Toledo’s Big Organs still make powerful music

(This is from a story I did recently at NBC 24)


TOLEDO — There is no larger musical instrument or nothing more majestic than a concert or theatre pipe organ.  In Toledo, we still have plenty of people who love to listen to their powerful music and luckily a number of people who are passionate about keeping their music alive. That passion for the big organ sound is in evidence this with the Toledo Symphony Orchestra as they continue to present special organ concerts featuring the now restored and historic Skinner organ at the Peristyle. For those who have never heard the Skinner organ or any large  theatre or concert pipe organ, it can be a thrilling experience. (Think Phantom of the Opera).  So what is it about this big music that we love so much. “It’s a combination of all the parts coming together to make a wonderful sound.” says Evan Chase, who is President of the Toledo Theatre Organ Society. Chase, who doesn’t play the organ is fascinated by them and has become an expert technician who can tune and restore them. He currently has two of the large theatre organs in his south Toledo home.  One of them is a “Mighty Wurlizter” organ, made in 1926, salvaged from the Loews’s Theatre in New Rochelle, New York.  This organ with a beautiful wooden console, he  is hoping to donate it to someone or some group that wants to give it a good home in a local theatre or concert hall.   While the Wurlitzer that takes up much of his living does not currently play,  Chase has another, set up in his basement, and it does play and is the centerpiece of his own old-time movie theatre, complete with seats, a large screen, and projector system.  The Golden Kimball organ, he says, was originally installed nearly a 100 years ago in the Capital Theater of Aberdeen South Dakota.   It was purchased by a Minnesota businessman in the early 1970’s and eventually found its way to Toledo and to Chase’s basement. The Kimball, which uses player piano rolls to key the music, belts out a huge sound from it many ranks of pipes and other mechanics which are hidden behind the interior walls of the basement theater.

Chase, 63, and now retired, says he became interested in this pipe organs many years ago when he visited a theater organ concert in suburban Detroit. ” “When I heard and saw that golden console rise up from the orchestra pit and hearing that and seeing the old movies again, I said this is it, this is my life’s work.” And the work of keeping these antique instruments in good shape is considerable. There are thousands of parts and there can be many ranks of pipes, all tuned precisely to a specific pitch, and each organ employs a system of air and mechanics to make the sounds. Without constant care and stewardship, they can become unplayable. Even the tuning can be thrown off with a change in the humidity or temperature.   At the Peristyle,  the restoration of the grand Skinner organ a few years ago was a major undertaking and required hundreds of thousands of dollars and meticulous detail in the rehab.

Evan Chase, meanwhile, hopes he can find someone in Toledo who would be willing to take the big Wurlitzer,  invest in its future well-being, and use it in a fitting venue.  So far, he hasn’t found any takers.  Historically, the large pipe organs were the primary source of music for Toledo’s many movie palaces. They were used in silent movie houses to play a musical score along with the action on the screen. But they fell silent and out of favor when the “talkies” or motion picture sound came into being, or when theatres could use recorded music.   Facing obsolescence,  many of these musical giants were left in the dusty backrooms or just found their way to junkyards or demolition yards. But not all.  Many of them were fortunately rescued. Their value was appreciated by historians and they were frequently restored and reused in other venues.  In Toledo, the “Mighty Wurlitzer” that once the throaty “voice” of the famed Paramount Theatre downtown was also headed for an uncertain future when the old theatre building was torn down in the name of “progress”.  Effiorts to save the organ locally were futile. Thanks to the efforts of those recognized its potential, the Golden Wurlitzer  found its way to California in 1986,  where it was restored is now the featured organ at the Berkeley Community Theatre near San Francisco.

At the Ohio Theatre on Lagrange Street, which is currently under renovation,  the pipe organ still remains on premises, and Evan Chase and others involved in the renovation of the theatre, hope it can be restored to its former sound and power.   Chase is also looking at other various old movie theatres around the Toledo area to see if he might be able to place his Mighty Wurlitzer there and re-create a classic movie palace, but the choices are limited.  In downtown Toledo, the only  large movie palace left is the now restored Valentine Theatre, but they have reportedly declined the offer to take the Wurlitzer and use it there.   At one time, in downtown Toledo, there were over 20 big movie and live performance theatres, but those days have faded, and most fell to the fate of a wrecking ball.  Chase, who is also a classic movie buff and promoter is currently offering special classic film series nights at the renovated Maumee Indoor Theatre on Conant Street. In a future writing, we’ll talk more about his efforts and the desire of others (including this authors), to recall with great fondness, those days when downtown Toledo in the evenings was ablaze with marquee lights and a full spectrum of entertainment choices.


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