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  • Edward Meikel and Community Singing in a Neighborhood Picture Palace, 1925–1929
  • Esther M. Morgan-Ellis (bio)

During the mid- to late 1920s, most urban Americans sang popular songs with a group of strangers at least once a week. These sessions usually lasted about ten minutes, and participants read projected lyrics—they already knew the tunes—to the accompaniment of a theater organ. All of this took place at the local picture palace, a multimedia venue that combined motion pictures with live entertainment.1 These stately theaters, found in cities across the nation after 1913, represented the cultural acceptance of motion pictures as a form of entertainment suitable for the middle class.2 Since 1905, films exhibited in urban nickelodeon theaters had been attracting a primarily working-class audience. Members of the middle class were interested in film, too, but these potential customers were loathe to admit that they patronized the often-dingy nickelodeons.3 To counteract negative associations between the motion picture and its rough clientele, picture-palace exhibitors offered their patrons every luxury, including air cooling, comfortable lounges, glamorous décor, and complimentary child care. Individual theaters replicated the architecture and ornamentation of famous palaces, opera houses, and hotels, while the attentive service made visitors feel like European nobility.4

Among the luxuries in store for the visitor was a diverse program of live entertainment, including an overture, an “organ solo,” and a stage [End Page 172] show.5 The overture was presented by the house orchestra, while the stage show featured guest artists and local favorites, most of whom performed in costume before an elaborate set. Audience singing, which usually took place early in the program, was sometimes led by stage performers or bandleaders, or by sing-along films (popular from 1923 into the late 1930s). Most of the time, however, the organist led the community singing. The term “organ solo” is the trade designation for the portion of the show over which the organist had complete control. The organist could use his or her ten minutes in a variety of ways, but in many theaters the organ solo was dedicated to community singing.

This type of community musical involvement was directly influenced by two other singing practices of the early twentieth century: the illustrated song, which introduced participatory singing into the early movie theaters; and the community singing movement, which developed during the Great War as an expression of national unity and patriotism. Although both of these forms required audience participation, they were unrelated and dissimilar. The illustrated song relied upon a solo singer to present contemporary repertoire with an eye to the sale of sheet music. The war-era “community sing” eschewed solo performance and presented nineteenth-century or patriotic repertoire that urged participants to support American ideals.

The illustrated song was a turn-of-the-century musical presentation in which a recent song was brought to life with projected images. A performance required at least two participants: one (or two) to sing and play the piano, and one to operate the magic lantern. While the musician(s) rendered the song, the projectionist exhibited a series of pictorial slides designed to illustrate the text. The last slide in the series contained the words to the chorus and, most likely, an exhortation for all to join in.6

Community singing—a public activity that most often featured classic American songs—became very popular during the Great War, when it was used to boost patriotic spirit among soldiers and citizens. Even before the war, however, community organizations such as the Peabody Institute in Baltimore experimented with large-scale formal gatherings dedicated to participatory singing.7

The organizations and individuals who conducted and advocated these “sings” believed that community singing improved American society in two important ways. First, community singing encouraged the love of good music and spread music literacy. John C. Freund, founder and editor of the publication Musical America, announced in 1919 that community singing would eliminate the public taste for ragtime and jazz, and that vulgar dancing would be replaced by the waltz. With the aid of community singing, Americans throughout the nation would “gradually become inspired by music of a higher order,” especially opera...


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pp. 172-200
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