Darrell Stuckey: Keys to the Past

There's a moment during every opening-night screening at the yearly Miami International Film Festival that brings the crowd of cinema aficionados and celebrities roaring to its feet — and it's not the movie.

As the credits roll, an orchestra of horns, drums, and strings booms right out of the walls of the Mediterranean-style Olympia Theater at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts downtown. It rises into a powerful cacophony until the theater shakes like the inside of a tuba. The spotlight swings to the top corner of the box seats, illuminating a thin man pounding away at a massive, three-tiered stack of ivory keys.

That's Darrell Stuckey. He's one of an elite club of organists in the country who can command the theater-sized Wurlitzer built in 1926 to score silent movies. He's 76 years old — less than a decade younger than the organ itself — but he still mans the instrument year-round, playing ten days in a row at MIFF.

"It's still a thrill to play up here for a huge crowd and all these celebrities," Stuckey says. "There's not many places left in the world to play an instrument like this."

Stuckey huffs and puffs backstage as he hikes the steep spiral staircases of the Olympia — a gem packed with hand-carved details and a faux-night-sky ceiling. After the City of Miami cut all funding earlier this year, local businessman Herman Echevarria announced plans to save the place.

Stuckey knows his priceless instrument like a veterinarian knows the ins and outs of a prize horse. He pries open a wooden door hiding the whirring, ten-horsepower motor that pumps air through the miles of pipes, and then yanks himself up a narrow corridor to a roomful of metal tubes that replicate the sound of every instrument from a glockenspiel to a flugelhorn.

He learned his craft young. Born in northwest Ohio, Stuckey worked for a local music dealer and spent a few years studying piano before he was drafted to fight in World War II. When he left the service, he began touring the country as part of an organ-playing duo called the Knights of the Organ. They played marches at Air Force bases and pop tunes at local music halls.

Eventually, he and his partner settled down in Massachusetts and opened their own music supply shop. When he moved to South Florida in 1980, he began volunteering at the Gusman.

Since 1984, he's been the venue's full-time organist, playing before movies, scoring theatrical performances, and enlivening countless high school graduations. He has no plans to slow down — which is a good thing, because it's not clear who will step in when he leaves.

"A lot of young kids these days have never heard of an instrument like this," Stuckey says.

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