Text by Brad Hundt
Photos by Celeste Van Kirk
DORMONT – Oh, the stories that the grand old Wurlitzer organ that sits in the auditorium of Keystone Oaks High School could tell.
Its original home was the Prospect Theatre in Brooklyn, N.Y., where the Three Stooges are said to have honed their rough-and-tumble craft during the vaudeville era. One can only imagine the things that went on around it, the people who marveled at it, or the movies for which it provided accompaniment.
It spent years in mothballs after being removed from that New York movie house, the age of using pipe organs to accompany the pratfalls of Charlie Chaplin or the acrobatics of Errol Flynn having receded into history. But the Pittsburgh Area Theatre Organ Society (PATOS), which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2020, purchased the organ in 1974, extensively refurbished it, and plugged it back in for a sold-out performance in February 1978. It’s remained at Keystone Oaks High School ever since, the pipes that give the organ its imposing sound looming on the right-and-lefthand sides of the 900-seat auditorium.
“We’re quite proud of the organ,” said Dale Abraham, the president of the Pittsburgh Area Theatre Organ Society and the co-host of the radio program “Rhythm, Sweet & Hot,” which focuses on music from the 1920s to the 1940s and airs Saturdays at 6 p.m. on 90.5 WESA-FM.
As many as 7,000 theater organs were placed in movie theaters from the mid-1910s to the mid-1930s, but only about 40 are still operating at the sites where they were originally installed. Theater owners a century ago liked them because they provided sound for silent movies, and only one musician had to be paid, rather than a whole orchestra or ensemble. Theater organs also provided sound effects – if a honk, the sound of drums or sleigh bells, or the roar of thunder was needed, a theater organ could provide it.
By the mid-1930s, almost all movies that came out of Hollywood had sound, and most theater owners bid unsentimental farewells to their organs. In Pittsburgh, Mother Nature largely did the job – many, if not all, of the organs that were in downtown theaters were destroyed in the St. Patrick’s Day flood in March 1936.
“That particular organ has a signature sound, and even though they all came from the Wurlitzer company, each one has a unique sound,” Clark Wilson, an organ player from East Liverpool, Ohio, told the Observer-Reporter in 2007.
And it has power, said Bob Powischill, a member of the society’s board.
“My wife has an artificial knee, and she can feel it vibrating,” he added.
The organ society’s season typically stretches from September to June. The society presents some straightforward concerts, but the most popular draws are the shows that pair the organ with classic silent films. Over the years they have presented “Wings,” the first movie to win a Best Picture Oscar, the 1925 version of “The Phantom of the Opera” with Lon Chaney, and Buster Keaton’s “The Cameraman.” All of these films are readily available on DVD, and they turn up every once in a while on Turner Classic Movies. So, why should people get off the couch and see them in an auditorium accompanied by a vintage organ?
“A lot of the scores they put on DVDs, they stink,” said Abraham. That’s particularly the case for movies that have fallen into the public domain – sometimes, any old slice of classical or ragtime music gets slapped on, and it gets repeated over and over.
Of course, there is also the ineffable experience of seeing a movie in a theater, with a large group of people, rather than seeing it in isolation.
Abraham admits that the society has sometimes struggled to attract concertgoers in recent years, but they have recently made some headway with younger music fans who have heard Abraham talk about the society on “Rhythm, Sweet & Hot.” Since organs aren’t fixtures of homes the way they once were, attending a theater organ concert can be a unique and eye-opening experience.
“We’re trying to reach a general public that’s become disconnected to the organ as an instrument,” Abraham said. Sitting at the organ, he pointed out, “You can play Queen on this thing.”