A single instrument with an orchestra's worth of sound

August 22, 2007|By BOB MAGINNIS

When Michael Cosey was a young boy, his uncle, a Moller Organ retiree, played a record for him by George Wright, who Cosey calls "the greatest theater organist of all time."

Cosey, an organist at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Greensburg, explained that a theater organ is different from a classical organ because it has "different voicing."

It's relatively easy to get classical organ sound out of a theater organ, Cosey said, but the reverse is difficult, if not impossible. That's because theater organs were built to reproduce the sounds of an entire orchestra as an accompaniment to silent movies, he said.

According to American Theater Organ Society, the device was developed by the Wurlitzer Organ Co., based on the designs of English inventor Robert Hope-Jones.


Thousands were installed in U.S. movie theaters between 1915 and the late 1920s, when the first talking pictures were introduced, but the organ society says that fewer than 200 remain in their original theaters.

It's not an original, but The Maryland Theatre in Hagerstown has had one since 1991, Cosey said.

It is a three-manual, 14-rank Wurlitzer organ, a type that is no longer made. There was some restoration work done in 1991, but Cosey said the instrument is not now in playable condition.

Though he played it a recently as 1998, Cosey said that even then the list of "dead notes" filled two pages.

The organ needs to be completely restored, he said.

It won't be cheap. Estimates run from $80,000 to $100,000 and the list of items Cosey says must be done make the project sound less like a restoration and more like a rebuilding project.

"It just needs a lot of pipe work and the chest the pipes sit on has to be rebuilt. And then there's all the plumbing leading to the wind chamber," Cosey said.

If it sounds expensive, Cosey said it's because the job has to be done right this time, so there is not a lot of ongoing maintenance.

Much of the instrument will be computer-controlled, Cosey said, because a computer allows the restorer to eliminate a lot of wiring that would otherwise be needed.

To get the restoration accomplished, Cosey and others have formed the Maryland Theatre Organ Restoration Committee.

They've found a former Moller employee, Mark Cooley of Shippensburg, Pa., who Cosey said is willing to do the restoration work. Cooley could not be reached for this column.

So why, when there are so many other needs in the community, should residents support the restoration of an old organ?

"We just think it's very historically significant to the theater," Cosey said, adding that restoring it for use there would be "the most natural way of having it."

The Wurlitzer was originally built for a large skating rink in Chicago, but Cosey said that The Maryland Theatre had one like it years ago.

Cosey said Brian Sullivan, the theater's executive director, told the committee members that if they can raise as much as $40,000, they might be able to get grant money to cover the rest.

So far the group has raised $4,700 with a variety of small fundraisers. They will hold a used book sale to raise additional cash on Saturday, Sept. 8, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Maugansville Ruritan building.

Other plans include possibly bringing in an electric theater organ and doing a benefit concert with organist Dick Smith from Baltimore, who plays for the Phillips seafood restaurants.

"What I'm hoping for is just to open people's eyes," Cosey said.

As noted earlier, the American Theater Organ Society (ATOS) is devoted to the restoration and preservation of these instruments. Its Web site says ATOS has 5,000 members.

ATOS has an endowment fund that might be a source of funds for this project, or perhaps a few of its members have the deep pockets needed to bring this organ back to prime condition.

Here's my suggestion: Hold a reception at the theater, with recordings by master theater organist George Wright playing in the lobby. Once the guests hear what is possible, they might be persuaded to help out.

An annual concert series by theater organists might also draw ATOS members here, particularly if a few silent movies are playing at the same time.

If you can help, please send a check to The Maryland Theatre, Organ Restoration Committee, 21 S. Potomac St., Hagerstown, MD 21740.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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