Dennis Hedberg
My Life with Theatre Organs and Disco
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George Wright at Oriental Wurlitzer
George Wright at the Oriental Wurlitzer (1967)

Prior to George Wright’s first Portland concert May 21, 1967, he requested certain unification changes.  Complying with his requests, he was satisfied with the organ but suggested the Harmonic Tuba could be improved with more careful regulation, and the 15” Tibia Clausa could be made to sing more if I actually lowered its wind pressure and opened its toe holes.  With his keen ear, we accomplished these tasks and all was in readiness for his concert.  Knowing the criticism I’d received, George announced the critics were wrong and that he approved and liked the results of my work.  I felt vindicated.  I had satisfied George Wright—to hell with anyone who didn’t like it.
 
Not knowing when, or if, I would ever get the chance to buy the Oriental Wurlitzer, I started collecting components to assemble my own theatre organ.  As a prime example of how crazy I was (many would say I still am), my first purchase was the 32’ Diaphone octave from the Portland Liberty Theatre.  I bought it from the Granada Organ Loft Club in West Seattle in March 1965, for $50 cash and $200 in contributed organ work for the club.
 
Friend, organist, and teacher, Andy Crow, was giving lessons to the family of  Howard Vollum, co-founder of Tektronix and one of the original financial backers of the Rodgers Organ Co.  He had a large custom Rodgers organ in his home.  After a music lesson, Howard’s wife mentioned to Andy how much he liked the organ, and she wanted to surprise him with a real organ—a pipe organ—for his upcoming birthday.  Andy knew the Style 285 Wurlitzer in the San Francisco Paramount (Granada) Theatre was for sale, as the theatre was soon to be demolished.  Howard learned of the “surprise” and the question came up – if he were the successful bidder, who could dismantle the organ and bring it to Portland?  Andy Crow quickly recommended me as the person who could do it all

SF Paramount
Removing Xylophone, SF Paramount, (April 1965)

I met the Vollum family and was awarded the job, if their offer was accepted.  Howard’s offer of $14,000 was successful, and I had a job beginning in April 1965 that would last four years. It involved moving, releathering, installing, and enlarging the instrument with several low pressure ranks in a gymnasium size building, newly constructed on the Vollum estate.  I dedicated so much time to the Vollum instrument that I gave up all my church service work, but never took any time away from the Oriental, Paramount, and Oaks Park Wurlitzers.
 
I didn’t have too much to do with the Oaks Park Wurlitzer until Don Simmons became head organist there.  He had been playing at the Imperial Roller Rink on its composite William Woods 8-rank organ, combined with the 3/10 Wurlitzer that was originally installed in Portland’s Hollywood Theatre.  William Woods used Gottfried pipework in his instruments but his chests were cheap, fashioned after Marr & Colton. The Gottfried Clarinet sounded more like a clarinet than the Wurlitzer.  The Gottfried Kinura out-squawked the Wurlitzer and the huge-scale Tibia Clausa out-wailed the Wurlitzer 10” Tibia Clausa in the reverberant acoustic of the Imperial Roller Rink. To balance things a little better, I exchanged the 10” Wurlitzer Tibia Clausa from the Imperial with the slightly larger scaled 15” Foundation Tibia Clausa from the Vollum organ.  Both organs benefitted and their respective owners were satisfied.
 
Don Simmons really missed that super squawking Gottfried Kinura when he came to play at Oaks Park.  I had a large scale Robert-Morton Kinura that I believe came from the St. Francis Theatre, San Francisco.  I exchanged it with the Wurlitzer.  Everything seemed to be OK until the owner, Bob Bollinger, found out about it.  He was furious and demanded I immediately return the Wurlitzer Kinura.  The problem was that I had already sold it.  I needed to come up with a Wurlitzer Kinura, fast.  I knew (the late) Richard Raupach had one he bought for $10.  He wouldn’t sell it to me but would loan it.  But, to assure I returned the same Kinura, he scribed each pipe with his initials.

Pipe Study at Rodgers Organ Co
Pipe Study at Rodgers Organ Co

I knew if I put that Kinura back in the Oaks Wurlitzer I could never get it out again so I exchanged Raupach’s Kinura with the Paramount’s. To this day, it is the Paramount Kinura playing in the Oaks Park Wurlitzer.  As soon as another Wurlitzer Kinura became available, I put it in the Paramount and returned Raupach’s.

When we all agreed the Vollum organ had reached its goals and was as good as it was going to get, I would have been out of a job if Howard had not called Rodgers Jenkins (of the Rodgers Organ Co.) and suggested he hire me

Rodgers Organ Co Ad
Rodgers Organ Co. Ad

While working as a Custom Organ Engineer at Rodgers, the owner of the Oriental Theatre suddenly passed away.  His heirs had no sentimental attachment to the theatre and quickly sold it, with its adjoining office building, to a developer.  The developer planned to raze the theatre and replace it with a parking lotas an incentive to attract more tenants for the office building.  The heirs knew nothing of the gentleman’s agreement I had with the now deceased owner, Cleighton Weatherly.

By this time, the organ was well known, because of the many concerts presented by Andy Crow, George Wright, Gaylord Carter, and by serving as a major venue for both national and regional ATOS conventions.  Furthermore, Jonas Nordwall and I frequently played 15 minute intermission programs on Saturday nights at both the Oriental and Paramount.  (It didn’t take very long before everyone knew who was the more talented organist.)

Recording Oriental Theatre
Dennis & Howard recording Jonas at the Oriental Theatre (1969)
Oriental Theatre
Dennis & Stu Green examine the Oriental console (1966)
Oriental Theatre
Dennis performing at the Oriental

I was afraid I was going to lose my dream organ.  Being prominent Portland businessmen, both Howard Vollum and Bob Rickett contacted the new owner of the Oriental, whom they knew, and explained my situation.  Through their intercession I bought the Oriental Theatre Wurlitzer on January 7, 1970 for $6,000, without having to go through the emotional trauma of an open auction.  I often thought it ironic that if I had not made so many alterations to the organ, or put it the public’s eye by promoting concerts on it, I probably could have bought it for less.

Tibia Pipes
Carrying Tibia pipes out of the Oriental Wurlitzer

I was 28 years old, still living at home with my parents, and finally growing up enough to realize I would never have enough money to reinstall the Oriental Wurlitzer, and all the additions I planned for it, in a building like Howard Vollum’s.  The only solution was to somehow incorporate the organ into a business, and hope that the business would generate enough cash-flow to pay expenses.  With that idea in mind, and the help of my good friend (the late) Bill Peterson, we successfully bid on all the projection, sound equipment, and the popcorn/candy counter at the Oriental Theatre’s liquidation auction.  We secured a one year lease on the (closed) Colonial Theatre in North Portland.  The theatre had been stripped of all projection and sound equipment and its proscenium arch had been butchered.  With the help from a lot of friends we brought the Colonial Theatre back to life.  The plan was—if the theatre could generate enough income to pay for itself—we would try to buy or get a long term lease on the property. I would install the Oriental Wurlitzer in the theatre’s existing organ chambers (which at one time housed a small 2-manual Kimball) and across the stage behind the movie screen.  Bill would be the house manager and I, the projectionist.  Both he and I had daytime jobs, so we didn’t need to draw any salaries from the theatre business.

Oriental Wurlitzer
I can't believe it's finally mine (January 1970)

Rodgers Organ Co. had just finished building the second of its three “Wurlitzer-inspired” custom theatre organs.  Before the organ was shipped to its Omaha, Nebraska customer, Rodgers agreed to let me temporarily install it in the Colonial Theatre for a George Wright concert on December 6, 1970.  George was so impressed with Bill’s and my efforts to make a new home for the Oriental Wurlitzer, he waived his entire fee and said, “Let’s just call it my contribution.”

Unfortunately, the Colonial Theatre was never profitable.  At the end of our one year lease, we closed the doors and liquidated.  It was a sad day.

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