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If Musical Patriot David Yearsley can write about the Great Pipe Organs of the World on a hard-hitting political website like CounterPunch, then we think we should be able to write about the weird ones.
No, I’m not talking about the pizza joints with caliopes and grand pianos playable from the organ console suspended from the pizza joint’s ceiling. No, I’m not talking about the professional organists who were so adept on the pedals that they could play two octaves of tibia pipes along one wall at the entrance of a pizza joint to entertainingly blow up the skirts of unsuspecting female patrons as they approached the order counter and then keep it up no matter which way the hapless victim tried to run, creating an impromptu oompah bass line.
And no, I’m not talking about delapidated old pipe organs in funeral homes, basements, concrete bunkers in backyards or even the few remaining old, abandoned silent movie theaters.
I’m talking about a very weird pipe organ I had the opportunity to play while in school in Fresno, California, in the mid-60s.
At the time, one of my many sidelines was as a piano tuner apprentice and semi-professional pianist/organist. When a friend invited me to visit his neighbor, a restorer of vintage band-organs (nickelodians on steroids), I couldn’t turn him down. The band organ restorer, Mr. Hayes McLaren, was a gifted carpenter and amateur musician who bought old band organs and restored them for sale to collectors and the occasional traveling carnival or merry-go-round.
Band organs (aka fairground organs) go way back to before the turn of the last century. They are loud, colorful boxes of air-driven horns and percussion instruments powered by compressed air and a paper roll — roughly similar to a player-piano — which routes the air to the blaring instruments and the pneumatic sticks which robotically thwack away at the drums and cymbals — especially the bass drum. When originally manufactured, band organs were used as the central musical accompaniments for merry-go-rounds and, in some cases, were coin-operated versions of what later became juke boxes.
But that’s got very little to do with what may be the world’s weirdest pipe organ.
Mr. McLaren, in turn, had a neighbor who, McLaren said, was building a pipe organ into his modest suburban tract house. When McLaren invited us over to the home of his friend, Fred, our curiosity was intense. How could you build a pipe organ “into” your house?
Upon arrival the jovial and portly Fred invited us into his kitchen where, squeezed between the clean white suburban fridge and stove was a large theater pipe organ console — complete with three-manual keyboard and the sweeping curved array of colorful organ stops (with which the organist chooses the sounds the organ plays).
Why, we naturally asked, was the organ console in the kitchen?
Simple, Fred explained: It was the only room in the house with four entrances.
Behind each door to the kitchen was a room full of organ pipes, from small ranks of diapasons and tibias, to horns, strings (very thin pipes which sound a little like strings when blown), and even a room full of percussion instruments — all playable from the console. There were even a few octaves of — I’m not kidding — tuned sleigh bells. (Fortunately Fred had not been able to acquire the octave and a half of tuned timpani that a few theater pipe organs had back in the 20s, although he had tried.) The living room had several ranks of pipes, the dining room had several more ranks of pipes, the laundry room most of the trap section, and the second bathroom had a few more pipes.
The pipes and percussion instruments were air-driven by a big fan in Fred’s basement with large air ducts coming up through the floor and into the chests which held the pipes and other pneumatic devices.
Each door to the kitchen had a specially clutched motorized opener that Fred had designed which allowed the organist to control the volume of the sound in the kitchen by opening and closing the kitchen doors with the four individual volume pedals in the organ console. As long as you were in the kitchen you could, more or less, get the full effect of an old-style classic theater pipe organ — if you used a bit of imagination.
Fred compounded the weirdness by where he got his organ pipes. While the console and the trap section had been obtained from an old Fresno theater that gave it to him just for removing it from the theater, most of the pipes were scavenged from local funeral homes which were switching over from pipe organs to electronic organs. They were not well matched and hard to tune.
Fred wasn’t a very good organist either. When Fred proudly played his clanky contraption it sounded something like a cross between an out-of-tune skating rink in Kansas and a marching band of rejects from Guy Lombardo’s back-up orchestra who made up for their lack of skill with greater volume.
If you know what I mean.
In addition, the doors weren’t very effective as volume control devices. When the doors were closed the sound coming from the pipes in the other room was somewhat muffled. But when the doors were opened just a crack, the volume increased quite noticeably. Fred admitted that the door-as-volume-control experiment had a few bugs that he wasn’t quite sure how to iron out.
Another complication was that Fred’s family — his wife and two teenage sons — lived in the house and more or less tolerated his odd hobby, trying as best they could to go on living in a house that had been taken over by Fred’s organ obsession. To his credit, Fred, an master auto mechanic by trade, had figured out a way to design the kitchen door motor/clutches to be opened and closed by his wife and kids when necessary and then automatically return to their desired volume control position.
My friend and I each took our opportunities to try out a few of our favorite production numbers of the day on Fred’s house organ. Let’s just say that “Everything” wasn’t “Coming Up Roses.”
Nevertheless visiting Fred and his crazy musical contraption was an unforgettable experience. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the entire affair was the seeming nonchalance of Fred’s family who seemed to think very little of their patriarch’s eccentricity, living their lives around Fred’s unignorable hobby almost as if he was a humble baseball card collector.
MARK SCARAMELLA is the managing editor of the Anderson Valley Advertiser. He can be reached at: email@example.com