Through a century-old set of keys and pipes, Rick Parks sets the mood at Salem’s Elsinore Theatre

Rick Parks sits in front of a Wurlitzer console, which represents about 2% of the entire theater pipe organ in the Elsinore Theater. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

In the early morning a few times a week, Rick Parks enters the Elsinore Theatre, sits down before a set of three keyboards with 183 keys, and practices tunes.

He is playing a nearly 100-year-old theater pipe organ, the Wurlitzer.

It’s not visible from where he’s sitting, but above him more than 1,800 pipes can make noise depending on the keys he hits.

Parks, a veritable one-man band, will play a medley of gloomy sounds or happy ones depending on the genre of silent movie he often scores.

“Really what I’m doing is I’m creating the mood of what’s happening on the screen through music,” Parks said.

On Wednesday, March 4, Parks will play the organ set to the 1920 silent film “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. at the Elsinore Theatre, 170 High St. S.E.

Parks said an organ is the perfect match for silent films, because one person can make the sounds of an entire orchestra – wind instruments, drums, piano and more.

“Let’s pretend Charlie Chaplin is walking down the street and he fell down,” Parks said before playing a tune out of a 1920s comedy movie.

Parks was a manager at the Elsinore from 1993 to 2012 and knows the history of the building almost as well as he knows the Wurlitzer. He reckons he surpassed 10,000 hours of playing a long time ago.

By the time he was 3, Parks said he knew he wanted to play the organ. His father bought a theater organ from the United States Theatre in Vancouver, Washington and put it in the basement of their Salem home in 1966.

“I was intrigued because all of the different parts of the first organ that my dad bought,” Parks said.

His dad went on to buy a second organ that was too big for the basement, so they added onto their house.

By age 7, Parks was playing the organ by ear before he started taking lessons. Friends and neighbors would come over to hear Parks accompany 8mm films.

Theater pipe organs were in vogue in the 1920s but faded in popularity as movies got sound. Now, Parks said there are less than 300 theater pipe organs left in public places.

Groups like the American Theater Organ Society formed to preserve them.

“I didn’t want it to die either and that’s why I brought this instrument here in the first place,” Parks said of the Elsinore.

He and his father brought their home organ to the theater in 1986 despite concerns that the building might sell. Parks donated the organ to the theater eight years later.

Over the years, pipes have been added to the instrument and Parks said it’s become the largest in the Pacific Northwest.

Each week, a volunteer crew meets to maintain the organ which requires crawling up a ladder and climbing a flight of stairs that date back to when the Elsinore was built in 1926. They’re working on replacing 100-year-old leather pieces.

When Parks is playing, a blower in the basement pushes air through the various pipes.

“Everything speaks at maximum loudness,” he said.

Parks said he likes to play big band ensembles and Star Wars themes. As a kid, “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope” was the first movie he saw at the Elsinore in 1977.

Now, he’ll sometimes play the music from the George Lucas classic to the delight of young visitors.

“It’s a fantastic feeling. I’m creating musical moods for the audience,” Parks said. 

Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] or @daisysaphara.