Theater organist adds old-time ambiance to movie-going experience

Dr. John Landon at Kentucky Theater

LEXINGTON, Ky.-- Lexington's Kentucky Theater has undergone a lot of renovations lately, with a new digital projector and sound system and a redesigned concession stand.

But it's still a historic place, opened in 1922 with stained glass fixtures and ornate decorations. One man has spent a lot of time trying to preserve the theater's old-time feel.

Dr. John Landon fills the time between features on a Friday night, playing classic tunes on an Allen organ.

"I think people like to have some live music rather than just having canned music.," he said.

It's an extra touch you can't get at the suburban theaters.

Theater Manager Fred Mills, who's worked there 50 years, said Dr. Landon's selections go along well with the movie. If it's a romance or a suspense film, he'll pick tunes to fit the mood. "We're very happy to have him here."

Landon has the perfect place to prepare for his weekly performances. The basement of his home is sort of a mini-theater, with a large organ on a small stage. He's arranged the seating so groups of ten to 20 people can come in for concerts. He plays for groups from nursing homes and churches several times a year, something he's done for the past 40 years.

"I know a lot of tunes because I started playing in theaters in 1955 in the Paramount Theater in Anderson, Indiana and I've played theater organs ever since."

He likes that true theater organs have lots of extras you won't find on a church pipe organ, such as sleigh bells, tambourines and castanets.

"So you can make a theater organ sound like a church organ but you can't really make a church organ sound too much like a theater organ," Landon said.

Organs were placed in theaters to accompany silent movies, something Dr. Landon still does sometimes for classic film festivals.

His pipe dreams began at age five, when he first heard his cousin play in a church in his native Michigan.

"There were gold pipes all across the front of that church and my mother said I slid close to her when he began to play and said "Mama, I want one of those."

There has been an effort for more than 20 years now to restore the original Mighty Wurlitzer Organ to the Kentucky Theater. Fundraising has been slow but steady.

"It will one day be complete and I hope to be able to play it in the theater.," said Landon, who will soon be 81 years old.

Until that day, he pulls out all the stops on the Allen organ and give theater-goers a taste of the coming attraction.

For more information about the Mighty Wurlitzer project, go to


Spirit of the Bluegrass is sponsored by Regency Memory Care.

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