DIANE URBANI DE LA PAZ: Singalongs at the movies

THE PICTURE PALACE. It’s a place many of us have never seen.

Esther Morgan-Ellis takes us there: on a time- and space-travel jaunt, to grand movie houses such as the Oriental in Chicago and the New York Paramount, where everybody joined a pre-show singalong led by an organist at the mighty Wurlitzer. Morgan-Ellis does the deep dive with her new book, “Everybody Sing! Community Singing in the American Picture Palace,” on University of Georgia Press.

The 288-page volume, replete with organist Rosa Rio on the cover, is the first community singing account of its kind, according to the university’s news release.

Morgan-Ellis, now a professor of music history and world music at the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega, devoted about four years to the project, which started as her doctoral dissertation.

She conducted research at places such as the American Theatre Organ Society in Oklahoma, and spent hundreds of hours inside various library microfilm rooms.

Morgan-Ellis discovered a nearly forgotten world. Throughout the 1920s, the community singing movement spread to every state in the union, with its “follow the bouncing ball” cartoons, songbooks and ditties such as “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “Yes! We Have No Bananas” and “You’re Simply Delish.”

When people hear about her research, they say, “How neat. Too bad we don’t have this kind of thing these days.”

“My response,” said the author, “is ‘What could we all sing together these days?’ ”

I figure baby boomers could sing classic rock at concerts while holding cellphones aloft.

I’m not clear on what Gen Xers and millennials would get together on, though.

Then again, there’s the Handel’s “Messiah” singalong in Sequim at Christmastime — to which Morgan-Ellis herself has lent her voice. But it’s on the intimidating side.

Morgan-Ellis is, at 33, a professor, an Ivy League scholar — and an advocate for music-sharing and community-building.

A cellist, she played in the Port Angeles High School orchestra and in the Port Angeles Symphony; after graduation in 2002 she went on to the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. Yale came after; during breaks she would come home to Port Angeles to perform with local ensembles. She is a member of a musical family that includes educators and string players Phil and Deborah Morgan-Ellis.

“Everybody Sing!” is dedicated to the author’s 92-year-old grandmother, who lives in Port Angeles. She is “my Oma, Dorothea Ammann Parés Morgan, who always believed I could do anything.”

These days in Georgia, the young Morgan-Ellis plays cello in regional orchestras and is part of the Appalachian music community, a student of it as well as a banjo and fiddle player in it.

“I am passionate about participatory music-making of every kind,” she said. Singing and playing in all kinds of groups; building beats on computers: Go for it.

Me, I believe too in communal music and cinema, and the occasional singalong screenings of classic movies. When I go — alone or not — to see a picture on the big screen, it’s a far more satisfying time than it would have been with my little home screen.

I know people can be rude in the theater, texting and talking. It’s a challenge to train my attention back to the spectacle before me. But when the movie reaches its end — and it’s a winner — we can make a big sound wave by applauding together.


Diane Urbani de la Paz, a freelance journalist and former PDN features editor, lives in Port Townsend.

Her column appears in the PDN the first and third Wednesday every month.

Her next column will be March 21.

Reach her at [email protected]

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