As a young boy, around 1947, I first experienced a
theatre organ — a 3/10 Special Style H Wurlitzer in the Castle Theatre at
Vancouver, Washington. My uncle produced and MC’d a Saturday morning
kid show that included cartoons, serial movies, sing-alongs, along with
other song and dance acts, all presented by school age kids. On the
frequent occasions I visited my grandmother in Vancouver, early Saturday
mornings I would walk to the Castle with my uncle.
We would open the
doors, go backstage and turn on the lights, and fire the furnace. Then
I would get to uncover the organ console and start the blower. My
uncle let me play around with the organ, with all its colorful stop tabs,
until auditions began. I couldn’t play a note but it didn’t matter.
The sounds totally fascinated me and I wondered what made them. When
the show began I always sat in the front row, just behind the organist, and
marveled at that sound. Oh, that sound! But soon after
Portland’s first television station went on the air in 1952, it all ended.
Kids stayed home and watched cartoons on TV.
Always having been interested in all things mechanical and electrical, I started buying amplifiers and other related electronics in kit form from Heath (HeathKit), Knight and Eico—with money I earned delivering newspapers. I didn’t know it then, but this was the beginning of the elaborate audio/video system I have today. Starting high school in 1955, I immediately joined the stage crew as the only freshman. That year at Christmas, an upper classman hosted a party for the stage crew. He had just built a new Karlson speaker enclosure from a kit and was proudly showing it off. His demonstration music was “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” from George Wright’s second LP on the Hi-Fi label. That instantly brought back all those memories from the Castle Theatre.
A few days later while eating dinner, my dad asked about the stage crew Christmas party, and I recalled hearing the organ recording. My dad said he knew the man who bought the Castle organ and installed it in his home. I asked if there was any way I could see the organ? My dad said he would make a phone call, but it was a little awkward because the man was a business competitor.
Arrangements were made and I finally
got to meet the man, and see and hear the organ again. That man was
the late Bob Rickett. After finally getting to see for myself what
made all those wonderful sounds, he invited me to come to his home on any
weekend, because he and other local theatre organ enthusiasts were always
working on the organ—enlarging it to 18 ranks. It was Bob Rickett who
taught me the fundamentals of pipe organ construction, and particularly,
Wurlitzer construction. I learned reed voicing basics from a friend of
Bob’s, a southern California gentleman by the name of Harvey Heck, who often
visited Portland. The most profound thing he taught me, when curving a
reed tongue, was to stop before you think you’ve gone far enough. I
learned a lot more from studying Noel A. Bonavia-Hunt’s book, The Organ Reed
– The Voicing and Use of Reed Pipes, and The Mechanical Properties of Reed
I soon learned Portland still had three remaining theatres with organs — all Wurlitzers. They were the Paramount 4/20, Oriental 3/13, and Liberty 4/33. Starting with the biggest, I tried to get permission to renovate and play the Liberty instrument. The theatre manager took one look at my pimply face, and said “no way” would he allow me to get near the organ. Not to be
discouraged, I walked up Broadway to the Paramount Theatre and tried again — with much better luck this time. It was October 1958, and the Paramount’s manager allowed me to practice my feeble playing skills Saturday mornings, and I eventually gained the trust of a stagehand who unlocked the chamber doors so I could clear a cipher. In further trips to the chambers I started cleaning and replacing dead magnets by robbing good magnets from the pedal and accompaniment pizzicato relays. By 1959, my confidence grew enough that I began repairing water damaged chests and changing wind lines to remove pedal offset
from tremulated wind. The organ was horribly buried by heavy drapes,
thoroughly impregnated with years of dust. Hearing that George Wright
did the same thing at the San Francisco Fox Theatre, I pulled the drapes
aside, leaving only a thin scrim to conceal the shutters. The organ suddenly
came to life like never before!
The Oriental Theatre had been closed for some years as a movie theatre but was available for rentals. I paid $2.00 per hour to practice on its Wurlitzer. As management got to know me better, they permitted me access to the chambers so I could fix ciphers and tune wild notes. Later, as trust built, they asked if I would be willing to be on site during an upcoming, one-night rental. They wanted to be sure everything was OK for the rental and that the theatre was locked and secured after the event concluded. I jumped at the offer and soon after performed this service frequently, and was given a key to the theatre. Wow—my own key. Now I could come and go as often as I wanted, to play and work on the organ. I began to think of it as my own, and dreamed it really would be mine someday.
I often asked the Oriental’s owner if he would sell the organ. He always said no, that he wanted to keep the theatre intact along with its adjoining office building. By an informal gentlemen’s agreement, he did say I could have the first right of refusal, if he ever did decided to sell the organ, independent of the building.
I was 20 years old, and because I continued to help Bob Rickett, he rewarded me with an offer to accompany him and the late Dick Chase to the second of George Wright’s midnight concerts at the San Francisco Fox Theatre. Now that was a real organ! Its English Post Horn barked out over the whole organ, and I had never heard such a wailing Tibia, as the one in the Fox’s solo chamber. I thought it was the organ’s 25” Orchestral Chamber Tibia but years later learned it was really a Robert-Morton Muted Horn, which George exchanged for the Fox’s Solo Chamber Tibia. At the conclusion of that concert I met George, and it was the beginning of a great friendship that continued until his death.
I bought all of George Wright’s recordings as soon as they
were released. I was particularly impressed with the sound of his
studio installation in Pasadena, California. Its clarity of tone
was outstanding to my
ears–particularly the pedal. In July, 1968 I had the opportunity to
visit the studio with George and saw his unenclosed 8’ Pedal Tibia. He
opined that the 8’ pitch in the pedal line was the most important, in
theatre organ playing.
Through my early 20’s I did a lot of organ repair and maintenance work on several Portland area church organs, both pipe and electronic, as well as the Wurlitzers in the Scottish Rite Temple, Oaks Park Roller Rink, Imperial Roller Rink, and of course, the Paramount and Oriental Theatres. The Liberty Theatre Wurlitzer was already gone, having been removed in 1959 when the theatre was razed. I lived and breathed organs, no matter whether I was
one for pay or helping other local organ enthu-siasts with their own home
installations, just for the fun of it.
Word had gotten around that I raised wind pressures on the Oriental Wurlitzer and ruined an otherwise perfectly good organ. I was particularly reviled by the late Glenn Shelley (who first played the organ on the theatre’s opening night December 31, 1927) and Harry Caruthers, whose father, Joseph, came to the United States with Robert Hope-Jones. I did this to compensate for the lack of brilliance caused by the tone chute and ceiling dome the organ had to speak through. Never forgetting the authority with which the San Francisco Fox English Post Horn spoke, I increased the Oriental’s to 25” by adding a 5-hp blower in tandem with the original 7 ½-hp unit .