Restoration of the Bob Hope Theatre Organ
 
By Steve Barkhurst

In 1978, Bonnie Ciauri bought a powerful 1928 Robert Morton theater organ. The instrument's magnificent pipes once thrilled silent film audiences at Seattle's Fox Theatre. But Ciauri didn't play theater organ, and she certainly had no space for it in her Palm Springs and, later, her Hemet home.

She had it taken apart. The 4-manual, 16-rank (commonly referred to as a 4/16) orchestral theater organ went mute, and its voice has not been heard since. But it will sing again in the Spring of 2004, when the Fox Theatre reopens.

Ciauri stored the console in her daughter's air-conditioned house, but detached from its pipes, the Morton console was furniture, silent as the movies it once accompanied.

The pipes, hundreds of them, made of wood or tin-lead-zinc alloy, were stacked on top of each other in three metal containers, each the size of a semi-truck trailer. Once full, the containers were sealed and parked on a desert lot.

Every day for the next 22 years, the pipes baked in a relentless desert sun and chilled each night under the stars. Finally, in April 2000, Stockton Friends of the Fox president Bob Hartzell rescued the organ. And after years of painstaking restoration, the mighty Morton is about to warm up her pipes.

Hartzell had his doubts when he first opened the desert containers.

"The heat had just about cooked it," Hartzell said. "Everything but the console was as close to ruination as it could be. If it had been just a year longer, it would have been too late."

When Hartzell found the organ, Don Geiger donated storage and work space at Stockton's Geiger Manufacturing. Still, FOF volunteers were shocked when they went to the desert to unload the containers for transport to Stockton. What were once perfectly round metal pipes had flattened and corroded. High humidity had warped mahogany and cracked pine. Pipes and parts bound together in 1928 by glue made from horses' hooves fell apart as they were removed.

But with Hartzell's leadership and the direction of theater organ expert Dave Moreno of Sacramento, 15 members of the FOF and the Sierra Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society worked with steel wool, modern glue and dedication to get the Morton ready for installation into the Fox late this summer.

Installing theater organs is nothing new for 69-year-old Hartzell. He is a lifelong theater organ enthusiast who retired in 1996 from a career in agriculture and 19 years as president of the California Association of Wine Grape Growers.

At age 12, Hartzell heard his first theater organ at the El Camino Theatre in his hometown of San Rafael and switched from piano lessons to theater organ studies with El Camino's organist. All his life, Hartzell had wanted to own a theater organ. In 1986, when owner Charlie Davis of Concord put the San Francisco Castro Theatre organ up for sale, Hartzell bought it and moved it to his winery, Harmony Wynelands. He built a special building to house it.

In the early '90s, Hartzell acquired another Robert Morton theater organ, originally installed in Sacramento’s Alhambra Theatre. Hartzell sold that organ to Ironstone Vineyards in Murphys and supervised the installation.

The Morton organ rescued from the desert had needed much more work than its Ironstone sister, Hartzell said.

The three-year renovation would have been impossible without the expertise of organ expert Moreno.

Only a handful of people in California have the expertise necessary to bring back the desert-damages Morton theater organ, Hartzell said as he introduced Moreno, and few of them have Moreno's dedication.

Moreno blushed at the compliment.

"I suppose you could call me an expert," Moreno said. "But I really just love to play pipe organs and fix them."

As Moreno walked around the dusty shop at Geiger Manufacturing, the nine volunteers toiling at sanding and gluing the woodwork listened to an old recording of the organ everyone was working on.

Since no one has heard any sound from the organ since 1978, Moreno said, hearing it play helps volunteers remember the goal.

Mac Wurtsbaugh, 72, a retired sound engineer who commutes each Saturday from Colfax, dipped into a pile of steel wool and began scraping corrosion from a 3-foot-long pipe labeled "G sharp."

Moreno encouraged him and the other volunteers, noting the tedious work was almost finished. Soon they'd be able to start installing the organ into the Fox. The instrument is expected to be worth $160,000 to $200,000 once completed.

But it won't be entirely original. The Stockton Fox is a 2,000-seat theater. And while the 4/16 Morton is one of the more powerful vintage organs, it wouldn't be quite enough to fill the building. Hartzell was advised to enhance the instrument to 4/21 with five additional ranks. Ranks are instruments - such as a tuba, trumpet or English horn - that can be added to the organ to boost sound. It also will be computerized to allow music to be played without an organist.

Verna Blaine, 75, has been working on the organ since it arrived.

My job is wrapping pipes in newspaper after they're clean and round so they'll be protected until we install them," she said. "When I find a dented one, I give it to Dave, and he fixes it so I can wrap it."

Blaine is not a musician, but her brother was a professional theater organist. He had once played the very pipes she was wrapping.

I wish you could have seen the horrible condition these pipes were in at the beginning," Blaine said. "The wooden ones were just rotting, but with donations of new wood and everyone's hard work, it's wonderful to see them looking beautiful like this."

If all goes according to schedule, the hottest ticket in Stockton next spring will be the grand opening of the Fox Theatre. Some 2,000 people, most earning the right to be there by contributing time, influence, labor, materials or money, will take their plush seats.

If all goes according to Hartzell's script, conversation will stop as the chandeliers dim and a spotlight catches something rising from the orchestra pit. As people lean forward to catch a glimpse, a double forte wave of stereophonic sound will push them back just as the mighty Morton theater emerges, airing its symphonic voice for the first time in a quarter-century.

And about 15 people who spent four years bringing the venerable organ back to life will realize a dream. I'll be in the audience the first time it's played," Blaine said. "I will be there. Yes, indeed, I will."