Silent Screenings

by Gordon R. Bachlund, PE
Screening Room Services
September 6, 2016

Jacobs Music Center

In early December 2005 we received the below e-mail from the Production Manager of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra:

-----Original Message-----
From: Jennifer Holdgrafer
Sent: Tuesday, December 06, 2005 1:06 PM
Subject: carbon arc projectionist


I am looking for a carbon arc projectionist to test and then run the old fox theatre's carbon arcs.  We have an event coming up in Feb and the projectionist that we have used in the past is retired due to health...

Any assistance that you could give me would be greatly appreciated...

Jennifer had found us through our web site while doing a Google search for carbon arc projection equipment.

Subsequent e-mails revealed that the 1929 San Diego Fox Theatre had been saved and restored as the permanent home of the Orchestra, and that some years before the Orchestra had presented silent 35mm screenings accompanied by instrumentalists.  Since the booth had been stripped, arrangements were made with Mr. Don Oldoff to re-equip the booth with two vintage 35mm projectors.  He provided professionally restored Simplex XL picture heads, with Simplex mag penthouses and Simplex optical sound heads, and Peerless Magnarc carbon arc lamps, mounted on heavy-duty Simplex bases.  Since silent screenings only were anticipated, no mag or optical sound amplifiers or stage speakers were provided.  Mr. Oldoff served as projectionist for a time, and was succeeded by Mr. Dale Hyder.  Prior to Ms. Holdgrafer joining the Orchestra staff these screenings ceased and the booth equipment languished in mechanical Limbo.  When a reprise of silent screenings was contemplated, Jennifer found that Mr. Hyder was in ill health, and she sought, as noted above, some assistance.

James Hoffmann and Gordon Bachlund subsequently met Jennifer at the theatre (now called the Jacobs Music Center) and found the equipment in good repair, though neglected, and scheduled a time when they could change the projector head and sound head oil, lubricate moving parts, and clean and service everything.

The picture to be screened was “The Black Pirate” (1926), in two-strip Technicolor, on February 24 and 25, 2006.  Accompaniment was provided by the San Diego Symphony Orchestra under the baton of renowned film score expert and conductor Gillian Anderson.  As it turned out, both James and Gordon had schedule conflicts, so Gordon contacted Paul Rayton, chief projectionist for the American Cinematheque at the historic Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, and Paul joined the team and served as projectionist for this show, which was very well received.

San Diego’s Jacobs Music Center opened as the Fox Theatre on November 8, 1929, about twenty years after the first concert was given by a so-called San Diego Symphony Orchestra. It took until the mid-1980s before the San Diego orchestra had its own home in what was renamed Copley Symphony Hall, and later the Jacobs MusicCenter.

Please visit the web page, , for a sort history of the Fox Theatre and its evolution.

Because of San Diego’s cross section of population, the Fox also became a popular choice for motion picture sneak previews. Walt Disney loved the atmosphere so much that he opened all of his movies at the Fox.

The Hall’s magnificent pipe organ was visited by renowned Los Angeles organ builder, Manuel Rosales ( ), whose comments are reflected in the below article.

Whipping a power player into shape

Plans are in works to restore symphony's Robert Morton organ, a neglected gem

By Valerie Scher

June 22, 2008

The cream-colored paint is chipped, the ivory keys yellowed with age.

But don't be fooled by appearances. The San Diego Symphony's historic Robert Morton organ is a wondrous instrument. In addition to four keyboards and 2,500 pipes, it has about 80 stops that produce sound effects ranging from trumpet to tuba, voice to church bells. This type of 1920s-era organ also has tremendous sonic power. When the symphony performed Strauss' “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” in March, it achieved a majestic fortissimo that drowned out the approximately 90 instruments in the orchestra.

Now, plans are under way to spruce up the long-neglected gem. The goal is to have the work completed in 2010, in time for the San Diego Symphony's Centennial Celebration.

Restoration is crucial, according to organ committee adviser Manuel J. Rosales, curator of Los Angeles' Walt Disney Concert Hall organ, which he helped design. “The (Symphony Hall) organ is on very thin ice – it could stop playing again,” said the L.A.-based organ expert. “Some bellows could burst. Some electrical thing could fail.”

Since 1993, when the organ starred in Saint-Saens' Symphony No. 3 (“Organ Symphony”), it was used only intermittently and continued to deteriorate.

Plans are being finalized for the approximately $1 million renovation, which could involve everything from removing the paint covering the mahogany console to replacing antiquated wiring and adding computerized technology.

Spearheading the project is symphony music director Jahja Ling. Though the symphony considered replacing the Robert Morton with a new organ, Ling became a passionate supporter after hearing it played during an invitation-only demonstration in February. It was skillfully patched-together for the occasion by local organ builder Robert Knight. “Everyone who attended was blown away by the grandeur and the beauty of this instrument,” Ling recalled. “An electronic/digital imitation can no more reproduce the real sound of a pipe organ than an electronic violin could reproduce the quality of the great string instruments of the artisans from Cremona.”

Symphony Hall's organ was made by the Van Nuys-based Robert Morton Organ Company, the nation's second-largest producer of theater organs (after Wurlitzer) in the 1920s.

Yet this particular instrument has an unusual history. It was originally installed in downtown's Balboa Theatre, which opened in 1924.

When the Balboa's owner, the Fox West Coast Corp., opened the Fox Theatre (now Copley Symphony Hall), the organ was moved there and played at the Fox's debut in 1929.

To make up for what was lost, the Balboa Theatre Foundation is restoring a later type of Robert Morton organ, called a Wonder Morton, that was installed in 1929 at Loew's Valencia Theatre in New York. On July 19, a benefit event will celebrate its installation at the Balboa; the organ's first performance there will take place this fall.

Though Symphony Hall's organ isn't as elaborate, its refined and multifaceted nature makes it well-suited to use in orchestra performances. Designed for silent movies, vaudeville and concerts, it can adapt to works by composers as different as Mahler and Poulenc, Saint-Saens and Copland.

“The Robert Morton is a versatile instrument – it can cross the line into classical,” said Rosales.

In recent months, the organ has proved its worth in both classical and pops concerts, including silent movie showings.

In February, it will join the orchestra in accompanying “The Phantom of the Opera,” the spooky Lon Chaney classic from 1925.

Such an event will allow patrons to return to a past era.

“Audiences then didn't want some meek sound to come from the organ,” said Rosales. “When a silent movie reached a climax, they wanted something really exciting.”

And that this organ can certainly deliver.

In addition, renowned concert organist Cameron Carpenter said after a recent visit that the Robert Morton pipe organ is the “finest sounding theatre organ in America today.”

The Knight Organ Company of San Diego ( was ultimately tasked with the organ’s restoration which is largely complete at this writing.  The Knight Organ Company website includes a page about the organ with its specification.

Here follow some photographs from a February 2011 screening of Harold Lloyd’s 1923 classic “Safety Last!” which was accompanied on the Robert Morton pipe organ by renowned theatre Organist Russ Peck. 

Russell Peck at the Robert Morton organ console


The photos are by Pat Rice of the San Diego Symphony.

The audience awaits the rising of the console from the pit and the 19’ by 25’ screen to become alive with action:

View from the Booth


Before long Mr. Peck is following the action on the screen with perfectly executed music and sound effects:

Russell Peck accompanying Harold Lloyd's escapades


Intertitles appear throughout the film to show the words that the actors are speaking:

The projection booth at the Jacobs Music Center:

The projection booth


Mr. Rayton displays a pair of the copper-coated carbon rods used in the Peerless carbon arc lamp at the Copley:

Paul Rayton


When these rods are brought together and then separated 1/4” or so, a plasma arc between them permits direct current electric power to flow:

Arc lamp interior


This produces an intense white light at the end of the positive carbon which is captured by a reflector and focused on the film frame in the projector:

Burning arc


The arc may be safely viewed through a small window of ultraviolet filter glass:

Arc viewing window

The position of the carbons may be observed as projected on a small screen atop the lamp.  The carbons are “fed” by a geared motor to advance them slowly as they literally burn up in the lamp.  A new trim (pair) of carbons lasts about 40 minutes (time for about two 2,000-foot reel of film) until they are reduced to unusable stubs:


To enable the projectionist to see from a distance that the lamp is burning, this art deco edge-lighted glass emblem atop the lamp emits a cheery image of the trademark of the lamp’s manufacturer:

This article will be updated to the extent that other carbon arc venues care to share their stories and photos.

            Long live carbon arc, the light that’s white – the light that’s right.