FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The World’s Weirdest Pipe Organ?

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: themaj@pacific.net

 

 

Your Ad Here
 

 

 

 

More articles by:

MARK SCARAMELLA is the Managing Editor of the Anderson Valley Advertiser in Mendocino County, California. (www.theava.com). He can be reached at themaj@pacific.net.

August 16, 2018
Bruce E. Levine
“Don’t Be Stupid, Be a Smarty”: Why Anti-Authoritarian Doctors Are So Rare
W. T. Whitney
New Facebook Alliance Endangers Access to News about Latin America
Ramzy Baroud
Mission Accomplished: Why Solidarity Boats to Gaza Succeed Despite Failing to Break the Siege
Larry Atkins
Why Parkland Students, Not Trump, Deserve the Nobel Peace Prize
William Hartung
Donald Trump, Gunrunner for Hire
Yves Engler
Will Trudeau Stand Up to Mohammad bin Salman?
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Morality Tales in US Public Life?
Vijay Prashad
Samir Amin: Death of a Marxist
Binoy Kampmark
Boris Johnson and the Exploding Burka
Eric Toussaint
Nicaragua: The Evolution of the Government of President Daniel Ortega Since 2007 
Adolf Alzuphar
Days of Sagebrush, Nights of Jasmine in LA
Robert J. Burrowes
A Last Ditch Strategy to Fight for Human Survival
August 15, 2018
Jason Hirthler
Russiagate and the Men with Glass Eyes
Paul Street
Omarosa’s Book Tour vs. Forty More Murdered Yemeni Children
Charles Pierson
Is Bankruptcy in Your Future?
George Ochenski
The Absolute Futility of ‘Global Dominance’ in the 21st Century
Gary Olson
Are We Governed by Secondary Psychopaths
Fred Guerin
On News, Fake News and Donald Trump
Arshad Khan
A Rip Van Winkle President Sleeps as Proof of Man’s Hand in Climate Change Multiplies and Disasters Strike
P. Sainath
The Unsung Heroism of Hausabai
Georgina Downs
Landmark Glyphosate Cancer Ruling Sets a Precedent for All Those Affected by Crop Poisons
Rev. William Alberts
United We Kneel, Divided We Stand
Chris Gilbert
How to Reactivate Chavismo
Kim C. Domenico
A Coffeehouse Hallucination: The Anti-American Dream Dream
August 14, 2018
Daniel Falcone
On Taking on the Mobilized Capitalist Class in Elections: an Interview With Noam Chomsky
Karl Grossman
Turning Space Into a War Zone
Jonah Raskin
“Fuck Wine Grapes, Fuck Wines”: the Coming Napafication of the World
Manuel García, Jr.
Climate Change Bites Big Business
Alberto Zuppi - Cesar Chelala
Argentina at a Crossroads
Chris Wright
On “Bullshit Jobs”
Rosita A. Sweetman
Dear Jorge: On the Pope’s Visit to Ireland
Binoy Kampmark
Authoritarian Revocations: Australia, Terrorism and Citizenship
Sara Johnson
The Incredible Benefits of Sagebrush and Juniper in the West
Martin Billheimer
White & Red Aunts, Capital Gains and Anarchy
Walter Clemens
Enough Already! Donald J. Trump Resignation Speech
August 13, 2018
Michael Colby
Migrant Injustice: Ben & Jerry’s Farmworker Exploitation
John Davis
California: Waging War on Wildfire
Alex Strauss
Chasing Shadows: Socialism Won’t Go Away Because It is Capitalism’s Antithesis 
Kathy Kelly
U.S. is Complicit in Child Slaughter in Yemen
Fran Shor
The Distemper of White Spite
Chad Hanson
We Know How to Protect Homes From Wildfires. Logging Isn’t the Way to Do It
Faisal Khan
Nawaz Sharif: Has Pakistan’s Houdini Finally Met his End?
Binoy Kampmark
Trump Versus Journalism: the Travails of Fourth Estate
Wim Laven
Honestly Looking at Family Values
Fred Gardner
Exploiting Styron’s Ghost
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail