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90-Year-Old Organ Restored at The Virginia Theatre

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A re-dedication ceremony on Saturday will showcase a sound from the Wurlitzer Hope Jones Orchestral Organ that experts say has never been heard before.

Music comes out of the 900-pipe organ as Dave Schroder and John Buzard tinker with instrument. While Buzard has just completed the nearly $150,000 restoration project, Schroeder is living out a childhood dream by playing at the theater.

A music teacher at Bismarck-Henning High School, Schroder calls himself a 'closet theater organ freak.' That's due in part to the late Warren York, who rose from the orchestra pit playing the Wurlitzer for more than 20 years.

"He could sit and play anything," Schroder recalled. "He would play it in G-flat or F-sharp, or whatever has the most black keys. I said, aren't you making that awful difficult on yourself? He said if it was good enough for George Gershwin, it's good enough for me."

York passed away last July, but Schroeder said his friend will be there in spirit for the organ's re-dedication ceremony.

Buzard said by adding two ranks of pipes, the Wurlitzer should produce a sound no one has heard since its installation.

"One of the fellows that has acted on our behalf as a consultant told us, 'This is of course after we'd done all our work.' He said, 'You know John, this organ could have very easily wound up in the dumpster for as much work as was really required to bring this back to life,'" Buzard said. "I certainly appreciated that having gone through the process of restoring it all this last year."

Started in Dec. 2010, the restoration was supposed to have been completed in November, but John-Paul Buzard Pipe Organ Builders undertook what Buzard calls the equivalent of open heart surgery on the Wurlitzer.

Buzard's staff had to take it apart twice before discovering small cracks in the organ's chest, which meant control air escaped into the atmosphere. He said wind generated below the stage wasn't properly making its way through the pipes.

"What volunteers had tried to do in order to make the organ louder - they'd actually damaged the pipes in order to make them speak louder and the problem was is that the organ never got enough wind from the blower," Buzard said. "From 1921, that 90 year old problem had never been troubleshot."

Virginia Theater Director Steven Bentz said the organ's restoration will also make it more appropriate for new kinds of performances:

"It was really to be an organ that would play under silent movies," Bentz said. "That's different from an organ that's put into a space in kind of a concert hall setting. I think what they're doing - and have done - is bringing that along- making the organ much more powerful."

On Saturday night, award-winning organist Chris Gorsuch comes in from the West Coast to see what a refurbished Wurlitzer can do.

Bentz said there is not an exact playlist as of yet for the two-hour concert, but Gorsuch will accompany 'Liberty' - a 1929 silent film starring Laurel and Hardy. The evening also includes a presentation on the organ's restoration, and an exhibit of Virginia artifacts.

Video: 90-Year-Old Organ Restored at The Virginia Theatre

Categories: History, Music