Dennis Hedberg
My Life with Theatre Organs and Disco
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32' Diaphones
Brightly colored 32' Diaphones

An accident occurred as I began installing the Denver instrument.  The first component to be erected was CCCC of the 32’ Diaphone.  As it was being hoisted into position the rigging broke sending the pipe crashing to the chamber floor.  No one was hurt but the upper half of its resonator splintered beyond salvation.  No problem.  I simply made a phone call to the manager of the Portland Organ Grinder and told him to look for the largest pipe he could find in the warehouse and send it to me immediately.  Hmmm… how many people would just happen to have a spare 32’ Diaphone rank lying around?  At its peak, that warehouse held nearly 200 ranks of (predominately Wurlitzer) pipework, chests and percussions.
I have always been fascinated by the 50” horizontal trumpet in New York City’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine.  I don’t know why.  I’ve never heard it live.  I thought - what fun it would be to voice the Denver Organ Grinder’s English Post Horn on 50” - just to see if I could do it.  I was in for a rude awakening.  While testing the blower in Portland I had sufficient static pressure—but in Denver’s high altitude, static pressure was much lower.  Coupled with further pressure drops as the organ’s wind demands increased, the best I could safely do was 35” for the English Post Horn.  It still had an unmistakable message.

Denver Organ Grinder
Denver Organ Grinder console

Denver Organ Grinder
A happy crowd at the Denver Organ Grinder

The Denver Organ Grinder opened in February, 1979 to the same kinds of crowds previously experienced at the Portland Organ Grinder and Earthquake Ethel’s.  For the next two to three years both Organ Grinders and Earthquake Ethel’s were making good money—but the good times were not to last forever.  It was like the gods of war were plotting the perfect storm against us. While still under construction, a disastrous fire destroyed an apartment complex in which Paul Forchuk had an interest.  The loss triggered lawsuits with a US Bank subsidiary and the legal bills began to mount.  Disco was falling out of favor and Earthquake Ethel’s business started dropping.  Some major tenants in the Denver Organ Grinder shopping center left, and the landlord failed to secure new ones.  Worst of all, there were allegations of cocaine use at the Denver Organ Grinder.  Kitchen equipment was mysteriously being sold out the back door to cover debts to the “bad guys” and there were frequent cash shortages.  Bills and taxes weren’t being paid and ultimately, the Denver Organ Grinder was forced to close and its assets were sold at a sheriff’s tax auction.
The Portland Organ Grinder’s business wasn’t what it had been ten years earlier, but was still the only entity with a positive cash-flow.  It was trying to support the other restaurants— but couldn’t keep it up forever.  I saw the handwriting on the wall.  The Portland Organ Grinder was in danger of being pulled under by Denver Organ Grinder and Earthquake Ethel’s.  Since all shareholders were personal guarantors on financial documents, I felt everything was in danger of bankruptcy, which meant me losing my home and the Portland Organ Grinder organ.
Once again, I turned to Howard Vollum for advice.  The Portland Organ Grinder was still a viable operation with an honest manager and loyal staff.  I felt it could continue that way, if it wasn’t encumbered by supporting the large administrative staff that Paul Forchuk maintained in his downtown office — not to mention his lifestyle.  I wanted to buy out the interest of all parties in the Portland Organ Grinder, and at the same time relinquish my interest in the Denver Organ Grinder and Earthquake Ethel’s— with an offer they couldn’t refuse.  That would take a lot of money I didn’t have.  As only a true friend would do, (the late) Howard Vollum trusted me enough to personally guarantee a $500,000 loan with US Bank.  The bank really couldn’t object—he was a member of its Board of Directors.

George Wright at Portland Organ Grinder
George Wright at the Portland Organ Grinder

Portland Organ Grinder
Portland Organ Grinder (Nov.1986)

On April 15, 1985 my wife and I became the sole owner/operators of the Portland Organ Grinder.  We formed a new corporation and named it after our newborn son, Jay.  To accomplish this, I paid Paul Forchuk $500,000 cash and assumed approximately $250,000 in other liabilities.  A huge price to be sure, but the Organ Grinder was everything to me. Overnight, I had to start “walking the walk” in earnest.  Publicity, human resources, purchasing, equipment and building maintenance — everything. It wasn’t just the organ any more.  Well, not quite everything—my wife kept track of the money and relentlessly pounded me whenever food or labor costs went above targets
For several years things were going pretty well.  Well enough to buy a new Steinway grand piano for our home, and even more audio/video components for my ever-growing sound system. 
In my continuing quest for theatre organ perfection, I often preached “a theatre organ could never be any better than its tremulants.”  To me, that meant not only that tremulants should be the correct speed and depth, but also maintain that speed and depth regardless of wind demand.  I spent a lot of time researching and experimenting, looking to identify and quantify the physical properties of such a tremulant.  My results were published in a thesis I wrote for the November/December 1987 issue of the THEATRE ORGAN JOURNAL, and demonstrated in a presentation I gave in July 1988 at the National Convention of ATOS, in Portland.
Since it was clear there would never be another Organ Grinder built, there was no need to keep the 6,000 square foot warehouse full of organ parts.  A sale was arranged, and within a few days the warehouse was empty.  Other than several items ending up in the Berkeley Community Theatre Wurlitzer, I have no idea what happened to it all.

The Oregonian - Organ Grinder 20th Anniversary

Location is everything to a restaurant.  In 1973, Southeast 82nd Avenue was the major north-south route on Portland’s east side.  When the Interstate-205 bridge over the Columbia River was completed in 1982, traffic patterns began changing dramatically.  It didn’t affect the Organ Grinder initially, but over time new businesses closer to I-205 sprang up.  New housing developments were plentiful farther south of Portland in Clackamas County, and they in turn spawned more new business and shopping opportunities.  Industry, high-tech industry in particular, was expanding along US 26 west of Portland.  Businesses near the Organ Grinder were closing.  Nothing positive was happening.  The whole area was becoming seedy.
In 1993 the Organ Grinder was 20 years old, and no longer a regional destination point.  The building needed a new roof.  The parking lot needed a new surface.  I couldn’t afford to do any of these very expensive things.  I just kept patching up everything as best I could.  The downward spiral began, and nothing I did could change its course.  By the end of 1995 I knew I was at the end of the road.  After 23 years, the Organ Grinder was going to close

I made some inquiries to see about the possibility of relocating to a more vibrant area of the city, but the cost wasn’t favorable and I couldn’t attract any investors.  If we had owned the real property, things might have been different. In the absence of that, we had little to bargain with – just an antique pipe organ and a bunch of 20+ year-old, fully depreciated restaurant equipment and fixtures.  After speaking with our attorney, we made the decision to close the Organ Grinder and liquidate its assets—while they still had value.  We knew that once the Organ Grinder closed, its greatest asset, the organ, would become its greatest liability.  There was no way I could shut down the business, pay off creditors, and still keep the organ.
In January of the following year, 1996, I began putting out feelers to see if anyone had any interest in buying the organ.  I knew it would take somebody with not only the interest, but with very deep pockets.  No one came forth, but several people were interested in certain parts.  After spending so much of my life, and spirit, acquiring all the parts and assembling the organ, there was no way I could gut it piece by piece.  Finally an acceptable offer came forth — it would take the organ, as a whole, off my hands but still part it out.
The Organ Grinder closed January 30, 1996.  Dismantlement of the organ began the next day.  At the end the organ contained 50 ranks, and 48 were playing.  I never got to finish the last two.  A day or two later, I happened to walk to the front of the restaurant just as the console was being loaded on a truck.  I couldn’t bear to watch anymore—I returned to my office and cried.  An auction later disposed of everything else I owned in the building.  On February 29, 1996, with my friend and most loyal employee, Paul Quarino, we handed over our building keys to the landlord’s representative.  We all shook hands, said nothing, and walked away.  It was over. 

From that day until recently, I didn’t want anything to do with a theatre organ.  It just hurt too much.  It seemed ironic that after spending so much of my life with theatre organs, nearly all that I was associated with were no longer extant.  Other than photographs, recordings, and memories, there was almost no tangible evidence I accomplished anything — or so I thought.

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