“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.
To placate myself, I’m going to Suffern New York this winter, to the Lafayette Theatre to take in a flick and listen to Wurlitzer Opus 2095 installed there by the American Theater Organ Society. Although it 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. Traveling briefly to California, ostensibly to become part of a museum on the estate of Harold Lloyd, it returned back to New York City after that deal fell through. There you may have heard it if you went to the Carnegie Hall Cinema during its decade there. When the Cinema was twinned, it enjoyed a few years in storage, but came out of retirement in 1992, to what may be its permanent home in the newly restored Lafayette Theatre — where it has entertained weekend audiences ever since. Such are the life and travels of a theater organ lucky enough not to be cannibalized. Hats off to the American Theater Organ Society!
Afterthought 1: I have the vaguest memories of the theater organ that once graced my favorite childhood movie palace, the Albee Theatre, in downtown Cincinnati. It was a Mighty Wurlitzer, built for the silents, whose day was nearly done by the time the Albee opened in 1927. No problem, the Wurlitzer played on for special performances up into the sixties, when downtown stopped being the place to be and rumblings of demolition began. You guessed it, the Albee met its date with the architectural equivalent of the guillotine (a giant wrecker’s ball) in 1977, coincidentally the year after I went bust running another movie palace, the St. George Theatre, in New York. But the Albee’s organ suffered a better fate than the St. George’s instrument: removed prior to demolition, it spent a few benign years at Emery Theatre, thanks to the Ohio chapter of the ATOS, then recently, thanks to an anonymous donation, was rebuilt and re-installed in Cincinnati’s historic Music Hall, where it is doted on and lovingly played for concerts and other events. On a recent trip home to Cincy, I was lucky to be warmly received by Holly Brians, who could have got me involved in a tour of the organ, if I had had more time: here’s to next time! Meanwhile, hats off to Holly, Brett Stover, Ron Wehmeier and Scott Santangelo, each of whom is, in one way or another, involved in the Albee Organ’s post-millennial life, in its new Music Hall digs.
Afterthought 2: As you may have guessed, this post is a re-worked version of an earlier blog post; you can never write too much about theater organs. And why is it that Thanksgiving is just the right time for their warm round tones? Here’s a little taste of the Albee’s organ at Music Hall.