His early years, however, were spent in the orchestra pit at the console of a pipe organ accompanying silent movies. He got his start about 1920 in Oakland, California playing the organ at the Tivoli Theater.
His first documented appearance in San Antonio appears to be as organist at W. J. Lytle’s Princess theater in 1922. Billed on the program as L. Earl Abel (he would later drop the “L”), he was then known best for the music he created for a series of films titled “Aesop’s Fables.” During those years he also played the organ at the Grand and Empire Theaters in San Antonio.
Abel was a headliner on the Paramount Publix Movie Circuit and was sent to various theaters in that organization not the least of which were the Brooklyn Paramount and Chicago’s Oriental Theater. Some close friends included Rudy Vallee and Big Crosby. He returned to San Antonio in 1929 to perform at Lytle’s flagship theater…the Texas.
Abel originated community singing in theaters where the audience “followed the bouncing ball on the screen” as Abel accompanied them on the pipe organ. He shared his name in lights with Vallee, Crosby, Rubinoff and Ethel Merman.
Abel introduced his "Organ Club" for children, and on Saturday mornings the youngsters were treated to cartoons and, of course, singing.
When sound was introduced to motion pictures, Abel’s days as an organist were numbered and he sought alternate employment choosing the restaurant business.
His first dining establishment opened on Main Avenue (across the street from McKinley Elementary School) in San Antonio during the 1930’s. The new restaurant featured Italian food and the garden behind what was once a residential property became "The Garden of Eatin’".
In 1969, Abel came out of retirement from his musical career and played a benefit for the United Way at Incarnate Word College auditorium. There were no vacant seats and Earl alternately told vintage vaudeville jokes, accompanied the audience as they sang, and furnished all the mood music for the silent film “Son of the Sheik.” It was a memorable evening.
“Why is marriage like a warm shower?” he asked the packed house. The answer; “After a while it is ‘Not so hot!’” … just one of many quips that evening from a man who was most obviously enjoying himself as much as his audience.
Abel continued in the restaurant business, eventually turning the operation over to his sons.
Lionel Earl Abel died at the age of 73, February 9, 1973 and is interred at Sunset Memorial Park, next to his wife, Lorena. One of San Antonio’s "icons" has gone!