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Year That Began Like a Dirge for San Diego’s Organist Ends in Joy
SAN DIEGO — On the best days, loyal fans say, it is possible to hear the thundering organ three miles away. Weighing nearly 100,000 pounds with more than 4,500 pipes, it is nearly the largest outdoor organ in the world.Devotees here puff up with pride at the unique features of the organ, which will turn 97 on New Year’s Eve. But perhaps nothing makes them prouder than the fact that their city is the only one left in America still paying for a civic organist. So this year, the birthday celebration comes with a huge sigh of relief.Facing serious budget deficits, San Diego officials considered eliminating the job, which had been on the city payroll for nearly a century. The city chips in about $30,000 toward the $56,000 salary of the organist, who plays free concerts each Sunday afternoon in Balboa Park, the sprawling space in the center of the city.Is the job a luxury? Carol Williams, the official organist for the last decade, says undoubtedly yes. But to her admirers, it is a luxury that would be silly to eliminate.“You feel kind of guilty because you know how much is being cut, but this is a moneymaker for the city,” said Ms. Williams, who each week tries to shed the organ of what she calls its “dowdy” image as she plays to a broad audience, typically in the hundreds.In the last decade, she has learned that while fugues that go on for 20 minutes may receive a standing ovation in concert halls, people in Balboa Park will simply get up and leave. “They seem to have a knack to do so just as I turn around to speak to the audience,” Ms. Williams said. “But really, I love knowing that many people would not be hearing an organ anywhere else.”On Christmas Day, a crowd packed the organ pavilion to listen to everything from Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus to a sing-along of “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night.” The young children were gripping their newly unwrapped presents, and the teenagers sported tank tops appropriate for the cloudless 75-degree weather.On most Sundays, organizers say, about a third of the listeners are tourists, including some music aficionados who travel just to see the organ, featured in the countless travel guides sold about the sunny beach city.Councilman Carl DeMaio does not dispute that the organ is a tourist attraction and treasured by locals. But, he said, the city needs to seriously consider what it pays for.“We’ve decimated our basic park services, we’ve cut a third of libraries, and our roads are literally falling apart,” Mr. DeMaio said, dismissing the notion that the $30,000 is just a tiny fraction of the city’s $1 billion operating budget.“Saying, ‘Well, it’s just a rounding error,’ that’s the government mentality,” he said. “Soon you have a lot of different rounding errors that add up to a lot of money.”Of the $250,000 budget to put on the Sunday concerts and a Monday night series in the summer, the Spreckels Organ Society, named for the sugar heir who gave the organ to the city as a gift before the Panama-California Exposition in 1915, collects about $30,000 from members and $42,000 from the city. It raises the rest through grants and other outside donations.Ross Porter, the administrator of the society, said he had not been surprised to be challenged this year, when “every penny is getting turned over twice.” But he was also not surprised when hundreds of supporters sent letters to the City Council and the local newspapers, saying the money was hardly different from the city’s subsidizing sports venues and development projects. And Ms. Williams, who has a doctorate from the Manhattan School of Music and is the first woman to hold the civic organist post, has built up a following that lines up to buy her CDs after shows.In the end, Ms. Williams’s contract was renewed for 10 years, and the society raised more money than it had in some time.“We’ve had some very lean years since 2000,” Mr. Porter said. “Our triumph this year was that we fought, which got us more attention, and that we won. We certainly didn’t take it lying down.”That competitive ferocity can be seen in other aspects of the organ’s operations. For years, it was considered the largest outdoor organ in the world, but the benefactors of an organ in Austria recently sent an e-mail notifying the Spreckels Organ Society that it had been outdone. Ms. Williams is not worried; her supporters promised to add another batch of pipes soon enough.This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:Correction: December 27, 2011An earlier version of this article attributed an erroneous distinction to the Balboa Park organ. It is among the world’s largest outdoor organs; it is not “nearly the largest in the world.”
Ms. Williams said. “But really, I love knowing that many people would not be hearing an organ anywhere else.”
QuoteMs. Williams said. “But really, I love knowing that many people would not be hearing an organ anywhere else.” San Diego councillors presumably recognise the value in being able to broadcast these dynamics in a public setting, in a way that recorded music even now struggles to imitate.
It sounds like a tuba, a saxophone, a violin, an English horn and even a bass drum.But for years, the grand pipe organ at the Pensacola Saenger Theatre has been quiet — hushed by hurricanes that damaged its thousand-plus pipes and years of neglect.Now, the Friends of the Saenger, the theater's fundraising group, is hoping to raise $330,000 to restore the 1925 Robert Morton Wonder organ to its former glory. When work is completed on the organ, its value could rise to $3 million, said Tom Helms, former Saenger organist and a renowned pipe organ builder who is leading the refurbishing effort."They couldn't have operated the Saenger Theatre in the early years without it," said Helms, 57, who has worked on pipe organs across the country. "It was such an integral part of everything that went on here."The organ has been part of the Saenger since its opening on April 2, 1925, and in its early years produced music and sound effects for silent films and accompanied vaudeville acts.The pipe organ is an instrument that produces sound by pushing wind through pipes by using a keyboard. The keyboard is part of the console, which includes foot pedals, pull stops and other pieces. The console is the most visible portion of the pipe organ — when it was played, it would often rise dramatically from the orchestra pit — but it is not the most important or the most expensive.That would be the wood and metal pipes that are built into the Saenger's walls — the organ was integrated into the theater's design.The current organ has about 1,700 pipes. When the work is completed, those pipes will be repaired or replaced, and about 1,700 new pipes will be added, doubling the pipe capacity and sound capabilities.Organ's originThe original console was destroyed in the 1980s, and a new one was built from scratch by Helms and Barcley Rhea, now deceased. It debuted with a performance of "The Phantom of the Opera" in 1985 with Helms at the console.In modern times, the pipe organ was used for various musical performances and by groups such as the Pensacola Children's Chorus during the annual Christmas performances.
Saenger officials believe that Allen Pote, founder of the Children's Chorus, was the last person to play it."Gosh, it must have been about 15 years ago," Pote said. "I was dressed up like Santa Claus and came out of the pit playing 'Here Comes Santa Claus.' I'm telling you, when it comes out of the floor, it's a real dramatic moment."At the time, the organ was owned by the local Theatre Organ Society, which had acquired it a decade earlier. Though the organ is built into the Saenger, Society officials were the ones who controlled access to it and were responsible for its upkeep.But as members aged and the society's numbers dwindled, the upkeep of the organ was forgotten."We had to quit using it," Pote said. "Dust and grime started getting in the pipes."Notes would shriek or not end when they were supposed to. The sound was fading."The hurricanes really hurt it," Helms said. "The roof leaked, and it rained on the pipe work. It would shriek and make all this noise. It was horrible."Fundraisers plannedFor years, the console sat in the basement of the Saenger, and the pipes were nearly forgotten.Early in the 2000s, the city — now owner of the theater — acquired ownership of the organ, but its refurbishing was put on hold to concentrate on the $15 million renovation campaign that increased the size of the theater and added modern sound features, new dressing rooms, new electrical and air-conditioning units and even new theater seats.Now is the time to rescue the organ, said Sherri Hemminghaus-Weeks, president emeritus of Friends of the Saenger."I feel like it's the final piece needed to bring the Saenger back," Weeks said. "It will be so awe-inspiring. It will be such an amazing enhancement to the community."Already, fundraisers are in the works. Jim Flournay, 61, is hosting an invitation-only party at his Palafox Place home to raise money for the organ. He'll bring big donors up to his second-story residence during an upcoming Mardi Gras parade to enjoy the festivities."I think we have a wonderful opportunity," Flournay said. "In my view, this will make the Saenger even better — the best it can be."Helms has been quietly preparing in recent years for the restoration. He made trips to New Orleans to pick up gold leaf for the console and is purchasing quality organ pipes from across the country."I'm very excited," Helms said. "We're cleaning pipes, adding new pipes. Some will be vintage from theaters that have been torn down."He's already purchased some pipes that were part of the pipe organ that was once used in the Haunted Mansion attraction at Disney World."Disney is in our veins," he said.
Kingston musician ready to give organ a Wurl
THE stunning Wurlitzer pipe organ at Kingston City Hall now has a dedicated organist.Scott Harrison has been appointed organist for the Wurlitzer Theatre Pipe Organ at the city hall.Mr Harrison will be the key musician for the community’s rare asset, performing at events such as the Australia Day breakfast, citizenship ceremonies and other council events.Mr Harrison said he was honoured by the appointment.“We at Kingston have such a rare and unique musical treasure with the Wurlitzer and I feel very privileged to be presenting it to the public on a regular basis,” he said.
I like the idea of theatre organs having proper diapason choruses. I just hope they don't revoice it all so it sounds like one of these cobbled-together pizza organs...