In 1976, as movie theater operators, we were fortunate to be running a palace that was largely intact. Okay, so the organ was long gone to a pizza parlor in Texas, sold off for parts by a short-sighted building owner; one lone torchere lamp with a chipped alabaster shade and broken foot was hiding in the custodian’s closet. Some hasty research revealed there had been twenty of these lamps, all sold off, with one wounded soldier remaining. We didn’t own the St. George, so never would have thought to replace nineteen lamps; but there were some broken stained-glass items, among them a “Fire Hose” door that sheltered one of the six New York City Fire-Code-approved cloth hoses in our auditorium. Whether any of these actually worked and could put out a fire, nobody knew, but somehow it seemed important to replace the decorative door for the hose in the alcove, back of the orchestra. The story of what became of this item I’ll save for the end of this piece.
Meanwhile, here are a few case histories of theater organs, those most-borrowed (or bought or stolen) of movie palace artifacts. Like great coral reefs, theater organs have a life of their own, and are so much more than a sum of their parts.
What’s a “Wonder Morton?” Well, if you’ve heard of New York’s five Wonder Theaters, all built by Loews in the 1920’s, and each with a Morton “Wonder Organ,” you know the answer. Those theaters include:
The Jersey City in Jersey City, The Paradise in the Bronx, The United Palace of Cultural Arts in Washington Heights (formerly Loews 175th Street), The Valencia in Queens, and The Kings in Brooklyn.
To anyone familiar with the delicacy and varying fates of theater organs, it’s surprising to learn that any theater has its original instrument intact. From the above list, only the United Palace has this distinction, thanks to the fact that it went directly from movie palace to church (Reverend Ike’s) in the seventies. The reverend was a wealthy guy who saw to it things stayed the way they were, or improved. Accordingly, the UPCA, now a mixed-use house that includes worship, movies, concerts and all manner of events under its gleaming dome, is in the process of restoring its original house organ, which was rendered unplayable when a lighting grid fell on it. Meanwhile...
What happened to the other four Mortons?
The Valencia in Queens is, like the United Palace, a church, but, unlike that palace, hardly wealthy. Despite the fact that The Tabernacle of Prayer for All People has kept the interior of the Valencia painted (if not the original colors), the organ which was once the theater’s glory, has had a long journey, and does not reside in its original alcove, hence the sixth theater mentioned in today’s title. Acquired by Peter Schaeble in 1965, the organ was built into an underground studio at his home in Rosedale, Long Island, where it apparently spent several decades, leaving the Schaeble family for good in 1996. At that point, it became the property of one Jasper Sanfilippo of Barrington Hills, Illinois, but idled its pipes in storage, before finding its final home, the Balboa Theatre, in San Diego, Ca., where it currently plays on. The Valencia Morgan is definitely “something old,” and, in a way, has been “borrowed,” theater to theater.
The Jersey City, like so many palaces, had its hard times, saved by a vigilant group, The Friends of the Loews, beginning in 1993. Somehow or another, its Wonder Organ had already left the premises, but no problem; here’s where the borrowing comes in. The Paradise in the Bronx, a sister Wonder Theater, had originally sold off its instrument, with parts ending up in various places, some as far off as Canada. Those parts were rounded up by an enthusiast, Bob Balfour and all was donated to the Garden State Theatre Organ Society, which happily installed the instrument at the Jersey City, where it plays on to this day. That’s beyond a borrow, it’s an incarnation!
Though I haven’t yet been to the Jersey City, Robert Endres, our friend and unofficial Projection Historian, tells me a colleague of his plays that instrument on certain weekends to rave crowds (or at least he did before the Pandemic, and will again when rave crowds are possible).
The (Bronx) Paradise is at least standing and no longer ‘plexed. After some rough trade, it was restored and opened briefly as a performance center, but currently serves as the home of World Changers Church, under the aegis of a televangelist, Creslo Dollar, who works in the mold of Reverend Ike. With luck, landmark status will protect this Eberson (Italian Baroque Garden) atmospheric. Sadly the theater has no organ, but there is some solace in knowing its original instrument is only a few hours south, in Jersey City...
Which leaves us at last, under the sweeping newly restored marquee of Loews Kings, (The Kings) on Flatbush Avenue, in Brooklyn. Sadly, there is no working Wonder Organ left there, though its original console is on display in the lobby. The story of the organ’s travels is too lengthy for this post, but you can read all about it and more about the other New York Wonder Organs in an excellent post by the Garden State Theatre Organ Society Right now, the organ chambers at The Kings are filled with HVAC and lighting equipment. Several very new things have, for the time, replaced a very old treasure.
1. I promised to fill you in on what became of the fire hose door from the St. George Theatre. We had ordered a stained-glass replica of the broken door from a local artisan, who ended up donating his work (we were too poor to pay for it) in hopes that, when the door was installed, we’d put a small sign on it with his name; but that never came to be. We went out of business in 1977, parting with a hostile landlord.The two stained glass doors, one original but cracked, one an exact replica, remained in the basement of our house for some time. The theater was closed and would, we were sure, be torn down. One day, while moving some paint cans around the furnace room, I accidentally tripped, and, sadly, both doors were broken. So to something old and something new, you could add something lost.
2. Under the subject of “something lost,” how about the Albee Theatre in downtown Cincinnati, which sat on movie palace death row until 1977, the same year we left the St. George? Several things rescued from the Albee happen to survive in Columbus, just a few hours north. I have always meant to drive to Columbus and visit them, but meanwhile, here’s an excerpt from a letter to the Cincinnati Enquirer, dated November 19, 1978:
“It is not surprising that a lifelong Cincinnatian should have the I’ve-been-here-before feeling when he, for the first time, steps through the heavy, ornate brass doors of Ohio’s official theater in Columbus.
It is called Ohio Theater and is located directly south and across the street from the Capitol building. The feeling of familiarity is bona fide. Those beautiful doors once graced Cincinnati’s late, lamented Albee Theater, which was zapped from Fountain Square in the name of progress. Additionally, inside near the doors are two heavy brass “ticket posts” in which ticket-takers place stubs. Those too came from the Albee. There is more. In the upstairs foyer are two ornate, wrought-iron benches with brilliant red velvet seats — also from Cincinnati’s historical show house.
“All of those things came here from Cincinnati after the last showing at the Albee,” explained Don Streibig, the busy and vigorous manager of the Columbus theater.
Life goes on, but theaters are eternal.
An earlier version of this piece appeared two years ago, before the Pandemic. Theaters really are eternal, as all of the theaters mentioned in this post are still standing, waiting to be filled again.