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After 70 Years, It’s Still a Blast

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Orpheum Theater in downtown L.A. was part vaudeville house and part circus, with six floors of dressing rooms teeming with acrobats, fan dancers, musicians, elephants--all performing 10 times a day to an audience of thousands.

But that was the ‘20s. These days the theater is barely able to make rent, showing mainstream movies to a handful of viewers and closing its doors at 8 every night.

On April 25, though, there will be a chance to get a taste--or at least an echo--of the glory days. A morning concert will mark the 70th birthday of the Orpheum’s mighty Wurlitzer, the oldest original-installation theater organ in the city.

The actual anniversary of the installation is today, says Donn Linton, chairman of the Los Angeles Theater Organ Society, a preservation group that sponsors six concerts a year in the area.

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Linton realizes there aren’t a lot of people out there sharing his excitement over the occasion.

“When you say ‘organ,’ it’s tantamount to saying ‘bagpipe’ or ‘accordion,’ ” says the 69-year-old retiree. “People have a preconceived notion of what they’ve heard at a ballpark or a funeral.”

But fans of the Orpheum’s Wurlitzer know better. They’ve heard a single musician replicate the sound of an entire orchestra, playing six keyboards at once and pressing various combinations of 350 sound-effect tabs--while sliding suede-bottomed Organ Master shoes across 5-foot pedals. It is truly a joy to behold.

Designed to accompany silent movies, theater organs can sound like just about anything from thunder and horses’ hooves to crashing waves and police sirens. If a doorbell rang in the movie and, Linton says, “the player was quick enough,” he or she would provide the sound.

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More often than not, theater organists in the early part of the century would be doing their magic on the spot, without benefit of a prior screening to let them know what was coming when.

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Playing a theater organ is complicated, says Robert York, 42. York discovered the instrument at a pizza parlor in Portland, Ore., that somehow had managed to acquire one. He took lessons from a local musician and wound up working as the pizza parlor’s organist for four years--using the instrument’s console not only to play show tunes but also to operate pretty much everything in the restaurant from the overhead lights to a bubble machine.

“The console is what most people call the organ, but [the console is really] just the cabinet with the keyboards and the switches,” says Harry Heth, president of the Theater Organ Society, an umbrella organization with 5,500 members around the world. “The actual organ is not seen.”

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Indeed, a theater organ is very Wizard of Oz. Enclosed in a number of off-stage anterooms, the organ weighs several tons and consists of thousands of pipes, ranging in size from 32 feet to three-eighths of an inch. A separate chamber exists for the fan, which fills the pipes with air to create sound.

The first stereophonic instrument (pipes are placed on both sides of the stage), the theater organ was introduced in 1910 by New York’s Wurlitzer Corp., one of a handful of organ manufacturers in business at the time. Only one--Wicks, in Highland, Ill.--still builds the organs today.

In 1939, at the onset of World War II, Wurlitzer no longer could locate the raw materials it needed for its organs and discontinued them. The company continued to manufacture jukeboxes until it went out of business in 1974.

Wurlitzer produced about 4,000 theater organs. Most of them were disassembled, and their pipes were melted down to support the war effort. About a thousand remain today. In 1920 dollars, a Wurlitzer cost $50,000. Today they go for a minimum of $500,000 and can cost several million.

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About 50 theater organs remain in the L.A. area, all having outlasted objections to the costs of maintaining an aging instrument with thousands of moving parts. But the term “theater organ” practically has become a misnomer, as most of the survivors now can be found in churches or private homes.

The biggest one in the world is at a private home in Illinois. The second biggest is in Sylmar, at the nonprofit Nethercutt Collection, which offers occasional concerts as well as daily tours by reservation ([818] 367-2251).

The organ was all but destroyed in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, and when the Nethercutt people restored it, they modernized it as well. Its console now is connected to a computer that can record and electronically duplicate anything played on the instrument.

Stan Kann is a 64-year-old organist and comedian who says that over the course of nearly 50 years, he has played almost every theater organ in the country.

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From 1952 to 1974, he played intermissions four times a day at the Fox Theater in St. Louis.

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“I had to be back at the theater every three hours,” he recalls with a laugh. He continues to play concerts around the United States and says he always has “to go a few days ahead of my shows to practice, because no two organs are alike.”

Locally, Kann plays half-hour programs Wednesday nights at 7 at the Founder’s Church of Religious Science in Los Angeles. Despite the religious setting, he plays such secular numbers as “Oklahoma” and “Born Free.”

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“Pretty much anything sounds good on the organ,” says Heth, of the Theater Organ Society, “though hard rock probably would not come off very well. You don’t have the grunge factor.”

Actually, an organist named Virgil Fox did very well with a series of “Heavy Organ” recordings and concerts aimed at rock audiences in the psychedelic ‘60s.

But these days, Heth says, chapters of the society are finding it hard to attract teenagers. Most theater organ enthusiasts are members of a generation that is disappearing.

There are some youngsters out there, such as Susan Lewandowski, a 19-year-old who is actually majoring in theater organ at Eastern Michigan University. Like York, she was introduced to the instrument at a local pizza parlor: Her father was the manager. She began taking lessons at 10 when her legs were barely long enough to reach the pedals. She won local competitions, began to compete nationally and by 16 was winning international awards.

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She knows, though, that it will be hard to make a living as a theater organist.

“It’s a dying art,” says York, who now lives in Los Angeles and works for a cosmetics company. But he still plays--providing live accompaniment to silent horror movies at the Orpheum’s Spookathon every Halloween.

“Whenever there’s a chance to play,” he says, “I will stop my life to do it.”

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* The concert marking the 70th anniversary of the Orpheum Theater’s Wurlitzer organ will take place at the theater, 9th Street and Broadway, downtown Los Angeles, at 9:30 a.m. April 25. Tickets: $5. For more information, call Friends of the Orpheum at (213) 239-0949.


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