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'Wilma' the pipe organ blasts sounds from the past at the New York State Fair

Started by KB7DQH, September 20, 2012, 01:05:03 AM

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QuoteFor 42 years, "Wilma" anchored the famous RKO Keith Theatre in downtown Syracuse, an icon to a city in its heyday. When her 16-foot tall pipes hit a full chorus, one can almost feel the Roaring Twenties coming alive.

"It's a wonderful opportunity, an honor just to play," said Harvyn Tarkmeel, a retired engineer who helps keep Wilma — the fully-restored, original Wurltizer Hope Jones Unit Orchestra pipe organ — making music at the New York State Fair. "We consider this to be one of the best-kept secrets in all of New York."

Throughout the fair, folks will often find Tarkmeel or a colleague filling the Empire State Theater in the Art and Home Center with sounds from the distant past.

Several times, Wilma has faced a silent obsolescence. The first time came after Auburn-based inventor Theodore Case incorporated sound into film, killing the silent movie industry. Next came the Hammond organ, which replaced the giant Wurtlitzer machines, and then the synthesizers that recreated entire orchestral sounds. Today, a smart phone can produce more noises than Wilma, whose sound-making system requires the space of a three-car garage.

But the impact is not the same.

2012-08-20-sdc-nyfairorgan1.JPGStephen D. Cannerelli / The Post-StandardHarvyn Tarkmeel is an organist in the Empire Theatre at the New York State Fair. He plays a Wurlitzer Opus organ, affectionately called "Wilma." The 87-year-old pipe organ was restored and reinstalled at the NYS Fairgrounds in 1967.

When Tarkmeel presses a switch for "SLEIGH BELLS," he doesn't bring forth a recorded sound. His touch sends an electric impulse that causes actual sleigh bells to shake.

It's the same with castinets, the tamborine and xylophone — which is struck by a real mallet. Actual drums are beaten, and real sirens blared. When he presses "CLARINET," 61 pipes converge to create the instrument, rising up from three backstage chambers. The organ and theater are virtually inseparable.

"It can be quite loud," Tarkmeel said, with a smile. "If you would like, I will demonstrate."

He flicked a few switches. Behind the stage, dark vertical blinds fluttered open. He pressed on the keyboard. The theater erupted into one pure chord, loud enough to engulf the building. It was the same sound that Wilma would have made in 1925, the year it was shipped from the Wurlitzer factory in North Tonawanda.

"As far as we know, New York has the only fair in the country with a real theater organ installed on site," Tarkmeel said, then gave another blast.

The RKO Keith's, with its famous Italian marble columns and 5,000-bulb marquee, opened on South Salina Street in 1920. Within 20 years, as "talkies" redefined Hollywood, the giant Wurlitzer had become an afterthought.
2012-08-20-sdc-nyfairorgan3.JPGStephen D. Cannerelli / The Post-StandardTwo chamber rooms produce the sound from the pipe organ at the New York State Fair.

In 1963, with the Keith's theater struggling, the Syracuse community rallied to restore the organ. A 1965 organ concert drew 2,400 to the theater. It was too late. Two years later, Keith's was demolished to make way for a Sibley's department store. The organ was relocated to the Fairgrounds, where it became a staple of the annual fashion show.

In the early 1990s, fair officials sought to evict the organ. Supporters — then described in the Herald-Journal as "cultish" — fought for Wilma to stay. They won.

Every year, volunteers like Tarkmeel keep Wilma functioning, as in the beginning.

Tarkmeel, 69, has been playing the machine since 2004. A few years ago, he began calling it Wilma, after the wife of Fred Flintstone — a kindly presence from the deep past.

This year, members of the Empire State Theater Musical Instrument Museum hope Gov. Andrew Cuomo will stop at the Art and Home Center during his visit to the fair.

"I have no idea if Governor Cuomo even knows Wilma exists," Tarkmeel said. "I would love for him to hear it."

If Cuomo arrives during a show, Tarkmeel has a plan. He'll transition into "New York, New York" or maybe "I'll Take Manhattan," old songs that befit an old machine. But he might just throw in a wrinkle. He's been working on the 2009 hit by Jay-Z, "Empire State of Mind." It's not easy. Wilma has a button for train whistles, doorbells, ah-ooga-horns, even a human voice. But no switch says "RAP."

"I'll just try my best," Tarkmeel said.

So there you are... a Cinema organ installed at a fairgrounds ;D 8) 8) 8)

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