John Muri: His Life, so far!
John Muri was born in Hammond, Indiana on October 4, 1906, the only child of Swiss immigrants who came to the U.S. in 1895. His interest in music was nourished at an early age. He began learning to play piano transcriptions of major works by hearing them, repeatedly, being played on the automatic musical instruments accompanying silent films in the local nickelodeons. At the same time, he developed an interest in film acting, so his mother took him for auditions at the Essanay Studios and Selig Studios, both in Chicago. Fortunately, for the theatre organ world, he didn't get the parts. Instead, he began piano training at the Clifford Conservatory of Music in Hammond.
In 1924, at the age of 17, he
turned his interest to the theatre organ and he studied briefly with theatre
organist Claude B. Ball in Chicago before beginning his first playing job at
the Temple Theatre in Hammond. He continued his organ studies from 1925 to
1930 at the Chicago Temple, with Arthur Dunham. He remained there from May
until November when he moved to the Hoosier Theatre in Whiting, Indiana. In
March, 1927, he made his big move to the Indiana Theatre in East Chicago,
playing the 3 manual, 10 rank Wurlitzer which has since become an integral
part of his musical career. He worked there six days a week until mid 1930
when his schedule was reduced. Silent movies were gone and vaudeville was
dying, but John's music was popular with the Indiana's loyal patrons, so he
remained on staff until 1934. Over the years he was called on many times to
play for special events. He went on to become the music director for two
local radio stations. In 1933, he worked briefly at WIND in Gary. Then, in
1934, he became the musical director for WWAE in Hammond, where he remained
until April, 1936.
In 1946 he went to Hammond High School and remained there until 1965 when he became Chairman of the English Department at the then-new Gavit High School. During these years, John earned a reputation as an innovative teacher. His students were entertained, challenged and well-educated. Many of them have maintained contact with him and he speaks proudly of their accomplishments.
He was a speaker for four conventions of the National Council of Teachers of English. In 1958, at their convention in Minneapolis, he was awarded a scroll and citation for outstanding contributions to the teaching of English in the secondary school. This event was written up in the February 3, 1958 issue of Newsweek. Five of his articles were published in The English Journal, a professional magazine, between 1947 and 1957, including one entitled: "The Use of Recordings in English Classes." In conjunction with this he wrote reviews of new recordings, which appeared in the publication twice annually. He was the author of ten study guides for English teachers, published between 1960 and 1963 by the National Council of Teachers of English in issues of Studies in the Mass Media. The guides covered topics as diverse as Shakespeare, Emily Dickenson and Mark Twain. He has been a member of Phi Delta Kappa since 1940 and is a life member of the National Education Association. Even with all this activity in the education field, John never gave up his music.
From 1946 to 1958 he was the organist in a three piece combo which played every Saturday night in the Gary, Indiana Elks Lodge. At the Hammond Civic Center, he played for high school pep rallies and basketball games, wrestling matches, circuses, flower shows and pancake breakfasts from 1937 until 1968. In 1962 John began playing concerts for various chapters of the American Theatre Organ Society (known in those days as the American Theatre Organ Enthusiasts). The programs were mainly in Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio, but occasionally his concert schedule would take him to New York, Connecticut, California, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota. His programs were always diverse and suited to the event, the location or the instrument. Each program was tailored for a specific audience.
During a particularly busy concert season during the 1970s, John played seven programs in ten days and never repeated one piece of music in any of the programs.
Many younger organists have been inspired by the great variety of music John has included in his programs. He has played transcriptions of opera overtures, Grofe's Grand Canyon Suite, music of the American composer Howard Hanson, a suite from Richard Rodger's Victory at Sea, which he took from nearly twelve hours of incidental music composed for the series. He has often played programs highlighting the music of one composer, such as Richard Whiting, or a program of Chicago composers such as Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn or Indiana composers such as Cole Porter, Noble Sissle and Hoagy Carmichael. He is a great fan of the music of Stephen Sondheim and has featured music from several Sondheim shows in his programs. "The Night Waltz" from A Little Night Music is a tune he always preferred over "Send in the Clowns". Several pieces from Follies have been used frequently. "Old Friends" from Merrily We Roll Along is one of his current favorites. Two Neil Hefti pieces, "L'il Darlin"? and the theme from "The Odd Couple" are tunes that few organists have played. They fit comfortably into John's repertoire. These are just a few examples of the rich variety of music you were likely to hear in a John Muri program.
During the 1970s, John produced two record albums. John Muri-Volume One was recorded on a 3 manual/11 rank Wurlitzer in the Six Mile-Uptown Theatre in Highland Park, Michigan. The second was recorded on the 4 manual/36 rank Wurlitzer in Detroit's mammoth Fox Theatre. The two albums are a fascinating study of two different playing styles. The performance on the first album, played on a smaller instrument is very straightforward, played with lots of feeling and enthusiasm, but the selections on the Fox album are grander and more orchestral. Each recording is appropriate to its own environment.
John's reputation for silent movie accompaniment is well known in the theatre organ community. He uses published music but has always steered clear of the obvious. The scores support the movies scenes and moods without overpowering them. He still maintains a large library of cue sheets for the silent classics and has shared them with other organists on several occasions. He has recorded a number of scores for Blackhawk Films, utilizing pipe organs in the Rivoli Theatre in Indianapolis (now gone) and the Roger and Sue Mumbrue residence in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. From 1977 to 1979, John was a tonal consultant for the Wurlitzer Company in DeKalb, Illinois. During this period of time they were assembling a huge pipe organ to be known as The Mightiest Wurlitzer. On June 22, 1978 he played the first program on the instrument. During the 1960s and 70s, John wrote one page commentaries for Theatre Organ, the journal of the American Theatre Organ Society. There were more than seventy articles over the years-a huge body of work. Even people in other parts of the U.S., England and Australia got a chance to know John through his writing and many people feel these articles were the best the magazine has ever published. In 1977. the ATOS named John Muri Organist of the Year and has been inducted to the Theatre Organists Hall of Fame. He has played for four national ATOS conventions, and he was Chief Judge of the national Young Organists Competition in 1989.
In 1990, John returned to Hammond to receive his hometown's Professional Achievement Award. It was a happy gathering of former colleagues and old friends, including some former students. The Mayor presented him with the Key to the City and they declared it John Muri Day. These days John lives in Atlanta and he and his business partner, Bill Murdock, own an apartment building in the historic Inman Park district, on the site of a Civil War battlefield. When he's not studying Chinese (Yes-Chinese!), or ordering new books, sheet music, or videos, he's giving attention to his cats, Shadow and Whitmire. In March of 1996, John was hired by the Atlanta Silent Film Society to accompany Broken Blossom, the great Lillian Gish classic. The program, presented at Atlanta's High Museum was the society's best attended program and the audience was enthralled not only by John's playing, but his commentary as well. In February of 1997, he appeared for the group again and accompanied Seventh Heaven, with Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. At ninety-three John still has the curiosity of a child. He is never bored! There's always something new to learn or to capture his imagination. Lucky for us, he likes to share his enthusiasm. In recent years, he has used as his closer a song whose title has become his message: "I've Got a Lot of Living to Do."
On Sunday, April 8, at 3:10pm, John Muri died in Atlanta. He was 94.
John had a long and incredibly productive life and we may never know just how much he changed the world with his music, his teaching and his writing.