Lance Luce – the local theatre organist who inspired Liberace’s rhinestone shoes

Lance Luce doesn’t exactly have what you would call a “common” occupation: as a professional theatre organist, it’s probably safe to say he is one among mere dozens in America.


It wasn’t always so. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the occupation was not only common – it was in high demand. Metro Detroit was once home to over 100 traditional pipe organs – the kind players use both hands and feet to play. From the dozens of opulent theatres located in the heart of downtown Detroit to smaller theatres throughout the suburbs, every single one had its own organ, and its own organist to play it. In addition to theatre organs, radio stations also featured organ music played live in-studio for programs like The Green Hornet during the golden age of radio.


“It was a popular job back then, and then the talkies came out and that was the end of that,” Luce jokes, though the statement is indeed accurate.


Luce was a few decades late to the organ’s heyday, and like a lot of kids growing up in the 1960s, he wanted to learn how to play the guitar. When his parents finally capitulated, his music lessons started with piano at Grinnell’s, then a popular Detroit-based chain of music stores located throughout Michigan and Ohio. As he waited on the promised guitar lessons, he spotted an organ and how it is played with both hands and feet and thought, well THAT’s pretty cool.


So at the age of 10, he started organ lessons. At age 13, he saw a show at the Royal Oak Theatre where the organ and organist rose up out of the pit on a mechanized stage – very theatrical – and the theatre organist was born. He asked the theatre manager if he could play intermissions on a volunteer basis, and got his professional start playing the “Star-Spangled Banner” there “hundreds” of times.


That volunteer-based gig led to him playing concerts. His first professional gig was at the Skate World in Troy, where they held “dance skating” three nights a week and he would play a variety of traditional dance music, including tangoes and waltzes, that people would “dance” along to on roller-skates. 


He played there all through high school, then in 1978 he won a national organ competition sponsored by Yamaha, which led to a guest appearance at Radio City Music Hall in New York. He was then hired as the head organist there – when he, at 19 years old, and his 17-year-old assistant organist appeared in Ripley’s Believe It or Not! because of their remarkably young ages playing on the largest Wurlitzer ever built in the world-renowned venue. 


After a year in New York he came home to Michigan and started playing at pizza parlors in Warren and in Pontiac – having an organist at a pizza parlor was a bit of a fad at that time. When both went out of business, he moved to Toronto for eight years and played at a similar place called the “Organ Grinder.”


It was during his time at Radio City Music Hall, however, that Luce began developing his theatrical stage aesthetic. While he was there, the costume department would costume the organists and the full orchestra. He recalls wearing white sport coats in the beginning of each show and red sport coats at the end, and specifically recalls the wardrobe department coming to him with rhinestones they wanted to put on the heels of his shoes so they would stand out while he played (again, the organ is an instrument played with hands and feet).


If that sounds familiar, like something a certain famously flamboyant pianist by the name of Liberace might do, Luce has a story of particular interest:


“Liberace was [at Radio City Music Hall] once for a concert and I met him. He said, ‘I like your shoes with the rhinestones. As a pianist I don’t think about my feet so much.’ Years later I saw him in concert and his entire shoes were covered in rhinestones!”


When he came back to Michigan he wanted to continue with that sort of theatrical costuming that had become part of his performance, so he bought some shiny silver lame fabric and sequins and asked a seamstress friend if she could make his a jacket. Over the years he played at pizza parlors, she ended up making him about 20 different jackets (which were later stored in his attic and adopted by his three children as Halloween costumes).


But his calling as an organist didn’t stop at theatre performances. A confluence of chance, circumstance, and eerily recurring coincidence has resulted in Luce also performing as a church organist for the last 42 years. It was never something he intended; in fact, when the first offer came he resisted it, insisting he was a “theatre organist” and not a church organist – the former being quite a bit more flashy and contemporary while the latter being more classical and, well, liturgical.


He was still in high school and just got his license when he was presented with his first offer of playing at a church. He initially declined, noting the difference in the kind of organist he was from a typical church organist, but was assured that this was a “unity church” – they were looking for something a bit more lively and contemporary.


Such gigs followed him throughout his career, from Royal Oak all the way to New York and back again. He never sought them out but when he would get approached about it, it was inevitably for a unity church and he was inevitably a wonderful fit. He currently plays Sundays at the Cross of Christ in Bloomfield Hills, a beautiful contemporary church (and the first Lutheran church he has performed) where he plays the organ alongside the church’s praise band. 


His church playing dovetails nicely with his chosen “real job,” which he decided to get when he and his wife moved back to Madison Heights from Toronto and decided to start a family. He has specialized in church organ sales for metro Detroit’s Evola Music for the last 26 years.


In addition to organ sales, which he says have shifted away from prohibitively expensive pipe organs to more affordable digital organs, Luce still plays at Cross of Christ on Sundays and performs several concerts each year at places like the Fox Theatre, Redford Theatre, and Senate Theatre in Detroit and the Michigan Theatre in Ann Arbor.


When he found he wanted to revive a little bit of that old flare from his theatrical days, he called up the same seamstress who made his original jackets – they remained friends over the years – and asked if she could make him another one, this time in red. His new jacket has been getting lots of attention, which he finds humorous.


“I’ve been wearing sequins and shiny stuff since 1980,” he says. “As years go by, people who didn’t know you back then [are so surprised by it]. My current red jacket is getting a lot of attention, but I’ve been doing this since 1980. Sometimes I’m not sure what’s getting more attention, me or the jacket! But it’s a show; the theatre organ is meant to be a show.”


When people at Cross of Christ ask him when he’s going to wear his red jacket, he just says he’s not.


“It’s like two different me’s,” he explains. “When people go to the theatre, they do it to get away from reality; to be transformed. It’s like going to Disney. With the theatre organ there is a lot of vibrato; it’s very dramatic. Then on Sunday morning it’s very liturgical, very classical. Both are organs but they’re designed to do a different job. [And so my performances are also very different.]”


Being a theatre organist has taken Luce all throughout the United States and around the world.


“It’s such a strange little niche,” he says. “I have gone to Australia three times for concerts. I’ve gone to England. It has taken me places all over the U.S. and Canada, places I wouldn’t have normally got to go to, but on other hand it’s not like there are that many places to play.”


He recognizes that organists such as himself are a fading breed, but he still loves every minute of it.  While the instrument itself becomes increasingly rare and archaic, musicians such as Luce will become fewer in number, but much like any highly niche instrument or talent – the accordion, let’s say, or even letterpress printing – there may just come a time when theatrical organ-playing garners a certain kind of esoteric hipness. And maybe Luce, with his red sequin jacket, will help usher that time in.