Of Anniversaries and Theatre Organs


It turns out that eight days ago was the four year anniversary of my starting this blog.  Happy belated birthday, blog.  Granted, I’ve been rather inconsistent with posting over those four years, usually only posting when I’m traveling or doing something that I think my 3 readers might find interesting.  And thus, I am posting today because I was traveling again, this time to North Tonawanda, NY.  It was well worth the trip.

During the summer I’ll often work for my dad, which is what brought us to North Tonawanda for a festival.  Normally on these sorts of trips we work all day, outside, selling our wares and then go and collapse and do it again the next day.  Today was a little different since it started out with thunderstorms and pouring rain i.e., not looking very good for festival weather.  We ended up taking refuge from the rain at the Riviera Theatre which was, blessedly, a short sprint from where we were.  Walking into this theater is like stepping back to 1926, to all the glitz and gilding of the age of the great movies palaces that once dotted the U.S.  What completed the scene was the sound of the Mighty Wurlitzer organ roaring from the auditorium.

It turns out that North Tonawanda was the home of Wurlitzer Pipe Organ Co., which manufactured all the grand theater organs in movie palaces across the country, and throughout the world.  The company ceased production of organs in 1946, but the organ at the Riviera miraculously remained.  It was a showpiece, a masterpiece of the Wuriltzer craft that almost went the way of the dodo many times when the wrecking ball threatened to destroy this landmark.  However, in 1989, after years of uncertainty, the theater was purchased by the Niagara Frontier Theatre Organ Society and has been restored to its current beautiful state.  The organ was also restored and continues to be lovingly cared for by the members of the N.F.T.O.S., who had opened the theater today and arranged for organists to come and play throughout the day.  And that’s where I met them.

This was the first time I’d heard a theater organ in person.  Those of you who know me know my organ geekery knows no bounds, however I had never actually heard a theater organ except on recordings.  So I had a little moment when I walked into the theater and heard the behemoth instrument playing popular tunes (circa 1930).  I had another little moment when one of the society members took me on a tour of the organ and the building.  And then I had heart palpitations when the organist paused between songs and asked if I’d like to play.  Now, for those of you who have sat at an organ console of a big church, it can be a bit confusing.  But I’m at home at them.  This one was different, delightfully different.  Elements were similar (keyboards, pistons, stop tabs, etc.), but putting them together was a challenge I was glad I had a coach for.

One of the "house organists" playing during the afternoon.

One of the “house organists” playing during the afternoon who so graciously let me play

The organ is, perhaps, one of the most frequently played theater organs in the country; the organ is used before each and every event, concert, and show at the theater as well as on Tuesdays and Saturdays by the organ society members.  Did I mention I was invited back to try it out again tomorrow?  Oh, yes.  That is happening, and it will be glorious.  Who knows, perhaps I’ll have to make another pilgrimage out here on a Saturday in the future to take advantage of their very kind invitation.

Suffice it to say, this was just one of those things.  One of those crazy things.  One of those bells that now and then rings, it was just one of those things.



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