Piping up to save part of cultural history

Organ: A state society works to restore the instrument used while silent movies were shown.

July 05, 2004|By Seth Rosen | Seth Rosen,SUN STAFF

In one corner of the cottage, 76-year-old Lee DuBois is lying flat on his back underneath a massive wooden "wind chest," cleaning the dirt from a small pipe. Across the room, Sven Larsen, 87, inspects a tangled web of electrical wires from behind his thick, black-rimmed glasses.

Every Tuesday, both men, along with at least 10 other members of the Free State Theatre Organ Society, work diligently to restore and reassemble a 1927 Wurlitzer theater organ. Their makeshift workshop, on the campus of Spring Grove Hospital Center in Catonsville, is lined with rows of 6-foot-high stacks of wooden and metal pipes, and has a lingering scent of recently cut plywood.

The Theatre Organ Society, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in April, is made up of engineers, electricians, musicians and organ aficionados. They are dedicated to preserving the instrument and the music that they love. But as the members reach their 70s and 80s, and as the number of people who heard the original theater organs shrinks, they have much work to do if they don't want to see their passion go the way of the silent film.

"The aim of the society is to preserve the organ and its cultural heritage," said Roy Wagner, 73, the organization's founder. "So many people are not aware of what they are missing."

In the 1920s, opulent theaters such as Baltimore's Metropolitan, at North and Pennsylvania avenues, were referred to as "cathedrals of the motion picture," and they screened silent films for the growing affluent urban classes.

At first, pianos or transplanted church organs would provide musical accompaniments. In the beginning of the Jazz Age, after Robert Hope-Jones introduced the theater organ, shrewd owners began installing the instrument, which could play the vibrant popular music of the day as well as provide sound effects such as drums, sirens and slide whistles to enhance the film experience.

But the introduction of "talkies" in 1927, starting with Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer, ended the need for live musical supplements. Theater organs fell into neglect and disuse, and others were lost when many of the lavish theaters were torn down in the 1960s and 1970s.

But fans of the "king of instruments," as it was often called, have worked to preserve its memory. The American Theatre Organ Society, started in 1955, claims more than 5,000 members in 60 chapters throughout the world, said Gus Franklin, the organization's president.

On April 1, 1984, Wagner, who had spent more than two years installing a 13-by-22-foot organ in his home with parts he collected from Baltimore theater organs, founded the independent Free State organization with 11 other people. It now has 249 members.

In 1991, the group leased the cottage at Spring Grove to house its restoration efforts and archival library. The resource center above the workshop has more than 5,000 items of theater organ history and paraphernalia, including sheet music, books, CDs and 8 mm movies of classic performances.

"I can say without any doubt in my mind that this is the prime theater organ restoration facility in the country," Wagner said.

The group completed work on its first organ in 1995 for Spring Grove's Rice Auditorium. Once a month, from September through May, the society gives a free concert for the public, demonstrating the range and lush sound of the instrument, said Bob Wolfe, society president.

For four years, members have been working on a new organ that will be 2 1/2 times the size of the current one. It will have three keyboards and 18 ranks of pipes, with each rank holding 60 to 73 pipes. These pipes range in size from as small as a human pinkie to more than 16 feet tall.

Besides providing the only public venue for people in the Baltimore area to hear the theater organ, Wolfe said, the society holds exhibitions at area nursing homes and retirement centers. These seminars come complete with a slide show, recordings and miniature replicas of famous theaters. But Wagner acknowledged that the organization must do much more to promote the legacy of the instrument.

The type of music young people enjoy today is not always compatible with the theater organ, Wolfe said, but he hopes that in the fall the society can bring school groups to Spring Grove to learn about a part of American cultural history.

Several theaters across the country are showing silent films with organ accompaniments, and a renewed interest in swing music has helped bring about a revival of the theater organ, said Franklin, the national organization's president.

"We are getting more instruments in concert-ready condition, and we are seeing the emergence of younger organists," he said.

For the workers in Cottage E, the Theatre Organ Society provides not only a chance to promote an art form, but also a sense of camaraderie. Over the hum of fans and electric motors, the members talk shop or gently rib one another for forgetting where they placed their keys.

"People enjoy talking with each other and comparing notes on everything from music to grandkids," said DuBois, a former Johns Hopkins engineer, as he checked to make sure that the errant D pipe was working properly.

Emery Bogardy, a former electrical engineer, said, "Everybody has a little part of the job."

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