By the time you read this, one of several things will have happened in these “United" States. Perhaps, it’s changeover day — as it was, every Wednesday morning at the movie palace I helped to run in 1976, and to which this blog is perpetually dedicated. Film canisters for the outgoing movie were ready in the lobby for National Screen Service to pick up, exchanged for the new feature. Perhaps, on the other hand, the fates have chosen to keep the current nationally-distributed presidential feature for another (interminable--in my opinion) four years.... Yet a third, anxiety-producing possibility, is that we don’t know what movie will be showing on Pennsylvania Avenue!!! In any case, it seems fitting to offer a reprise of the post I ran Wednesday, November 8, 2016, just four years ago. I observed at that juncture,” Standing now on the other side of what has been a momentous national divide... What could be more American (or soothing?) than grand old theater organs?” Life goes on, let the music play.
Amateur archaeologists that we were, and brief as our stay was, we never ran out of things to discover in our movie palace. A half-level beneath the St George Theatre stage, a group of us discovered a cramped area Dean likened to the “under-gun deck” of a frigate ship. Low-ceilinged, crowded, musty, and full of junk, it seemed to be some kind of pit. "Over here," a friend called, gesturing with a flashlight. I could just make out the word ELEVATOR and a set of what appeared to be controls, below which lay a hydraulic mechanism riveted to the floor. An elevator? To where? Hell?
“It’s not very deep,” Dean observed. “There’s only one way, and that’s up!
But nothing is stored down here,” he pointed out, “that anyone would want on-stage. What’s it for?”
Having just read a little way into the movie palace enthusiast’s scouting manual, The Best Remaining Seats, I thought I had the answer, “It’s for the organ,” I said.
The St. George had once had a pipe organ, a 3/30 (3 manual, 30 rank) Wurlitzer which, like other organs of the era, rose from the depths on an elevated platform, stage right (left, as you face the proscenium). I recalled hearing something about a sale a few years back, when the owner of the building — our landlord with whom we’d already begun to have issues — got quick cash for a number of items — lamps, rugs and what-not. The Wurlitzer (1929 cost: $25,000.00) was probably the last to go. Silent since 1935 — when its last full-time organist, Andy Anderson, was fired to trim theater expenses — its new destination, according to local sources, had been Pipe Organ Pizza (see the menu above) in Memorial City, Houston, Texas, where it entertained pizza-eating patrons for at least a decade.
Eventually the pizza joint itself became an object of reverie, evoking this nostalgic query on a website of historic interest to Houstonians: Does anyone remember the pipe organ pizza at memorial city mall? It had the huge pipe organ and the 20's and 30's theme inside with pictures of all the old movie stars on the walls.
It becomes impossible to trace the whereabouts of our Wurlitzer at this point. Like an aging Chevy in a junkyard, it may have been sold for parts, cannibalized to keep several other pipe organs going, a sad ending, far from home.
With the theater’s exquisite acoustics, I can only imagine what all those pipes would have done to the place.
Whenever it’s safe to travel again, try a journey to Suffern, New York, to the Lafayette Theater, to take in a flick and listen to Wurlitzer Opus 2095 installed there by the American Theater Organ Society. Although the Wurlitzer at the Lafayette isn’t the original house organ (removed in 1933 to accommodate an “air cooling system”), the organ currently residing in the Lafayette has a venerable history. It began its travels from its original home, the Lawler Theatre in Greenfield, Massachusetts, to the Rainbow Roller Rink in South Deerfield, Mass. Then it journeyed on to a New York City Duplex owned by a noted theater historian, Ben M. Hall (the author, coincidentally of the previously-mentioned and much-revered tome, The Best Remaining Seats). It remained at his home until his death some three years later, passing at that point safely into the hands of the American Theater Organ Society, which Hall, BTW, founded. Traveling briefly to California, ostensibly to become part of a museum on the estate of Harold Lloyd, it returned back to New York City--that gig having fallen through. Some time after that, you may have heard it, if you went to the Carnegie Hall Cinema during its decade in that tiny (no longer extant) theater. It enjoyed a few years in storage, then came out of retirement in 1992, to what may be its permanent home in the restored Lafayette Theatre — where it has entertained weekend audiences ever since, or at least did so before the Pandemic, and hopefully will again. Such are the life and travels of a theater organ lucky enough not to be cannibalized.
If you ignored the link above for the American Theatre Organ Society, click on it, and find a list of live sound links to theater organ music in a variety of places, mostly movie palaces. Wish I’d seen the Nosferatu link currently listed, while it was still Halloween Eve...