Just because something is falling out of use doesn’t mean it isn’t worth saving.
Let’s be honest. As technology improves, devices become both smaller and more complex. Computers, which once required punch cards and their own rooms, can now be condensed into touch controlled 10-inch slabs. Cell phones, which used to resemble bricks with antennas, are now slimmer than a deck of cards.
The same rules have applied to music. Vinyl records have receded, cassettes have been tossed away and digital files are quickly replacing discs. One thing that doesn’t come up in daily conversation, though, is the theatre organ.
Designed to replace a pit orchestra, a typical theatre organ features several size-varied sets of pipes, called ranks, that can summon the timbre of a range of instruments, from the percussive sound of a glockenspiel to the tone of high-noted flute. That capability is necessary for melody.
Theatre organs originally found use in the silent film era, serving as vital tools in crafting a live film score for on-screen action. At one time, theatre organs numbered in the thousands, but today few are left. The development of talking pictures and the recording of movie scores led to the decline.
The Dickinson Theatre Organ Society (DTOS) in Wilmington, Del., aims to protect the theatre organ for future generations.
“The mission is, first of all, to preserve a part of Americana. The theatre organ is pretty much an American instrument; it was developed in America. There were some in England, but the theatre organ was most widely used in America,” says Bob Dilworth, president of the DTOS.
The first step the DTOS took toward that goal was acquiring an organ. In November 1968, the RKO-Stanley Warner Corporation, the owners of the Boyd Theatre in Philadelphia, donated a 19-rank Kimball theatre pipe organ to the Society.
Now, that gift sits in Delaware in the Dickinson High School auditorium and has had the number of ranks raised from 19 to 66. Today, the Dickinson theatre organ is the fourth-largest of its kind in the world, making it bigger than the theatre organ at New York City’s famed Radio City Music Hall.
The diversity of instruments available to the nimble hands of an organist seated at the Dickinson theatre organ presents an array of genres with which to experiment. “The console on the organ makes it easy to play different kinds of music. Anything that has a melody—traditional organ literature, jazz, soft rock, ballads, Broadway tunes—can be played,” says Dilworth.
Since its installation in the Dickinson auditorium, organists from all over the world—from America to Australia—have sat at the organ console, drawing large audiences.
“Virgil Fox, George Wright, Carla Curley, Hector Olivera—every one of the top theatre organists has presented a concert at Dickinson,” says Dilworth.