To hear the powerful vibrations of “Old Man River” blasting from a pipe organ this week in the recital hall of the historic Lanterman House in La Canada Flintridge was not that unusual.
After all, the house has been home to the world’s finest Wurlitzer organ for 27 years.
But the music emanating Tuesday from the proposed museum was a tape recording played on a portable stereo. The Fox Lanterman organ itself is in pieces--thousands of them--being crated and moved to Glendale.
About 25 volunteer organ experts have nearly completed the monthlong task of disassembling and moving the 32-ton instrument, complete with its complement of whistles, drums, horns, pipes, blowers and every imaginable instrument used by a 125-piece orchestra.
The crew is so dedicated that they play taped music for inspiration, said Edward Millington Stout of San Francisco, a technical adviser who worked on the 65-year-old Fox Lanterman organ when it was still in the Fox Theatre in San Francisco.
Listening to organ music is an obsession. “We can’t get enough of it,” enthused the 57-year-old Stout. “I’ve been working on organs for 35 years and I’m still as turned on as the day I started.”
Volunteers are quick to point out that the Fox Lanterman instrument is no ordinary theater pipe organ.
“This is the Wurlitzer, by far the finest,” said William Schutz of Glendale, an organ expert and project director. For emphasis, he said it isn’t even called an organ. “It’s a Hope/Jones Unit Orchestra. This is the world’s first computer.”
“These are like a trumpeter’s lips,” said another volunteer, Russ Huston of Tujunga, as he carried out an oblong wooden box that will one day be reattached to its special wooden pipe to rejoin the brass section.
Hundreds of wooden pipes worth more than $700,000, some that reach up three stories when assembled, have been moved to secured storage areas at the former Clark Junior High School, which is no longer used as a school by the Glendale district.
Every part, every pipe, every relay, each of the 30,000 wires to switch tabs have been recorded and videotaped so the instrument can be reassembled after it is restored, which will take 2 1/2 years, Schutz said.
When it was installed in the Fox Theatre in 1929, the organ cost $125,000, which Schutz said is equivalent to more than $5 million today.
The organ was played regularly, drawing block-long lines of patrons waiting to hear it, until the theater was closed in 1963. The late Assemblyman Frank Lanterman, a professional organist, rescued the instrument and had it installed in a special recital hall that he had built onto a 1915 Craftsman-style house.
Both the house and the organ were bequeathed in 1987 to La Canada Flintridge, which plans to convert the house into a museum.
Glendale, which bought the organ for $50,000 in January, hopes eventually to install the instrument in the historic Alex Theatre, which the city plans to renovate as a cultural arts center.