Bob Vaughn

Thursday 17 January 2002 01:00

Robert Franklin Vaughn, cinema organist: born San Francisco 8 February 1911; married (one son); died Bakersfield, California 4 January 2002.

Bob Vaughn hammered away at his Wurlitzer at virtually every movie house from Long Beach to Ojai between 1925 and 1929. He worked seven days a week, including matinées, until the "talkies" arrived (their 75th anniversary falls this year), making his début at the Westwood cinema in Brentwood, California, accompanying The Phantom of the Opera.

He was born in San Francisco in 1911. Both his parents were musicians, his mother a classically trained pianist, while his father played the violin. Bob learned to play both instruments but his father died when he was 15. "Overnight things changed," he remembered. "I was only a kid but I knew I had to grow up fast and become the family breadwinner."

He took a job in a local factory, but used to play the piano for friends at parties. On one such occasion he caught the eye of a guest, a moviehouse proprietor, and was offered a job to play at his theatre. "It was a daunting task," he said, "playing in the dark, with the responsibility of a film and the audience's emotions resting on your shoulders."

He gained a reputation and was compared to the other great theatre pipe organists of his time, Gaylord Carter, John Mari and Lee Erwin. Hollywood's élite also paid compliments. Personal messages of thanks accompanied a film's premiere from its stars – Charles Farrell, Janet Gaynor, Rudolph Valentino, Vilma Banky, the Gish sisters, Gloria Swanson.

"I try to keep the music pulsing with different themes for different scenes, always looking for the climaxes without anticipating them until they happen," he said in 1988. "The secret of making it work is that you must feel like you're a part of the picture – the audience shouldn't even be aware that you're there."

Film became by far the most popular pastime for any American. "I played until my fingers bled," he recalled. "To get from theatre to theatre I quickly decided that the fastest mode of transport was a motorbike." He wore a tuxedo under his leathers and was still riding his Harley Davidson up until his 85th birthday.

The actress Barbara Kent was a former neighbour:

He played at the premiere of my film Flesh and the Devil [1926] at the Grauman's Chinese Theatre. When the lights went down and the film was showing I looked to my right where our film's lead, Greta Garbo, was sitting. I could see tears in her eyes. For a brief moment Bob melted her icy heart.

After the "talkies" came, he took a job as an investigator for the Immigration and Naturalisation Service, serving with them for 30 years. It wasn't until he moved back to San Francisco in the early Sixties that he became an accompanist again. He showed up at the old Avenue Theatre one day just to fool around with the Wurlitzer. When the manager Geoff Hansen heard the sounds wafting from the 16 ranks of pipes, he refused to let Vaughn leave until he agreed to play there on a weekly basis. When the theatre closed its doors in 1984 (Vaughn blamed the invention of video recorders), he took up residence at the Castro, the UC Theatre in Berkeley and the Towne Theatre in San Jose – where he played until summer 1999.

Vaughn built his own personal soundtrack library of silent film scores over the years. Few of the original scores survived, so Vaughn spent decades researching popular music from the 1920s. More recently he was an active member on the National Film Preservation Board.

Among his many treasures was the sheet music for "The Perfect Song", the love theme from The Birth of a Nation (1915) that Lillian Gish autographed and sent to him shortly before her death in 1993.

Howard Mutti-Mewse

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