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A Music Box of His Own

Organist Mark Noller spent $50,000 converting his garage into a replica of his weekend workplace.

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Mark Noller may be the only person you'll ever meet who likes his job so much he built a model of the office at home.

Noller, 58, is the organist at the Music Box, the guy you hear on weekends playing Gershwin tunes and standards like "Blue Moon" before a screening. He lives in a double-wide trailer in Manteno, just off I-57 a few miles south of Peotone. Two years ago he spent 18 months and $50,000 converting his one-and-a-half-car garage into a replica of the Lakeview movie house. In a vestibule between the garage and trailer there's a kiosk with a marquee atop a tiny, curtained box-office window. It's decorated with mosaic tile and bedecked with vines. To the left is the "concession stand"--an ordinary kitchen counter and a commercial popcorn machine. Two posters--one for a Music Box tribute to Harold Lloyd, the other for a silent film festival at the Gateway Theatre--hang on a curtained wall. On another wall is a sheet of poster board with the signatures of the 500 or so people who've visited since the theater was finished in October 2004.

Inside, it looks more like a grotto than a movie house. On the right wall a stucco archway frames an artificial Christmas tree in front of some trompe l'oeil cypresses; strings of blue Christmas lights glow in the dimness. A small fountain and miniature "balconies" decorated with plants and knickknacks are strewn with still more vines. Noller wanted to reproduce the Music Box's trademark ceiling, with its twinkling stars and shifting clouds, but says it would have cost another $1,500. Instead he painted the ceiling royal blue and a friend painted gold stars on the walls.

At the back of the space above a fireplace is Noller's digital video projector. At the front is a six-by-eight-foot movie screen behind a ruby red curtain that opens and closes by remote control. The screen, topped by a Spanish-style tiled roof, is flanked by penguin statues and two lamp-lit alcoves holding reproductions of the Venus de Milo and Michelangelo's David. To the left of the screen is Noller's prize: a $25,000 Allen theater organ. A model similar to the one he plays at the Music Box, it's white with gold accents and ormolu. It was shipped from California in three pieces so he could fit it through the door. Now it's mounted on a movable platform piled with stuffed animals.

Born in Gresham, Noller grew up in Roseland, where he started piano lessons at age eight. At ten he took an organ class at Fernwood Methodist, then continued with private lessons. By the time he was a high school freshman he had his first paying job, as an organist at Gresham Methodist Church; he also put in a lot of time playing at the State Theater, Roseland's first movie house. From 1968 to '72 Noller served as a navy chaplain's assistant, playing the organ for all the services on the cruiser USS Columbus. Over the years he's performed at countless church services (he still plays three every Sunday) and weddings. By his own estimate he plays at a couple hundred funerals a year. "I'll take a funeral any day over a wedding," he says. "Weddings are a pain in the butt."

Playing movie theaters, however, was always Noller's goal. He's been at the Music Box since 2001. Possibly hoping to shorten his commute, he's heading up an effort to renovate and reopen a beaux arts movie palace in Momence, just this side of the Indiana border. The 350-seat Momence Theatre, built in 1924, screened porno films for about a decade before it was shuttered in 1962. Noller envisions hosting old films and concerts featuring local talent on a brand-new organ that would replace the water-damaged original. He says his nonprofit group, the Momence Theatre Friends, has raised $60,000 of the half million the job will require.

"Welcome to a dream come true," said Noller on a recent Sunday afternoon at his home. The theater held 14 people scattered on green lawn chairs. Noller was planning to screen the 1929 Laurel and Hardy silent Bacon Grabbers. But first, as he usually does, he gave a demonstration, seating himself in front of the Allen's three ascending keyboards. As his left foot pounded the bass line of a jazzed-up rendition of "Downtown" and his right hand played the melody, he used his left hand to manipulate a keypad affixed to the top of the organ. Disco balls whirled, and a set of colored spotlights blinked on and off behind him.

"It's not near as advanced as the Music Box," Noller said when he'd finished. "The bubble machine is out of bubbles."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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