Martin Bevis celebrates his seventh decade as organist with Victoria Theatre film series
By Jason Webber
Martin Bevis has encountered many amazing sights and sounds during his nearly 20-year tenure as the organist for the Victoria Theatre. He still remembers the woman in the balcony who could yodel like a Swiss mountaineer during an audience “yodel-along.” He always gets a thrill that despite ever-changing social mores and customs, audiences still automatically rise whenever he strikes up the opening bars of “The Star Spangled Banner.” He remembers when theater owners first began having to tell patrons to turn off their cell phones and to avoid texting (something he especially loathes).
But he still has never seen any of the ghosts that reputedly haunt the inner sanctum of the Victoria.
“I’ve never seen them at the Victoria, but I did see one at the Emery Theater (in Cincinnati) once,” said Bevis, from his home in Fairfield. Perhaps this could be the year that one of the Victoria’s ghostly residents shows up to hear Bevis’ organ stylings, as he prepares for another season of the Michelob Ultra Cool Film Series, which brings some of filmdom’s best loved classics to Dayton in their big screen splendor.
No matter how great it is seeing timeless movies like West Side Story, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the early works of Mel Brooks (Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, The Producers) in the grand setting of the historic Victoria Theatre, the real spectacle is the Hurlitzer organ preshow, provided courtesy of the 78-year-old Bevis, who has been playing the organ since age eight … with nary a single music lesson.
“I still don’t know how to read music. It confuses me,” said the ever-so-spry Bevis, who began his career performing in skating rinks during the ‘40s. Back before DJs played the latest Top 40 hits via CDs and playlists, hormone-drenched teen couples skated to live musicians. Can you imagine? It may have been a slightly more innocent and simpler time, but Bevis believes audiences haven’t really changed that much over the decades — people still respond to a pipe organ.
“America has changed but audiences are mostly the same,” said Bevis, who estimates that he knows about 10,000 songs by heart.
He doesn’t really have an all-time favorite song, but he has a special love in his heart for Jerome Kerr and George Gershwin. Bevis, a lifelong bachelor, has lived in the area his entire life, graduating from Middletown High School in 1951.
He graduated from Miami University with a degree in aviation administration, but readily admitted, “I never worked in that field at all.”
Instead, he focused on his main passion — music- — and worked in real estate to help pay the bills. Though he never had any children of his own, he loves playing for young people and introducing them to the songs of yesteryear.
“Today, young people are just as fascinated as ever by music,” he said. “But I’m really concerned about how music education is being cut in the schools. You have to get kids interested in music.”
Throughout his seven-decade career, Bevis has played in dozens of theaters, restaurants, and of course, skating rinks, but the Victoria holds a special place in his heart.
“I’ve been playing there for over 15 years and I really enjoy it,” he said. “Some people tell me they come to the movie only to hear the organ and that’s a great compliment.”
All films play at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and 3 p.m. on Sundays. Free popcorn and soft drinks are available in the lobby, and Martin Bevis begins performing 30 minutes prior to showtime. All tickets are $5 each or $28 for a 10-ticket passbook. For more information, call (937) 228-3630 or visit www.victoriatheatre.com.
Reach DCP freelance writer Jason Webber at JasonWebber@DaytonCityPaper.com.