Vintage Hope Organ Makes Its Debut
By Howard Lachtman

The mighty Morton pipe organ at the Bob Hope Theatre is ready to rumble as Stockton's newest downtown attraction.

With renowned concert organist Walter Strony as guest performer, the orchestral melodies of the 1928 instrument will fill the theater Sunday, April 10, 2005 — much as organs did in an age when they gave sound, mood and emotion to silent movies. Even after the coming of the talkies, organs lingered on to serenade arriving and departing patrons, enliven intermissions and lend their special magic to stage shows.

The Morton organ will be doing that and more for events at the theater, said Bob Hartzell, president of Friends of the Fox. He pointed to its uses for film classics, Broadway-style shows, choral groups and concerts.

"We're kind of introducing Stockton to its newest musical adventure," Hartzell said.

"It puts the icing on the Fox restoration cake and brings it to completion."

Strony, who has been in town for the past few weeks helping to fine-tune the organ, said he'll present a program of showtunes, jazz classics and standards.

"It's going to be like the Boston Pops," said Strony, who made his professional debut in 1974 and has performed hundreds of concerts throughout the United States and Canada as well as England, Japan and Australia. "I'll be doing everything from 'Phantom of the Opera' to Bob Hope's theme song, 'Thanks for the Memories.' "

Strony, 49, said he wanted to be an organist from the moment he heard "the biggest pipe organ in the world" played at his hometown Chicago Stadium.

"When other kids knew they wanted to be a fireman or doctor, I wanted to be an organist," he said. "I don't know why. I guess it was just destiny. The more I played, the more I fell in love with it. It just seemed right."

By age 18, Strony was serenading customers at the Organ Stop in Phoenix, a restaurant where customers could settle in for "pizza and pipes." He stayed 20 years, playing "everything from Bach to Bacharach," with time out for concert tours. Strony left five years ago "to get more involved in the mechanics of the organ. I needed to do something a little different and focus more on concerts and recordings."

A theater organ shouldn't be confused with a church organ, Strony said. The secular instruments were designed and developed to play orchestral music during the silent film era when hiring strings became too expensive. Installing an organ capable of replicating a full range of sounds — including drums, cymbals and glockenspiels — made more sense.

"With all its sounds, the organ could tug at the emotions of the listener," Strony said. "You can play virtually any type of music — classical, jazz, marches — on the theater organ. Its soundwaves just move people. It's a lyrical instrument, so all the Broadway showtunes that have great melodies come off, and that means Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and contemporaries."

Strony said he's also thinking of taking listeners on a musical journey to the big-band era, perhaps with a Duke Ellington medley and a bow to Glenn Miller.

"There'll be a lot of improvisation, more like a jazz concert," Strony said. "I don't know exactly what's going to happen next musically, but that's been part of my success because a lot of people say they like the spontaneity. I may vary arrangements. I'm an on-the-spot arranger and make things up as I go."

The organ has been completely refurbished, restored and installed by a dedicated team of volunteers led by organ technician Dave Moreno of Sacramento and Hartzell.

It began life at the Fox Theatre in Seattle, was played by many of the great organ artists of the day and renowned for its outstanding tonal qualities. In the 1960s, the instrument was removed and relocated to the Carl Greer Inn in Sacramento, where it entertained patrons in the lounge.

When the inn sold in 1976, the organ was removed and put in storage in Southern California, disappearing for a quarter of a century. Hartzell and Friends of the Fox discovered its whereabouts and negotiated its purchase in 2000.

The instrument was then only a ghost of its former glory. The organ's pipes, motor, blower and percussion had deteriorated. Moved to Stockton and stored at Geiger Manufacturing, volunteers set to work cleaning, gluing, soldering, straightening and shellacking the nearly 1,400 pipes.

Union Planning Mill provided major assistance in reconstructing many of the wood parts that had been lost beyond repair. Finally, in 2004, the pipes and chests were installed in two chambers on each side of the proscenium arch that once held the pipes and chest from the original (and smaller) Fox organ.

The big organ was placed on a special stage lift in October. The computer control system was then completely checked and the instrument played for the first time Nov. 4. Since then, it has undergone extensive tuning and voicing in preparation for its Sunday debut.

"It's perfectly suited for the size and acoustics of the theater," Strony said. "It's a pretty gutsy instrument and very versatile. It can have a big, bold personality and sing like Ethel Merman or a lot of subtlety, a softer voice with some nice, dreamy sounds."

In recent days, Strony has been working to get the pipes to produce "the right sound," including work on the strings. He wants to make sure that the organ's 5,000 movable parts are all in perfect working order.

"The important thing is that the organ is restored and rebuilt," he said. "Now it's just a matter of finessing it and adjusting it to get it ready. With an organ like this, there are different ranks of pipes and each one has a different sound, so they have to be adjusted so that they play the same volume as their neighbor.

"If everything is working fine, people at the concert won't even notice. If it isn't, they'll notice."

Strony divides his time between "tonal finishing" jobs and public and private concerts. He plays England almost every year and will soon embark on his eighth concert tour of Australia.

What makes this career rewarding for him is the response of audiences, especially those new to the theater organ experience.

"There are people who have never heard one before," Strony said. "It will be a revelation to them. They've never heard anything like that."