Martin Ellis is a internationally known concert and theatre organist from Indianapolis Indiana. The 42-year-old will be coming to Denver this Sunday to perform at the Paramount Theater with the Colorado Children’s Chorale in a concert called the “Wurlitzer and the Wiz Kids.” Ellis has traveled the world performing, and he spoke with Chorale Connection via e-mail about how he got interested in playing the organ and what he likes about working with children’s choirs.
CC: How did you get interested in playing the organ and how long have you been playing?
ME: My parents were both amateur organists at our local church, and we had a one manual reed organ in the house that I played with all of the time. I guess the bug bit from that point on. I started piano at a very early age, began classical organ lessons at a university when I was 10 years old, and then the theatre organ bug bit me when we visited the famous Paramount Music Palace Restaurant in Indianapolis, Indiana. It was one of the largest and most comprehensive Wurlitzer theatre organ installations in the country. They’re former organist and owner, Donna Parker, is now a performance partner in our group Trio Con Brio, and a dear friend.
CC: What’s the difference between playing an organ and playing a Wurlitzer organ?
ME: Classical and theatre organs are very different. Organs designed for church or concert use have long had an evolution of music written for that specific type of instrument and there is a wealth of classical music for organ with loads of pieces still being written for church or concert. The theatre organs were designed to first let one person accompany silent movies, and later to provide entertainment music (pop music) for theatre, restaurant and radio listeners. The Wurlitzer theatre organs were considered among the best of these types of organs, and in NO WAY were supposed to sound like a church organ. The pipe work used is of a more “orchestral” flavor, imitating instruments of the orchestra. This includes drums, cymbals, xylophone, glockenspiel, metal harp, marimba and a host of other instruments that are in the chambers and are all real. There is no electronic element to the Wurlitzer organ, so what we hear is real.
CC: You work with the Indianapolis Children’s Choir and the Indianapolis Youth Chorale. What do you like about working with or performing with Children’s Choirs?
ME: I am in my 11th year as Senior Staff Accompanist and Organist for the Indianapolis Children’s Choir. Like the Colorado Chorale, we are a comprehensive and very active organization, and aside from our annual concert obligations are always embarking on new and exciting venues and events in which to sing and play. It’s a job that is never the same year to year, so it’s very interesting for me. I grew up in an educational household: dad was a school superintendent, and mom was an elementary school teacher, so belief in helping kids excel is in my blood. Now as a concert artist and performer, my way of giving back is to work with our ICC/IYC kids.
CC: Have you performed on the Denver Paramount’s Mighty Wurlitzer theatre pipe organ before? If yes, what do you like about performing there, if not, is there anything you are looking forward to about performing there?
ME: This is my first performance in Denver and specifically on the Paramount Mighty Wurlitzer. What makes this concert more exciting to me is the chance to work with Debbie (DeSantis, Colorado Children’s Chorale Artistic Director and Conductor), make some new children’s choir friends and create something never done before in the theatre organ concert world. Fingers are crossed that our audience loves what we do and other groups and children’s choir organizations will come together for events like this one.
CC: What other projects or events do you have coming up?
ME: Aside from a large church job here in Indianapolis and working for ICC, I have an active concert career that spans the country and abroad. I have some exciting concerts this spring: California, Michigan, Northern Wisconsin, and Portland, Oregon, and will be taking a solo concert tour of Australia in the fall. Things are busy, and in a time where having work is at a premium, I’m very lucky to be successful in my ventures.