Lee Erwin

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Leeroy Orville Erwin Jr (born July 15, 1908 in Huntsville, Madison County; died September 21, 2000 in New York, New York) was a professional organist and composer who served as house organist for the Alabama Theatre's "Mighty Wurlitzer" for a brief span between March 4 and April 29, 1929. He went on to become a major figure in the revival of silent film screenings in the 1970s and 1980s.

Erwin was the first of six children born to Lee Erwin Sr, founder of Huntsville's Erwin Manufacturing Company, and his wife, the former Mary Estella Shaver. Like his siblings, Lee Jr was taught piano by Bessie Pettus as a child and occasionally filled in for theater organists in Huntsville. He continued his musical education under organist Parvin Titus at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. He also played seven nights a week at Cincinnati's Albee and Palace Theaters.

After graduating, Erwin moved to Birmingham and worked as an assistant organist at the Loew's Temple Theater and briefly as organist for the Alabama Theatre. He also played piano and organ for WAPI-AM and WRBC-AM.

In 1930 Erwin left Alabama and traveled to Paris, France for a year of study under organist André Marchal. He returned in 1931, but found the demand for musicians greatly reduced. He supplemented his meager fees for performing with work as a "sync operator" for sound films, but returned to Cincinnati in 1932 for additional training. There he met young pianist John Ranck, who became his long-term lover.

He formed a popular dance band, Lee Erwin's Musical Troupe, and taught himself to arrange for the ensemble. He continued to perform on the organ for serials, soap operas and late-night programs, such as Moon River, which were broadcast nationwide on WLW-AM's powerful signal.

After a short-lived marriage to Jane Kampf, Erwin partnered with his lyricist, Ted Creech. He moved to New York City to work for the CBS Radio network and in 1966 he was cast to play "Moneybags Erwin" on the Arthur Godfrey Show.

Beginning in the late 1960s Erwin found increasing work as a scorer and accompanist for revival screenings of classic silent films, often organized by the American Theatre Organ Society (ATOS). Erwin was commissioned to create a new organ score for "Queen Kelly", which was performed to great success at New York's Beacon Theatre, with star Gloria Swanson in attendance, in May 1967.

Erwin was featured on the "Silent Clowns" tour of 1979 and the Library of Congress-sponsored tour of The Beloved Rogue and The Phantom of the Opera which crossed the country in 1986. The Alabama Chapter of ATOS brought Erwin back to the Alabama to accompany several silent films in the 1980s and early 1990s. He also taped an interview for CBS Sunday Morning there in 1985. He appeared as a roller rink organist in Woody Allen's Radio Days and his life was the subject of a 1987 Vermont Public Television documentary.

Erwin continued to create new scores for silent films released for VHS and DVD formats. He performed for a popular summer series of silent films at both the Church of Saint John the Devine and the Beacon Theatre in New York. He taught electronic music at Hunter College in New York, and wrote and produced a stage musical based on The County of Monte Cristo, premiered by the Triangle Theatre Company in 1997.

Erwin died at his Greenwich Village home in 2000. He was survived by his partner, Donald Schwing, and three siblings.

References

  • Erwin, Lee Orville (2012) An American Organist in Paris: The Letters of Lee Orville Erwin, 1930-1931. Michael Hix, editor. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press ISBN 0810883384
  • Kozinn, Allan (September 26, 2000) "Lee Erwin, 92, Organist and Composer, Dies." The New York Times
  • "Loss of a Friend..." (3rd quarter, 2000) In The Spotlight: A Newsletter for Friends of the Alabama Theatre for the Performing Arts