Dennis Hedberg
My Life with Theatre Organs and Disco
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I realized that if I was ever going to hear the Oriental Wurlitzer play again, I would need to consider a totally different kind of venue.  That, of course, was the “pipe organ in a pizza parlor” concept.  To go this route meant I would have to relinquish sole ownership of the organ.  I hated the idea but felt there was no other option.
Andy Crow frequently played a Rodgers Trio organ in a “greasy spoon” restaurant operated by Gerry Forchuk and his mother.  Gerry’s older brother, Paul, had owned various night clubs and restaurants, and was currently involved in building apartment complexes.  He was not opposed to getting back into the restaurant business under the right conditions.  Andy introduced me to the Forchuk brothers and we discussed the possibility of building an organ equipped pizza parlor in Portland, using my organ.  They were interested.  We visited several San Francisco area pizza installations, all of which seemed to be doing a good business, but were not much to look at. 

Organ Grinder Portland
The Organ Grinder under construction (1973)

Paul Forchuk was a clever business man with a flamboyant life style.  He was the kind of guy who could wear a white suit, fall into a pile of manure, and come out clean, smelling like a rose.  A good motto for Paul would be “if it is worth doing at all, it is worth doing to excess” – especially if you can do it with someone else’s money.  A pipe organ/pizza restaurant in Portland would have to be something far beyond what others had done.
The final decision was made to proceed and I sold Theda (as George Wright called the Oriental Wurlitzer) for the lofty sum of $10 and “other good and valuable consideration,” to Paul Forchuk & Associates.  I guess that made me an associate.  Thus, the Organ Grinder Restaurant was born. As word of the Organ Grinder’s construction and design circulated throughout the Portland restaurant establishment, critics said it would be a flash in the pan and never survive—once the gimmicky attraction of the organ wore off.  No pizza parlor had ever been built this large and expensive.  Restaurant experts said the organ’s three story high, 1,600 square feet of chamber space, and the long promenade patrons had to walk through before arriving at the cashier’s station, would result in too much non-income producing floor space relative to the size of the building.  The place just couldn’t be economically viable in the long term.

Organ Grinder Relay
Diode Matrix Rely - Portland Organ Grinder

Once the building’s construction was far enough along to begin installing the organ, I asked for help from the same folks whom I helped with their own home installations.  Everyone quickly responded because I think we all knew the Organ Grinder was going to be something special.
Relays with enough switches and contacts—for an organ the size of the Organ Grinder’s—would have been an enormous obstacle if it were not for the cooperation of my employer, the Rodgers Organ Co.  They agreed to sell me the necessary components to build, what would become, the world’s largest diode matrix pipe organ relay.  The relay was built in the garage of the Rodgers cable department supervisor.  The matrix requires two diodes per key per stop and at least one transistor for every magnet. That works out to be over 30,000 diodes.  Senior engineer, George Kirkwood, designed and built a 100amp, 15volt regulated power supply.  Initially the city’s electrical inspector wouldn’t approve it, but finally relented when we convinced him there was no UL approved substitute
Lyn Larsen played the first concert on the organ, as a featured artist at the 1973 ATOS National Convention.  We all found out, the hard way, that I didn’t have enough blower capacity to play the organ with big registrations—without stalling the tremulants.  At that time I didn’t completely understand the physics of blowers to realize that, when you rewind an 1150rpm motor to run at 1750rpm, the horsepower requirement increases as the cube of the speed change.  The motor was running nearly at full load even when nothing was being played.  The motor was so hot it couldn’t be touched with a naked hand and I feared it would fail before Lyn completed his performance.  Fortunately it didn’t.

Pizza Pete
Pizza Pete at Portland Organ Grinder (August 1979)

On September 27, 1973, one week after I had my wedding reception at the Organ Grinder, it opened its doors to the public – with 34 ranks playing, a new 60hp motor on the blower, and thousands of light bulbs, both throughout the building and on each note of the unenclosed percussions as they played.  It was an overnight success, packed to capacity every night, with sometimes an hour wait to get in the door.  Children were captivated with Pizza Pete, our mascot Capuchin monkey as he sat atop an antique, hand cranked street organ.  Our talented staff of musicians accompanied short silent film comedies every hour and Pizza Pete’s mechanical alter ego was proudly carried to his own stage next to the organ console to clap his cymbals as the organist played John Philip Sousa’s “Washington Post March.”  We were overwhelmed by its success.  Our most optimistic projections were exceeded, far beyond our belief.

Unfortunately, the kitchen was also overwhelmed.  We couldn’t make pizza dough fast enough with the equipment we had and had to resort to frozen pizza crusts, or skins, as we called them.  Frozen and other pre-formed skins were new and their recipes and manufacturing processes had not yet been perfected.  With the high volume, we couldn’t keep the pizza oven hot enough either.  As all pizza lovers know, a lousy crust makes a lousy pizza.  With the huge customer volume, it didn’t take long for the Organ Grinder to get an uncomplimentary reputation; you go there for the atmosphere and entertainment but don’t expect great pizza.  Eventually we had the right equipment in the kitchen and auxiliary gas burners in the oven to meet production demands.  Food quality improved, but people have long memories when it comes to a bad first impression of a restaurant’s food quality.  
The Organ Grinder was making money hand over fist.  Talk soon began of building more Organ Grinders.  Obviously, more Organ Grinders meant acquiring more organs.  I followed up on rumors saying the 4/26 Wurlitzer in Boston’s Metropolitan Theatre might be for sale and contacted the owner, Sack Theatres.  To my surprise they said the organ could be for sale and perhaps I would be interested in also buying the 3/20 Wurlitzer in their Savoy Theatre, originally known as the BF Keith Memorial Theatre.  They were emphatic that no deal was possible unless it included both organs. 

Boston Metropolitan Theatre - Damaged pipes
Damaged Pipes - Boston Metropolitan Theatre
(October 1973)

In October 1973, I went to Boston to inspect the instruments and found neither in playing condition.  The Metropolitan Theatre had been booking rock concerts, and at least at one of those concerts, some overly energetic fans broke into the Solo Chamber, walked through and crushed much of the Orchestral Oboe, Kinura, Krumet, and Solo Strings. They had forced open some shutter blades and promptly plopped their stoned-asses in the middle of the chest, grooving to some gawd-awful rock band.  The English Post Horn was also missing—but its 16’ octave was still there. The Brass Trumpet had been replaced with a Gottfried French Trumpet.
From there I walked a few blocks to the nearby Savoy Theatre.  It was the most beautiful theatre I had seen since the San Francisco Fox.  No wonder – they were both designed by the same architect – Thomas Lamb.  The organ wasn’t playable, but pretty much intact, other than either its Brass Trumpet or Saxophone was missing — I don’t remember which.  After returning home and discussing with my partners, we offered $45,000 for the two instruments—provided they would accept a non-refundable earnest money deposit with the balance to be paid when we removed the organs.  The offer was accepted.
While still a Rodgers Organ Co. employee, I couldn’t take enough time off work to remove the Metropolitan organ myself, so we contracted Gerry Duffy and the late Dr. Gordon Potter to remove, crate, and have it shipped to Portland in December, 1974.  I felt confident enough in the Organ Grinder’s future to resign my position at Rodgers Organ Co. in March, 1975, so I could devote all my time expanding the Organ Grinder to other locations.

The Granada Organ Loft Club in West Seattle had fallen on hard times and was disbanding.  Their 4/33 Wurlitzer, originally in Portland’s Liberty Theatre, had to be sold.  The Organ Grinder’s offer of $20,000 was accepted.  I did a lot of work on that organ in the years before the Organ Grinder was built and now, in July of 1975, I was back in Seattle dismantling and returning it to Portland.

Granada Organ Loft Piano
Inspecting the Granada Organ Loft Piano (July 1975)
Granada Organ Loft
Granada Organ Loft (June 1964)
Disconnecting Relay, Granada Organ Loft (July 1975)

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