Photos by Ethan Mickelson

Fargo Theatre Treasures Uncovered: A Look Into the Past

Take a trip back in time with Silent Movie Night at the Fargo Theatre

Lance Johnson to perform live at Red River Theatre Organ Society’s silent movie night.

To preview the 45th Annual Silent Movie Night featuring “For Heaven’s Sake” on Saturday, Oct 19, we got an inside look into the many past lives of the beloved venue with the help of RROTS President Ryan Hardy.

This year’s Silent Movie Night will include a pop-up exhibit of rarely seen Fargo Theatre artifacts dating back to 1926. Photo by Ethan Mickelson.

In every corner and under piles of unassuming clutter hide glimpses into the birth of the Fargo Theatre. For Ryan Hardy and Alex Swanson, what began as a volunteer project to clean up the basement became a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to collect, catalog, archive and preserve pieces of history.

The Fargo Theatre has changed considerably in look and function since the roaring 20s. Dating back almost a century, the original design didn’t have the same art deco feel that it does today. To demonstrate the change over time, the RROTS will display a rarely seen pop-up exhibit of artifacts dating back to the theatre’s start. Such artifacts include partial pieces of original fresco paintings, salvaged railings, orchestra music stands, and decorative plasterwork.

Decorative pieces from the theatre’s original design hint at a grand motif featuring fleur-de-lis impressions, marble trim and iron railings. Photo by Ethan Mickelson.
A tour of the theatre’s unseen treasures with Ryan Hardy. Photo by Ethan Mickelson.

At the center of these preservation efforts is the historic Wurlitzer theatre organ. If you have ever attended a show at the Fargo Theatre, you may have wondered, “Where are all the organ pipes?” The answer is, within the walls of the theatre! In a journey similar to scaling the deck of a ship, Hardy lurks through several rooms connected through ladders that house the heart of the organ. It’s all thanks to the RRTOS that the organ still exists today.

“Over time, instruments across the country fell into disrepair and forgotten,” says Hardy. “During the urban renewal movement starting in the 1940’s, many movie theaters became unprofitable and were torn down. Theatre organs were often torn down with the building or made inaccessible due to remodeling. It was about this time that people across the United States remembered how much they enjoyed the sound of the theatre organ. Seeing these movie theaters torn down motivated many of them to save the instruments that remained.”

One of the key figures preserving Fargo’s local theatre organ culture is Lance Johnson, maintaining and repairing the complicated inner-workings of theatre organs.

“Lance Johnson and the other charter members of the RRATOS are the ones to thank for ensuring we still have the Fargo Theatre and the Wurlitzer theatre organ around today,” says Hardy.

In 1983, the RRATOS purchased, owned, and operated the Fargo Theatre. A short while later, the chapter created the Fargo Theatre Management Corporation, which is the organization that still operates the theatre today. Photo by Ethan Mickelson

“There are fewer than 300 theatre organs remaining in the world today and even fewer that are in a playable condition. The Wurlitzer organ at the Fargo Theatre is the only theatre organ left in North Dakota and is an iconic piece of Fargo’s history.”

Silent Movie Night is an annual fundraiser for the RRATOS, a Fargo-based non-profit that is dedicated to providing educational and engaging programming and opportunities for all members of the Fargo, Moorhead, and surrounding communities through the music and art form of the theatre pipe organ. In addition to Silent Movie Night, RRATOS produces noon-hour Holiday Concerts in December, weekly movie prologues, and other various events throughout the year.

Tickets are available online at RRATOS.org, your local Hornbacher’s location and at the door.

This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo.