Eat Your Heart Out, Dick Van Dyke

Several years ago I was on the train into New York City when I overheard some people talking about tracking down a print of an old Buster Keaton movie. Naturally, I had to turn around and introduce myself.

It turned out they were from a group called the Garden State Theatre Organ Society- dedicated to restoring and preserving what else, but theater organs.

You're probably familiar with a pipe organ, housed in large churches and cathedrals, and used by Johann Sebastian Bach and others to scare the devil out of the parishioners. Several keyboards, hundreds of pipes, one harried musician in charge of all the literal bells and whistles.

The basic principle is simple: press a key, open a valve and force air into a long metal tube. The air vibrates a reed, which creates the sound. One note for each tube (that's one reason why you need so many.) Shorter tubes- pipes- play high notes, longer pipes play low notes.

Theatre organs look a lot like church organs, except they would have been built in early movie theaters. Silent movies weren't actually silent- there was always music meant to accompany them. Before high quality sound recording was available- and before cameras and projectors could run at a consistent rate to stay in sync- that meant the music needed to be performed live.

Orchestras are expensive- dozens of people, who all want creature comforts like chairs, which will just take up room in your theater that would be better used for paying customers. Why hire fifty people when one person can do the job?

That's what a theater organist was- a single performer replicating the sound of a full orchestra. An organ doesn't just have one set of pipes covering its range- it has several, controlled by knobs around the keyboards called stops.

One stop might have reeds that produce a smoother, more lush sound, like a string section. Another stop would have a brighter, metallic sound- the brass. If you pull out all the stops, well, now you're really cooking.

In effect, one person could replace all the parts of the orchestra, but the set up required for this can get quite elaborate. One of the members of the GSTOS invited me to a meeting and showed me the organ she and her husband had built in their house.

It was all controlled from their living room, where a massive sound came up through the floorboards. The pipes were all in the basement. There was even a stop that controlled percussion instruments- a snare drum, cymbals, a marimba.

To create a vibrato effect, the pipes fed into wooden shoeboxes with a slat inside that briefly interrupted the airflow. The larger pipes had canvas bags, held in place by wooden frames bolted to the floor. They breathed like a steampunk hospital machine, keeping this massive metal beast alive.


The modern equivalent of this instrument can be seen in this video: a young girl performing every part of an orchestral piece of music, but instead of pipes we have synthesizers and digital samples. Note the keyboard for her feet, playing pedal tones, and another pedal controlling volume.

A computerized click track switches the stops for her- she has to play every note exactly as written.

This obviously takes a huge amount of practice and skill. I've played piano off and on for many years, and there's no way I could do this. And yet-

I confess I'm not the biggest fan of the pipe organ. It can add some color to an ensemble, but to me the sound is flat and mechanical. Can an organ or a synthesizer sound like a full symphony orchestra? Yes, but it's only a facsimile of the real thing.

I'm sure this speaks volumes to my own ignorance. To really appreciate an instrument like this, I want to know what it can do on its own, not as a replacement for something else.