Nov 7, 2008

An Organ Story...

Before there was "stereo" there was "high fidelity." In the 1950's, we got our first "hi-fi" or audiophile store in Schenectady -- the "House of Harmony" at 1444 State Street.  Remember that it was a city of nerds, with hundreds of engineers and technically savvy craftsmen, the home of General Electric and the American Locomotive Company -- "The city that lights and hauls the world!" The hi-fi store was an immediate success. It was owned by a young fellow named Bob Griswold, the son of a prominent funeral director. I and my technically-oriented buddies became regular visitors to the store.

Bob Griswold had another passionate interest. He loved theater organs. These were instruments that theater owners installed during the silent-film era to attract more clients. They were bombastic, showy instruments that were capable of a great variety of music coloration. And Bob Griswold went the extra step -- he bought a couple of theater organs, including one of the largest in the world, and moved them to a building in Schenectady!

The Marr & Colton 5/24 Before Installation

The large organ was originally built and installed in 1927 by the Marr & Colton Organ Company for the fabulous Schine's Rochester Theater in Rochester, New York. It had a 5-manual console and 24 ranks of pipes and is therefore referred to as a 5/24 organ. The theater was described as, "with over 3500 seats, the largest theater in America between New York and Chicago. The auditorium featured bronze light fixtures, murals, leather upholstery for the box seats, and an enormous Marr & Colton organ."

Bob Griswold brought the organ to Schenectady in an 18-wheeler over a period of several weekends. I was in high school when I first encountered the project and I got to work on some of the restoration work. It ignited a love for these instruments that I still enjoy.

The second organ was a Wurlitzer that Bob acquired from a theater in Utica, New York.

An image of Bob Griswold tuning the clarinet stop in the "main" loft of the combined
organ as it was being installed in a specially-constructed building.  This image appeared
in the July 4, 1958 edition of the Schenectady Gazette.
A few years after I got to know him, Bob Griswold died in an automobile accident while he was still a young man. I wondered for years whatever became of that magnificent pipe organ after his death. Now, through the magic of the Internet and Google, I know the "rest of the story."

Here's part of an article I recently ran across on the Website of the Puget Sound Theater Organ Society in an article about member Bill Blunk:
In 1961, the 3/9 Marr & Colton instrument was replaced with Bill's new purchase: the 5/24 from the Rochester Theatre in Rochester, New York. It was one of the largest instruments ever produced by Marr & Colton and the only five-manual.

Bill purchased the large organ from Bob Griswold who removed the instrument from the theatre in the early 1950's and installed it in his
Schenectady music store.

The installation in the former Viking Theatre was completed with the help of Leonard Vernon and Dick Chase. Leonard Vernon did the refinishing job on the console.

Bill had hoped that the Viking would be a permanent home for the organ, but in 1964, the building was sold and on May 17, 1964, a final concert was held.

The 5/24 was removed shortly thereafter.
During the Fall of 1965, Bill moved the organ to Portland where it was installed in a private studio which he rented. The instrument was featured at the 1966 ATOE Annual Meeting in Portland. The organ was later moved to Sherwood, Oregon and installed for several years in the Sherwood (Robin Hood) Theatre.

It was removed from this location and is currently in storage in the Portland area having been donated to the Columbia River Organ Club (CROC) by Bill Blunk several years ago. CROC is actively working to find a suitable location for re-installation.

The console as I remember it, in its original white finish
with gold leaf embellishment

It pleases me to know that the organ is still intact, even if not still in use. The experience that I had of working on it and hearing it inspired me in later years to restore a pipe organ for my own church, but that's a subject for a future post.

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