Jay Spencer has been playing the Palace Theatre’s mighty Kilgen pipe organ since the early ’90s — and it still gives him tingles. When he begins playing, filling the ornate theater with vibrant sound, and the organ begins rising from the Palace orchestra pit, “it’s just an amazing feeling,” Spencer said.
“Sometimes when I get done and there’s a good crowd and they start applauding, I think, ‘I can’t believe I get to do this, playing this instrument that’s 85 years old and still going strong.”
A native of Logan, Ohio, Spencer began taking organ lessons at age 7 from a woman in Logan and continued until college.
“Both sets of my grandparents owned organs, and when I heard them play, something struck me,” he recalled. “My dad’s mom played piano for silent movies in the ’20s and she used to talk about it.”
Spencer’s Canton home is equipped with not one but three Hammond professional console organs.
“Nobody really wants them anymore,” he said. “The oldest one I have was given to me by a funeral home in Minerva, a man in Massillon gave me one, and the third one I bought from a guy in Mansfield.”
In 1987, after moving to Canton to take a job at the Canton-Stark County Crime Lab, where he remains employed as a forensic scientist, Spencer went to a showing of Barbra Streisand’s film “Nuts” at the Palace Theatre.
“I heard Bob Beck play the organ that night and I was crazy about it,” Spencer recalled.
He began volunteering at the theater and befriended Beck — who still plays at the Palace — and eventually was tapped to play a movie pre-show.
“The first one I played was ‘Casablanca.’ We had 1,000 people,’ ” Spencer recalled. “I had a big night!”
The Palace’s Kilgen organ, equipped with three keyboards and about 700 pipes, was built in St. Louis especially for the theater and was installed prior to its 1926 opening as a vaudeville and movie house.
“It holds up fairly well,” Spencer said. “There’s still a lot of tuning to be done, but Bob Beck does that for a living and (Hartville-based pipe organ builder) Charlie Kegg does a lot of things for us.”
The Palace’s organ, Spencer believes, is the last Kilgen theater organ still in its original home, fully functional and regularly used.
“It’s played practically every weekend,” he said. “The people love it here.”
An active Palace volunteer and booster, Spencer has recently organized and musically accompanied screenings of other silent films at the theater, among them Harold Lloyd’s “Safety Last” and Buster Keaton “The General.”
“I’m not a total silent-movie nut, but I’m amazed by the talent of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, and what they achieved with the technology they had,” Spencer said. “Harold Lloyd wanted his films done with organ (accompaniment), not piano. When it opened in 1926, the Palace had a full orchestra in the pit along with the organ.”
On Oct. 28 at 7 p.m., Spencer is certain to shine brightly when he performs the musical accompaniment to the 1925 silent-movie classic “The Phantom of the Opera,” starring Lon Chaney, in a Halloween-themed program at the Palace. As an added theatrical bonus, two professional vocalists from Cleveland, soprano Carolyn Pelley and baritone Seth Clerget, will perform beloved songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera,” with Spencer providing accompaniment. Admission is $10.
“I’ve always thought ‘Phantom’ would be fun to do at the Palace. The whole atmosphere of the movie fits the theater, and the audience should love it,” Spencer said.
He will be creating the movie’s drama-heightening score from scratch, possibly blending music from the ’20s era and even some of Webber’s “Phantom” score.
“I’ll start practicing at home while watching the movie,” he says.
A screening of another silent horror film, “Nosferatu,” in October 2011 at the Palace boasted impressively energetic, nonstop accompaniment by Spencer that drew a hearty standing ovation from the audience of 400, a much larger crowd than he expected.
“Four hundred people turning out for a silent movie speaks for itself. I think people are really drawn to the experience,” Spencer said. “I keep after them here (at the Palace) to promote the organ more. The awareness is what we need. It helps the theater all the way around.”