Stark County Artist Profile: Jay Spencer

by Stephen Ostertag

Stark County is home to a rare historic attraction, a 1920s era vaudeville and cinema theatre still in operation today. The majestic Canton Palace Theatre opens its doors regularly to show classic films, first run films, Canton Ballet performances, silent movies, theatrical performances, and concerts. If you’ve had the pleasure of attending the Palace anytime in the last twenty-two years, you’ve likely bared witness to two of the Palace Theatre’s gems; The “mighty” Kilgen Pipe Organ and its faithful organist Jay Spencer.

Before most Palace screenings begin the audience is treated to a Kilgen performance of classical and cinema music played live on stage. As the theatre lights dim, the Kilgen sinks out of sight and the screen comes to life. Through the combination of setting, cinema, and the Kilgen’s melodies guests of the Palace are lifted out of the now and experience the theatre just as the audiences of the 1920s.

You may ask yourself, what makes the Kilgen so special?

“It’s the last Kilgen theatre organ in the world still in its original home that is used regularly,” Spencer says, “It is very special.” Our Cantonian Kilgen is also one of only a few still being played in the U.S. Spencer adds, “Banks Kennedy was the original organist in 1926.  A psychic told me he was still there, and still plays along!  Let’s keep him happy.” It’s easy to believe stories of spirit activity given the opulent theatre interior and the flicker of the low warm lighting. Asked about any other out of this world experiences, Spencer added, “Of course, there was the time the strange ball of energy flew at me on stage.  We suppose it was one of the spirits telling me hello.  Who knows, but he missed me this time.”

Spencer, whose real life sounds like the plot for a TV crime show, works in the Canton City Police Forensics Lab and moonlights as the organist for the historic Palace Theatre. He has been playing the organ since age seven, and began at the Palace twenty-two years ago. “I should be better by now.” Jay says with a chuckle, then added, “I’ve been volunteering at the theatre for about thirty years. That’s crazy when you think about it, but I’ve loved almost every minute of it!” Volunteering at the Palace is a great way to get involved and support this highlight of our community, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Some events at the Palace have the ticket booth and concession stand swamped, “but it’s great to see so many people enjoying the theatre.”

Spencer has been noted for his fashionable socks when he takes to the organ, when asked about his variety of foot wear he said, “I have quite a few pairs of non-dark or non-white socks. I tend to like these oddly striped ones, but people seem to like the red ones best.” Spencer’s friendly chuckle bubbles up again and he adds, “I get comments on those more often.”

Spencer’s undeniable talent has taken him far since he took to the bench of the Kilgen. “Since I’ve played here, I’ve had the opportunity to perform in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Mansfield.” Spencer says adding, “All great theatre organs, I played for concerts and movies.” Asked if there were any pieces he’d like to play Spencer quickly replied, “I would love to play for the movie, WINGS, or Metropolis. Both very long, but maybe it’ll work out one of these days.” Thankfully, no matter how far he goes, he continues to return to the Palace.

Spencer has also been heavily involved in the local community theatre scene as an Actor, Director, Writer, and Producer. Asked about some of his favorite experiences, Spencer said, “I loved being in Into the Woods at Kent Stark. Phil Robb directed, and I had the best role, Narrator/Mysterious Man.” Another chortle, “Of course lots of people still know me as Father Mark, the drunken priest in Tony and Tina’s Wedding. One role I’d love to do sometime is the old man in Cabaret that sings the pineapple song and also the cop in Urinetown. ”

Spencer has also been a supporter and contributor to locally written new works. He says, “being a published playwright myself (Happy Anniversary Angel, Love Gino! Published thru Samuel French,) I love seeing new works being presented locally. I’ve written a couple, …Angel, Love Gino! was published and is still presented across America; the other I never submitted, but we took it to OCTA and it won a playwright award, Conversations at the Christopher Street Grille.” Spencer added, “I did We Rise, the Todd Walburn play performed at the Kathleen Howland in 2nd April.  LOTS of lines… but I felt it was good, and I acted well.”

“I’ve been in local theatre since the 1990s in one form or another.” He continued, “Like anything else, you get involved and it grows and builds, and develops into many parts of your life. I’m glad it did. I’ve met lots of wonderful people over the years. One of the first plays I directed, Neil Simon’s Fools at North Canton, was a youth production featuring ten teenagers. I still am involved in those kids’ lives, even though they are 35 years old now.” A smile spreads across his face as he adds, “Love each one of them, as if they were my own.”

Over his twenty plus years at the Palace, Spencer has earned some wonderful memories, “One night in about 1995,” he began, “Ashley Miller came into the theatre and played the Kilgen for pre-show. He was an original theatre organist from the 1920s, Ashley was a huge name in theatre organ circles, he has since died.” Asked about his favorite Palace programming, he quickly responds, “I love playing for the silent movies at the theatre! I wish we could get a bigger crowd for those. I don’t take any payment of doing them, it all goes to the organ fund to help maintain the Kilgen. I also really enjoy the Halloween movies like Nosferatu, and Phantom, and such. People like those! I also like the comedies, Keaton, Lloyd and Chaplin; all incredible films.”

“Second best is playing for First Friday,” Spencer adds, “when the kids are in the theatre, as I play the kids ring the orchestra pit, before I come up with the organ is the best. They look down at me, asking questions and wanting to know how I get in there. I know in 20 years they will all be saying…”Remember that old guy that used to play the organ at the Palace?” He chuckles, “My legacy!”

Spencer’s legacy at the Palace reaches beyond creating fond memories for the many guests of the Theatre, he is helping preserve history. When you take your seat at the Palace Theatre and the Kilgen begins you are experiencing history in the present, no imagination required. When you attend a silent movie screening, you are experiencing the cinema the way it was enjoyed in the 1920s. How can you help Jay Spencer preserve this cinematic experience? Attend films, theatre, concerts, ballet, and events at The Canton Palace Theatre and while you’re there find the donation jar for the Kilgen organ and drop your change. You can learn more about the Palace, the Kilgen, and the calendar of events at http://www.cantonpalacetheatre.org/ or by stopping by the Palace Theatre on the corner of Market and 6th Street in Downtown Canton.