Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A theater organ's odyssey

by Bill Van Pelt
guest writer

When the Richmond Symphony played Saint-Saëns' "Organ" Symphony on May 15-16 at Richmond CenterStage's Carpenter Theatre, we heard the pipe organ that was built for the former Loew’s Theater in 1927-28 by the Wurlitzer firm of North Tonowanda, NY.

Or did we? In one very important way, we did not.

As an organ designed to accompany silent movies, and to fill an auditorium with robust sound, the Carpenter Theatre's organ installation has few peers.

John Eberson, the architect of the Richmond Loew's Theater and some 500 other movie palaces, knew from vast experience how to optimize placement of the organ's pipes for maximum connection with the audience in its seats. Marcus Loew chose Eberson as architect because of his track record, the same reason he chose Wurlitzer to supply an enormously efficient pipe organ of modest size and expense that could shake the building and its audience, or whisper to them.

Enormous efficiency from minimal resources characterizes the morph of the traditional, classically built concert-hall or church pipe organ into the theater pipe organ. Each pipe of a theater organ plays many times louder than its traditional counterpart in a church or concert organ is designed to play.

A theater organ of relatively few pipes produces a gigantic volume of sound. Theater operators and architects both liked this characteristic: The architect could devote less space to accommodate the organ pipes than would be required for a church or concert hall organ; and the theater operators had lower tuning expenses because fewer pipes require less maintenance and time spent tuning.

As well, the expense of paying several musicians of a pit orchestra to accompany a silent film was replaced by the expense of a single musician, an organist, who could marshall via the theater pipe organ a wide variety of effects, from doorbells and bird whistles to thunderclaps and the drone of a flotilla of airplanes, and a deafening cataclysm when necessary, beyond what the pit orchestra could possibly muster.

The key to controlling and making musical use of the colossal onslaught of organ tone emerging from the pipes was to enclose the pipes in a sound-inert box, sometimes made of concrete, with very thick and tight-fitting shutters on the front of the box to allow tone to emerge by slight and finely incremental opening and closing of the shutters via a control at the organist’s feet called the swell pedal. Most Wurlitzers have at least two such pedals controlling multiple sets of shades which enclose specific groups of pipes.

* * *

The Carpenter Center organ has 13 ranks of pipes divided into two groups, eight ranks on the left side of the proscenium and five ranks on the right, each group contained within a plaster-on-masonry chamber covered on the front with swell shutters. The organ chambers are located directly behind acoustically transparent curtains that the audience sees in an arched opening located behind and above a short balustrade on each side of the stage.

The original and very thick and tight-fitting organ shutters are now replaced at the Carpenter Theatre organ by ones that are not as sound-insulating and would be suitable for a less powerful church organ. So, this theater organ plays too loudly despite all of the other methods of controlling its volume at the disposal of the organist, such as drawing fewer stops and playing a minimal number of pipes.

Last month, organist Michael Simpson did all that was possible to make the organ sufficiently quiet for its role in the lovely second movement of the Saint-Saëns symphony, but it was still slightly too loud, thanks in part to the very effective placement of the pipes in the auditorium. If the original Wurlitzer shutters or similarly effective ones were in place, the organ would more likely balance the orchestra in quiet passages, and many more pipes could be used in louder passages to make a more satisfyingly full and complex sound without becoming so loud that the orchestra is overwhelmed.

The original Wurlitzer shutters were lost in the long journey that the organ took shortly after Loew's Theater closed in 1979. The organ was removed and given to the American Film Institute Theatre at the Kennedy Center in Washington. It was never installed in the very small theater; the console sat as an ornament near the box office. (The AFI Theatre was replaced in 2005 by the Family Theater, occupying some of the same space and largely rebuilt.)

The organ pipes and substantial mechanism – windchests, reservoirs and other parts – somehow passed to an owner in Texas, and the organ, or most of it, eventually landed in the warehouse of a pipe-organ parts broker in McMinnville, TN.

* * *

In 1983, while the Loew's organ console was still on display at the AFI Theatre and the rest of it was presumed stored, Richmonders restored and reopened the old Loew's as the Carpenter Center, and the theater became the home of the Richmond Symphony.

Some organ enthusiasts, led by the late theater organist Bill Floyd, arranged for a donation to the Carpenter Center of a collection of organ parts from which they intended, as volunteers, to build a 25-rank organ to occupy the original organ chambers. That project took many more years than the volunteers anticipated and the organ was never played; but most of it had been installed in 1990 when the McMinnville organ broker, Roy Davis, offered to sell the 13-rank Loew's organ in his warehouse to the Carpenter Center for $25,000 and all of the parts of the 25-rank organ the volunteers were building.

Thus, the original Loew's organ returned to Richmond and was first played in 1991, but without its original swell shades. The insufficient shades that now enclose the organ are ones the volunteers had acquired from other sources for their project.

Fortunately, the work of restoring the pipes, windchests, reservoirs, windlines, and major parts of the Wurlitzer located in the chambers behind the leftover swell shades was entrusted to a firm of professional organ-builders owned by William Barger and Charles Nix of McDonald, TN, near Chattanooga. They charged a modest $75,000 for their work. The money for purchase of the Wurlitzer and the restoration was raised by The Muses, a support group for the arts center.

The parts outside the organ chamber, including the console that we see whenever someone plays the organ, were rebuilt and cosmetically restored by remaining members of the volunteer crew led by Fred Berger of Richmond and Nick Pitt. Berger, a telephone company engineer (now retired), and his compatriots logged some 25,000 volunteer hours in bringing an organ to the Carpenter Center and in restoring the Wurlitzer.

Before work commenced on the most recent renovation of the Carpenter Theatre, the Barger and Nix firm removed all of the pipes to safe storage and covered the windchests and other large parts to protect them from damage and dirt contamination, then reinstalled and tonally regulated the organ in the renovated hall.

* * *

Considering the long journey taken by the Loew's organ, its survival is remarkable and its important parts are either original to the Richmond Loew's theater or are identical Wurlitzer parts from another organ or organ. (The 13-rank Style 240 was very popular, Wurlitzer having built many of them among the approximately 2,200 theater organs the firm produced between 1914 and 1931.)

All of the pipes are believed to be original, but a few pieces of mechanism may be from other organs. One of these parts, the windchest in the right chamber, is probably from another organ because it is prepared to receive one more rank of pipes – the Style 240 was not so prepared. When Barger and Nix restored the windchest, they restored this unused portion as well, with the plan that, someday, one more colorful rank of pipes would be added to further extend the tonal pallette of the organ. Those preparations for an additional set of pipes are also reflected in the console as rebuilt by Fred Berger – the stops to control them are already present and wired-up.

Organ experts who have seen the work done by Barger and Nix and by Berger and his crew have found it highly craftsworthy, and nearly two decades of use have proven it to be reliable. Organists who have played the organ find it a thrilling theater organ with great presence in the auditorium.

Now, it could be even better, especially for playing repertoire for organ and symphony orchestra, if we could just put the correct swell shutters on the organ. Maybe another set of pipes, too.

Bill Van Pelt produces recordings of classical pipe-organ music on his Raven CD label, founded in 1978, and served as executive director of the Organ Historical Society from 1982 to 2006. He was recording engineer for the Richmond Symphony from 1971 to 1978, and director of media relations at Virginia Commonwealth University from 1972 to 1982.