News & Features » Miscellany

A graying generation of loving caretakers wonders what will happen to Richmond's grand old theater organs.

Pipe Dreams


The aging film star lives upstairs, far above the rows of seats and the glittering chandelier. Bill Enos knows the way.

He steps behind the stage curtain and into the wings. He trudges up the flights of dusty metal stairs, past crumbling plaster walls.

Finally he reaches a door at the top, pushes it open and steps in. It's a smallish room, perhaps 8 feet by 10. Across the room another door leads out. A fan whirs. A pot of leather glue is liquefying on a burner, filling the room with its heavy smell.

"Show business is all the same," Enos observes. "It's never pretty behind the scenes."

He opens the next door, and there she is. Ranks of wooden, rectangular boxes and metal pipes — ranging from pencil-sized whistles to booming bassoons — fill the floor and soar toward the cracked ceiling 12 feet above.

Enos points through the openings in what seems to be an enormous set of wooden vertical blinds, toward the auditorium seats far below.

"I wonder how many of them know what the organ sounds like up here where the sound's made," he says with a smile. "When this thing is being played, there's no music in here. It's painfully loud."

Enos is in this room a lot — and in the other rooms like it that hold the rest of the organ's 17 sets of pipes and the twisted ganglia of its electrical connections — and not just because he's a part-time projectionist at the Byrd Theater.

He's the latest in a long line of the Byrd's pipe organ's caretakers, who for 70 years have patched its cracks, mended its breaks, eased its arthritic joints.

"Taking care of it is a labor of love, I guess," Enos says as he carefully picks his way through the crowded pipes. "You know, I don't do this as part of my job — I do this off the clock. I love the instrument. It's 70 years old, and it's amazing that it's in as good a shape as it is."

Enos is 55 and has been a lover of theater organs since he was a teen-ager. After years of working as an office-machine repairman he started doing odd jobs at the Byrd. In time, he took over the care of the organ.

Before Enos was Lin Lunde, the Byrd's longtime organist; before him was Tommy Landrum; before him was Terry Warner. And so on through the decades, all of them volunteers.

"There's always been someone who cared," Enos says. "You just hope and pray that you're not the last one."

But he worries about what will happen when he can no longer clamber the stairs, he adds. He's already had one heart attack.

"[Current organist] Bob Gulledge is about 10 years younger than me, so I guess he can keep going for a while," Enos says. "After that, who knows? I guess there isn't anybody."

There are perhaps 250 theater organs in the United States. Those that are playable are kept alive by a handful of aging volunteers.

The instruments need regular tending — small things, mostly, like finding a loose electrical connection or mending a tear in the leather.

"The theater organs really survive on the love and goodwill of people who are willing to take care of them," says hand-tool salesman Bob Gulledge, a resident of Hampton Roads who on weekends is the Byrd's organist.

Why do people go to the trouble? "Why does a guy love an old car?" Gulledge responds. "They just fall in love with it."

Besides, says Fred Berger, who helped restore the organ at the Carpenter Center and is part of the trio who keep it maintained, "Volunteering is the only way the work is going to get done. ... I guess you start thinking, 'If I don't do it, who will?'"

But taking care of them takes at least a couple of hours a week, and major repairs can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars. And few theater owners who inherit an organ are willing to spend money on something that is at best a luxury.

In short, the nation's shrinking number of theater organs are at risk of going silent.

While the theater organ has its fans — the American Theatre Organ Society has 5,300 registered members — it's in a difficult situation.

It's too old-fashioned to attract many young people. Membership in the national theater-organ society is graying and dwindling, despite efforts to interest younger members.

Meanwhile, the instruments are too flashy to appeal to the enormous number of church-organ fans, many of whom find it difficult to take seriously an organ equipped with a bass drum and an ah-oogah car horn.

"Many of the academic and the church community look down their noses at theater organs and at theater-organ people," says Harry Heth of Houston, Texas, who stepped down as president of the American Theatre Organ Society in September. "You don't play Bach on it all the time."

(That's not, however, the official position of the Organ Historical Society, a nationwide church-organ group based in Richmond. The society has presented theater-organ concerts and sells CDs of theater-organ music.)

Sometimes, Byrd organist Gulledge says, classical-organ students beg him for a chance to play the Byrd's Wurlitzer. But after he lets them, Gulledge adds with disdain, they plead with him to tell no one.

"They're scared to death someone will find out," Gulledge says.

To its fans, the theater organ's appeal is complex. Some like the instrument's gadgetry, which is as intricate as any Rube Goldberg device. Others love its tone, which can range from delicate flutes to chest-rattling chords that can drown out an orchestra. Most love the way its music calls up the past.

The pipe organ is the loudest non-amplified instrument. That's mostly the result of its size — the Byrd's pipes, for example, fill three rooms — and of the air pressure used to power them.

Typically, a 15-horsepower engine pumps an organ's air chambers, the equivalent of 11,000 watts — 100 times the strength of a powerful guitar amplifier.

The organs are complex things, using a network of electrical connections to knit together an intricate keyboard console, a series of pipes and sound effects and the pressurized air that powers them.

"It's an incredible machine," says David Barnett, who loves the instruments so much he spent about $25,000 to have one put in his house, though he doesn't know how to play it. "It's everything from springs to leather buttons to wires, all put together. It's ingenious."

It's not just the ingenuity of the things that attracts him, Barnett adds. "They definitely have a life; they seem to have a soul. I mean, no one would say they're alive. But you know how some people start thinking as if their cars were alive? They're like that."

For such a huge beast, the pipe organ can be delicate. It's made of wire, wood and leather. The bellows that hold pressurized air can dry out and crack; the wooden tubes can swell in excessive damp. Their miles of electrical wire, thinner than a human hair, can grow brittle or work loose from connections. And water — a bad ceiling leak will kill an organ like a cancer.

To stay in tune, theater organs must be kept within a narrow range of temperatures — the Byrd uses 10 heaters to keep its Wurlitzer around 89 degrees.

Like other American inventions such as burlesque and jazz, the theater organ has little to do with highbrow art and a lot to do with pleasing crowds of working people.

Once, the Wurlitzers sang everywhere in America. Every movie palace in the country had an organ to accompany silent films.

At first, theaters simply transplanted church organs. The organs weren't cheap, but they were a lot cheaper than hiring an orchestra and a lot more impressive than a pianist.

Nonetheless, those organs weren't ideal for accompanying films. Their organists couldn't easily switch between one tone — for a tense scene, for example — to another.

Then an Englishman named Robert Hope-Jones joined forces with the Rudolph Wurlitzer Co. of North Towanda, N.Y., and theater organs began to move away from the church and they became something more secular.

Hope-Jones' design innovations gave the organs more power and more sounds. They let the organist easily and quickly control hundreds of different tones in thousands of combinations. And the machines Wurlitzer built using his designs had a sweetly tremulous tone that was perfect for popular music.

Suddenly, with an organist playing along on the latest technological marvel, the movies burst to life. Airplanes buzzed, drums rattled, love themes swelled behind embracing couples.

In the instrument's heyday during the mid-1920s, about 2,000 theaters had them installed.

Then came sound movies. In 1928, the first Academy Award for a feature film went to "Wings," a silent picture. By the next year, silent movies essentially were dead. And with their death, the brief stardom of the theater organ was over.

Hope-Jones never saw it, though. In 1914, after a long series of battles with Wurlitzer managers over business dealings, he killed himself.

After the coming of sound, theater organs held on to a tenuous afterlife as entertainment between films. But slowly they faded away. Most fell silent. Many were dismantled and sold to pizza parlors or to collectors. Some were simply junked.

Currently, there are about 250 theater organs in the country. Three of them are in Richmond. One is at the Byrd Theatre; another is at the Carpenter Center; the third is at the Landmark Theater, formerly the Mosque.

All three organs are still in their original homes, apparently making Richmond unique, according to organ fans. During installation, the organs were designed and tuned to take full advantage of the theaters that bought them, so they sound best in the theaters they were born in.

Two of the city's theater organs are still playable. Until a year or so ago, all of them were. But the organ at the Landmark Theater was severely damaged during the theater's renovations when some workers left the blower motor running, mistakenly piled debris in its chambers and let water collect inside. The damage apparently wasn't noticed for months.

The Landmark's organ needs thousands of dollars worth of repairs. No one has found the money to do it yet.

Sometimes, though, an organ gains a second lease on life.

Nick Pitt says he always loved the organ — when he was a little boy he used to sit on the organ bench during his mother's choir practice. The power of the sound enthralled him.

Twenty-three years later, he bought an organ and started teaching himself to play it. He took a few lessons from Eddie Weaver, the legendary organist at Loew's Theater and at the Miller & Rhoads Tea Room, but because Pitt couldn't read music or play piano Weaver couldn't teach him much.

Still, when Weaver left Loew's in 1963 — apparently he felt underpaid — Pitt had learned to play the organ by ear well enough to take his place. Every weekend for the next seven years, Pitt played a set on Loew's theater organ between the 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. shows.

After Pitt left the Loew's gig, the organ fell into disuse. In 1974, the theater's owners donated it to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., which stored it in a warehouse near the center.

But the Kennedy Center has no organ chambers — the rooms dedicated to hold the instrument's pipes — and apparently its owners had no interest in building them. A few years after receiving it, the Kennedy Center sold the organ, and its new owner stashed it away in a warehouse in Arlington. After that, a doctor living in Texas bought the organ, had it hauled to a warehouse in Tennessee, then sent it to Texas, where he had some of the parts removed, and finally back to Tennessee.

Meanwhile, by 1983, the new owners of Loew's — then the Virginia Center for the Performing Arts and since renamed the Carpenter Center — decided that the theater's renovation wouldn't be complete without a theater organ.

Pitt, who worked as a mechanical engineer for Philip Morris, got drafted in the effort to rebuild an organ from New Jersey to be placed in the Carpenter Center.

Pitt was joined by fellow organ buff Fred Berger, an electrical engineer with Bell Atlantic, and Berger's co-worker John H. Johnson. The three — with help from a handful of other organ fans — worked to rebuild the New Jersey organ.

For five years, they worked almost every night at the center, refinishing the keyboard console, cleaning and repairing electrical connections, fixing pipes. They spent three months just redoing the thousands of wiring connections, something Berger compares to rewiring a mainframe computer.

Then something awful happened: They discovered that the inside of the wind chest — the large, closed box the organ's pipes sit upon — had at one point been soaked with water. It required a complete rebuilding, something that would take years longer.

As the crew agonized over this setback, they got a phone call from a warehouse owner in Tennessee. It seems the original organ from Loew's was sitting in the warehouse. Would they want it back?

It was a difficult decision. Getting the original organ would mean tossing away five years' work on the organ from New Jersey.

"That was the most difficult moment of the whole process," Berger says. "Should we start all over again, after all that work?"

Finally, they sent word to Tennessee: They wanted the organ.

When they drove to Tennessee and saw it, though, they were appalled. Mice had built nests in its console; its pipes were matted with straw and dirt; many of the gilt decorations were missing.

"It was stored in a barn, basically, for all those years," Berger says.

Repairing the organ would take a small fortune. Fortunately, they received one. A group of Carpenter Center supporters, the Muses, threw a fund-raiser that garnered $20,000 for the repair. And the Carpenter Center agreed to pay for the rest of the renovation.

The volunteers sent the organ's chest and pipes to a professional company to be reworked, at a cost of $75,000. Meanwhile, they moved the rest of the organ into Pitt's garage and started work.

They gutted its tangled nests of pneumatic tubing and in their place put in electronic connections; they found colored stop tabs to match those missing from the horseshoe-shaped console. They tore it apart and built it again.

In all, Berger figures, they put in 2,500 man-hours over 18 months.

Finally, in January 1992, the organ was ready. It was loaded onto a flatbed truck, and accompanied by a cavalcade of cars, slowly wound its way down Chamberlayne Avenue from Pitt's garage and to the Carpenter Center. After 18 years, it had returned to where it was born.

Ever since, Berger, Pitt and Johnson regularly have tinkered with the Carpenter Center's organ, doing what needs doing — cleaning, spending a day or so to tune it up. They have keys to the Carpenter Center and are given full access.

But they worry about what will happen to it once they're gone. Berger is 57; Pitt is 64; Johnson is 65.

"I don't remember silent movies — I'm not that old — but my mother did, and she talked all the time about how she loved the organ," Pitt says. "But younger people don't have that connection. It's sort of like World War II — you hear people say, 'Why was that such a big deal?' They don't know.

"As people die who remember that stuff, as the generations die off, the enthusiasm for the old things goes with them."

But every now and then, the three gray-haired men gather on a Sunday and go downtown. They'll let themselves into the darkened Carpenter Center through the building's back door.

They'll spend a couple of hours, sometimes all day, working with the organ and tracking down problems. Then Pitt will sit at the gilded console and send his fingers along the worn keys, and he'll play the old songs, the way he used to play them. And the others will sit in that grand, empty theater and listen to the pipes

Add a comment