In the 1970s Mr. Erwin made several recordings for Angel Records, and some of his soundtracks were recorded by the BBC for both theatrical and home video releases. Erwin was also the chief organist for Carnegie Hall Cinema in New York.

David Messineo, a New York-area organist and teacher, remembered relying on Erwin when he started at Radio City Music Hall in 1979. “He was my lifeline,” Messineo recalled. “The first show I did was the Christmas show, and he helped me do the arrangements. He was just fabulous.” Messineo, who was studying classical organ at Juilliard at the time, began visiting Erwin at Carnegie Hall Cinemas to get regular help with his new job. Eventually, Erwin decided to teach the young organist how to accompany silent films.

Messineo described Erwin’s method of accompaniment as extremely unusual: he consciously avoided playing familiar tunes, unless it was dictated explicitly by the movie. A run-of-the-mill silent movie accompanist would accompany a smoking scene with “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” for example; Erwin would play an excerpt from Gounod’s Faust when it appeared as part of Phantom of the Opera, but otherwise relied on original music.

Instead, Erwin wrote out a theme for each character, and wove these themes into an improvised score. Messineo explained that in order to improvise “you have to memorize [the themes], because you have to play [them] in all different keys.” Erwin had a knack for writing “original melodies and harmonies,” according to Messineo. “He was the Leo Sowerby of the theater organ.”

Messineo learned to improvise from Erwin, partly simply from watching and listening to him. He would attend Erwin’s performances “wherever he play[ed] silents in New York City.” Erwin provided valuable feedback to Messineo, in his early work, telling him when his improvisations became too repetitive or remained too long in one key, for instance. “He would help me get out of one hole [in an improvisation],” Messineo laughed, “and into a new hole.” He also helped him write themes, something Erwin felt that he needed to master in order to “keep his audience awake.”

Messineo feels that the talent for writing movie scores has vanished from the organ world, becoming instead solely the province of Hollywood composers. He still accompanies some silent movies, however, especially around Halloween, when he plays “all of the horror flicks” such as Phantom and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Messineo is the Principal University Organist at Princeton, teaches at Montclair State University, plays for the Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange, New Jersey, and concertizes regularly.