Listen to Ray Horsley
Friday, October 14, 2011 — I thought I might talk about my experience with the new Walker digital organ at the St. Pete Times Forum, the home arena for the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team.
History: We first heard about this back in February while in New England. Word was spreading that the Lightning ownership was looking for "an old fashioned pipe organ" to install as part of a $35 million renovation to the arena. After some investigation, I found out that an acquaintance from my broadcasting days in Houston, Steve Griggs, is a VP with the Lightning, and was hired to oversee this renovation as part of his duties.
At that time, he indicated to me he was in contact with both the Allen and Walker companies about a huge installation in the building. While they wanted the feel and sound of the pipe organ, both budget and reality indicated there was no way a pipe organ was going to work in this mammoth arena that seats nearly 20,000 people. Especially when the timeframe for installation was barely 4 months between the end of the last season and the start of this season.
The Instrument: Lightning management chose Walker. Walker chose the 5-manual behemoth that had been the "touring" organ for Rob Richards. I will let Bob Walker, John Carpenter et al get into the specifics later. It is the latest technology...there are some 250-plus speaker cabinets spread across the arena, including a 50-speaker cluster at one end of the building where the console sits on a high pedestal in full view of the arena, on a turntable.
The Sound: It is spectacularly impressive. The idea here was not to create a concert hall/theatre instrument, but a hockey arena organ. Let's recall that the Chicago Stadium Barton was unique, awesome, powerful and impressive, but not the San Francisco Fox! At the Lightning arena, percussions and traps are very present...reeds and big pedal very apparent...and it is equally impressive trems on and trems off...and it is great fun to play. The hockey fans will love it. And it will shine a completely unique spotlight on this arena. Every time national TV airs a game from the St. Pete Times Forum, that sound in the background will let viewers know the venue immediately. And the national recognition is already growing.
Team owner Jeff Vinik and team President Todd Leiwicke come from a "traditionalist" sports background, and wanted the organ to once again have a prominent place in the overall presentation of a game, albeit in light of today's entertainment environment. Yes, there will be video moments, loud rock n roll and more, but there will also be traditional organ music presented by an awesome instrument which creates a very authentic sound and feel.
The Organists: Local organist Ray Horsley will be the lead organist and play most of the games. Dwight Thomas, former Paramount Music Palace/Roaring 20's organist will be the back-up...these two chosen after auditions of nearly a dozen different players took place more than a month ago. This is a job at a hockey arena, not a theatre and not a concert presentation, and thus the musical requirements are a little different. Ray will be great; he is more than qualified for the job; and he will quickly be incorporating all that the team and the game presentation today demands, i.e. rock n roll, clap-alongs, etc. He will also have Dwight to work with.
The Lightning and Walker Technical Company asked for my assistance. My unusual background as both a longtime hockey announcer, former arena organist, and involvement with ATOS provided a unique combination of skills and experience to help, and I was delighted to do so. I firmly believe - knowing the "copycat" nature of this business - that this could lead to other instruments going into hockey arenas...all for the good of ATOS, and the exposure of the instrument. There is the Allen at the United Center, and now this incredible Walker installation in Tampa. There is new ownership in several franchises in the NHL, and who knows which owner might think this is a great idea.
The organ premieres Monday night at the home opening game. It will be heard at all Lightning home games, and possibly other special events at the arena. Meanwhile, the tonal finishing will continue to be a work in progress. The scope of the full $35 million renovaton is incredible. There are three shifts of work crews at it 24/7. The most work on the organ was accomplished from 8 pm until 3 am last Thursday night/Friday morning, with more similar hours to come before Monday night.
There will be a full report in a story for an upcoming Theatre Organ Journal and the extended Journal on line. It is a great opportunity going forward. It's an awesome sight and sound. And the Lightning ownership and management are to be commended for forward thinking while going backward in music history. All to the benefit of the theatre organ. It's awesome.