Wearing Out Luggage Again

October and November have been a total whirlwind, but I am NOT complaining. It’s probably easiest to recap the past several weeks by location:

Champaign, IL

Virginia Theatre Champaign IL
The beautifully restored Virginia Theatre, Champaign, IL.

On Saturday, October 5th, Anthony Snitker and I traveled to Champaign, IL to perform a concert tribute to the late Warren York. Warren was a great friend to the theatre organ. Although his career was in water well drilling, he was a fine organist and technician, and an active member of many ATOS chapters and organ societies.

The concert itself took place at the newly restored Virginia Theatre. A beautiful movie house from 1921, it retains its original Wurlitzer theatre organ. The instrument started in 1921 as a 2/7, although Wurlitzer added a Tibia in 1924 (it didn’t have one originally), and two years ago, another two ranks were added: an Orchestral Oboe and an English Horn—both vintage Wurlitzer ranks. This 2/10 organ was rebuilt by the John-Paul Buzard Company, and to my knowledge, is their first restoration of a theatre organ. The organ sounds very nice in the room, although I’m not sure why it was necessary to gut the “wind” console in favor of magnetic stop actions. The original relay was also replaced with a Peterson system, which is a foreign system to most theatre organists (myself included). Nonetheless, it is a fine instrument that definitely proves how versatile and effective 2-manuals and 10-ranks can be in a large room.

The show was full of variety, including several selections with Anthony as vocalist, a silent comedy (Buster Keaton’s The Boat), and even an old-fashioned sing-a-long, which was even more fun due to a missing slide in The Beer Barrel Polka. As you might expect, improvisation played a key part in trying to save that!

Detroit, MI

Redford Theatre Detroit MI
The Redford Theatre, Detroit, MI.

On Saturday, October 19th, Nathan Wilcox and I drove to Detroit to do a video shoot for the “pitch trailer” for a new documentary we intend to produce about the theatre pipe organ. During our short time there, we were delighted to have full access to the Redford and Senate Theatres, thanks to the generosity of Motor City Theatre Organ Society, Detroit Theatre Organ Society, and organists Scott Smith and John Lauter. To read more about this project, as well as to view the trailer, click here.

New York, NY

Since I was performing in Greenwich, CT, just 40 minutes north of Manhattan, I figured a couple days in the ‘Big Apple’ beforehand should be on the agenda. My friend Harold Wright happened to be traveling to Upstate New York that week, so I convinced him to join me for a brief vacation in the city. Although it was a brief two days, we managed to visit with several friends, hear the NY Philharmonic perform Pictures at an Exhibition, eat at several fabulous restaurants, and even take a lengthy stroll through Central Park.

Greenwich, CT

Austin pipe organ christ church greenwich
The impressive Austin pipe organ at Christ Church Greenwich, Greenwich, CT.

After the brief visit to Manhattan, Harold and I drove to Greenwich, CT, where I had been engaged to accompany The Phantom of the Opera on a large Austin pipe organ at Christ Church Greenwich. After an afternoon of practice, the performance came, and the audience arrived in varying degrees of costume. From the Phantom himself to a man in drag as a nun, it was a fun crowd that was eager to socialize at the reception that followed. Their new (and accomplished) organist, Jonathan Ryan took us out for dinner and drinks later that evening, and we had a great time unwinding after a long day. Many thanks must go to my friend Simon Thomas Jacobs for introducing me to Jamie Hitel, Christ Church’s Director of Music, who invited me to perform the program.

The following day, Harold and I toured one of the Vanderbuilt mansions in Hyde Park, NY. Finished in 1897, the mansion was not by any means the largest I’ve seen, but certainly one of the most tasteful. It was particularly well laid-out, and the interiors were impeccably designed and remarkably intact. The mansion retains almost all of its original furnishings. Perhaps the most breathtaking aspect of the mansion is its location. It overlooks the Hudson River just a short distance north of FDR’s famous estate. We were lucky to catch the special 2-hour tour that went through parts of the house not usually included on public tours. It seems the mansion must have originally had a staff nearing the size of the fictional one on Downton Abbey! It’s quite a place.

Indianapolis, IN

Indiana Landmarks Center
The Indiana Landmarks Center, Indianapolis, IN.

Upon my return to Indianapolis, it was time to spend a couple days (and evenings) in my office, catching up on business matters and correspondence. This coincided with the rehearsal of my accompaniment to the Lon Chaney silent The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which I accompanied on Halloween at the Indiana Landmarks Center. This beautifully restored venue was an historic Methodist Church that was tastefully transformed into an events center and statewide office for Indiana Landmarks, an organization that advocates for and saves historic buildings and places. Like the Greenwich crowd, the audience attended in varying degrees of costume. Guests included the Statue of Liberty and a character or two from The Walking Dead. Since this performance coincided with the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s national conference in Indianapolis, a large percentage of the audience was visiting from out of town. The all seemed to enjoy hearing the romantic sounds of the Center’s 1892 Thomas Sanborn pipe organ.

Berkeley, CA

Berkeley Wurlitzer Organ
The 4/42 Wurlitzer in Berkeley Community Theatre, Berkeley, CA.

The morning after the silent film show at Indiana Landmarks, I awoke at 3:30am to catch a 6am flight to San Francisco, where my host Neal Wood was waiting for me at the airport. I stayed at his beautiful home on Twin Peaks in San Francisco, commuting to Berkeley to practice and perform on the spectacular 4/42 Wurlitzer organ installed at the 3,500-seat Berkeley Community Theatre. The organ is owned by the NorCal chapter of ATOS, who also presented the event. Unfortunately, due to ADA lawsuits, the auditorium is currently closed to the public, so it was a “members only” concert where attendees actually sat in chairs set up on the stage. The intimate setting was actually quite nice, and the auditorium made a neat backdrop. Since that organ speakers from the ceiling just above the proscenium arch, the sound on stage was great – perhaps better than further out in the house. That’s a matter of personal opinion, of course.

Castro Theatre Wurlitzer Organ
A photo from a late-night jam session at the Castro Theatre, San Francisco, CA.

During my time in the Bay Area, I was lucky enough to visit three other fine theatre organ installations. Kevin King has installed a jazzy 3/18 Wurlitzer in a brand new music studio behind his home in Walnut Creek. Dave Moreno recently installed a 3/15 Wurlitzer in an old masonic building, now called Hunter Hall, in Rio Vista. Lastly, I visited one of my favorite theatre organs out there, the 4/23 Wurlitzer in the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. A local group, led by house organist David Hegarty, wants to purchase the organ and significantly modify it with a 7-manual console, 300 added digital ranks, and who knows what else. Countless theatre organists have spoken out against their vision, and I agree it would be a sad day for theatre organs if their vision to “improve” one of the world’s finest Wurlitzers comes to fruition. The Castro Wurlitzer is one of the most used and widely visible theatre organ installations in the US, and I hope that an “angel” can save it from Mr. Hegarty’s plan. I have no personal animosity towards David, but I feel his entire proposal is seriously misguided.

The day after my concert at Berkeley, my friend Chris Nichols drove me over to Rocklin, CA, near Sacramento, to visit with Ed Stout, Dick Taylor, and Carol Zerbo. These fine folks have been friends and mentors for many years now, and it was exciting to see “what’s cooking” in Rocklin. Dick bought a nice building in downtown Rocklin that will become a music studio housing his recent acquisition: the historic 4/21 Wurlitzer from the radio studio of the Paramount Theatre on Times Square, New York, NY. While the organ needs a total restoration, the components are in good shape and Dick and Ed are known throughout the world for their high-quality restoration work. This is probably the most exciting theatre organ project underway in the US at the moment.

Stuart, FL

Allen Organ GW-IV
Close up of the GW-IV Allen Organ in Stuart, FL.

For Veterans Day, I performed a concert at a private residence in Stuart, FL. Marie Juriet-Beamish hosts a series of free concerts at her spacious home each year. Her late husband, Cal Juriet, was a theatre organ enthusiast and purchased a large Allen GW-IV digital theatre organ, complete with a console decorated to resemble the decoration on the famous San Francisco Fox Wurlitzer.

Over 100 people crammed into the home for the program, which included several patriotic selections in honor of Veterans Day. I would estimate that almost half of the audience had served in the armed forces in some capacity. Marie and her family were lovely hosts, and it was great to soak in some sun and warm weather before returning to the early stages of winter in Indiana. It was nice to meet and become friends with the family, as well as with John Near, a respected organist and author who recently relocated to the area. John showed me the area and helped with the hosting “duties,” and we had a great time talking shop about organs and music in general.

Back at home:

During this insane amount of travel, my web and marketing business has continued to grow. I hired two wonderful and talented new full-time employees, and I am amazed at the productivity and creativity of these two gentlemen. Anthony Snitker, my partner of over 5 years, took a big step and left his job as a banker with BMO Harris Bank to become the VP of Operations & Business Development, and Nathan Wilcox left the Acme Organ Institute to become our Cinematographer and DP. It’s good to know that even while I’m on the road, the business is in good hands. Of course, the good (and sometimes bad) part of modern technology is how work can be so mobile. I find myself working in airports, coffee shops, and taxis all over the country. At least once a week, I force myself to step away from the computer, turn off the phone, and spend a quite day with Anthony visiting a museum, going for a walk, and perhaps enjoying a fine meal with a good bottle of wine. There are plans for a European vacation on the horizon, and we simply cannot wait for an honest to goodness vacation, especially in such wonderful places.

I’ve probably rambled on long enough, and if you’ve made it to this point, I hope you enjoyed catching up with my life, and for those friends I haven’t kept in touch with lately, know that it’s nothing personal, I’ve just been a little busy!

All my best,

-Mark