For the past nine years, one of the highlights of the holiday season has been the annual Christmas program at the Fox Theatre. The show features sing-along Christmas caroling — with live organ accompaniment by Larry-Douglas Embury, organist in residence at the Fox — followed by a screening of a holiday classic on the big screen.
On Sunday, November 29, at 4 p.m., the tradition continues with the 10th annual Mighty Mo & More, a free program that includes choral performances, audience caroling, a screening of the original Miracle on 34th Street, as well as fresh falling snow on Peachtree Street and inside the theatre.
The performance is free (though tickets are required), and the Fox will be accepting donations of new socks that will be used this winter to help homeless people stay warm for Project Live Love’s THREE-OH-WE-GO! program.
As with every event at the Fox, one star of the show is theater itself and in this case, it’s the organ, affectionately known as “Mighty Mo.” The Fox’s Möller Opus 5566 Theatre Organ has 3,622 pipes hidden behind decorative plaster screens in the auditorium. It can create dozens of sound effects ranging from songbirds to sirens to Ford car horns and a bell from a 1928 railroad locomotive.
We caught up with Larry-Douglas Embury, organist in residence at the Fox, and Carmie McDonald, director of the Fox Theatre Institute, to discuss the show, what makes Mighty Mo so unique and what it’s like to play such an iconic instrument.
ArtsATL: What is the history of the pipe organ at the Fox Theatre?
Carmie McDonald: The Fox Theatre opened in 1929 during a period of transition from silent films to the new “talkies.” While theaters no longer relied on organs to provide music and sound effects to accompany silent films, the organ was still a major attraction during any visit to the theater. Mighty Mo was used to lead sing-alongs, accompanied by follow-the bouncing ball slides from our Brenograph glass slide projector. By 1954, Mighty Mo was no longer in use, but a complete restoration of the instrument began in 1963.
Over 7,000 theater organs were installed in U.S. movie houses between 1915 and 1933. Today, less than 40 remain in their original theaters, and even fewer are still in operation.
ArtsATL: What are the differences between performing on “site-specific” instruments like the Mo — which is literally built into the structure of the theater — and other organs?
Larry-Douglas Embury: Well, the question answers itself in that Might Mo is site specific, while others supposedly could be moved, but not designed for where they are. Acoustically, that means so much in the final tonal experience. This organ — designed, voiced, tonally finished for the theater — is spot-on great.
ArtsATL: Some have compared playing a pipe organ to conducting an orchestra. What are some of the sections, sounds or effects unique to the Mo?
Embury: A pipe organ is an orchestra. On all pipe organs there are four families of tone — the foundation (diapason) voices, then the flutes up to high pitch piccolos. Next the strings: violins, etc. Mighty Mo even has a string bass stop in the pedal division. This is an incredible instrument and a delight to play.
ArtsATL: Does Mo have a personality?
Embury: Mighty Mo and the Baldwin grand piano are the only two items of furniture in the Fox that are covered in gold leaf. I tell audiences that Mighty Mo is all decked out like a lady for “a night on the town.” That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
ArtsATL: Do you approach playing the organ differently than playing piano or other instruments?
Embury: I’ve been teaching organ and piano for years and like my professors before me have taught: a keyboard is a keyboard is a keyboard. So many teachers get caught up with whatever they are teaching and often look down on the other. There is such animosity in the music profession, it’s shameful.
ArtsATL: What is your favorite part of the holiday show? Is there something this year we should look out for?
Embury: Each year is different — just plan on attending and to be “wowed.” Over the years, our patrons say this evening jumpstarts the Christmas season. Mine too!