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Organ donation: Logan's Ellen Eccles Theatre receives a rare Mighty Wurlitzer

Published: Friday, Oct. 24 2003 12:00 a.m. MDT

The theater in 1989.

LOGAN — When the Capitol Theater was built in Logan in the early 1920s, the goal was to out-elegant the Capitol Theatre in Salt Lake City.

The Thatcher family spared no expense — in the furnishings, in the ornamentation, in the magnificent theater organ installed to provide sound for silent movies and vaudeville acts.

When Logan's Capitol Theater was restored to become the Ellen Eccles Theatre, Michael Ballam — director of the Utah Festival Opera and a driving force involved in the restoration — had one regret. The old organ was no longer there.

"Patience Thatcher sold it off, piece by piece," Ballam said. "We tried to find them, but they were scattered all over the United States."

That was some 14 years ago, but Ballam never gave up his dream of having an organ in the theater. After all, he has managed to amass the country's largest collection of hydraulic player-pianos, including one with a roll on which George Gershwin recorded his "Rhapsody in Blue." "One of these days we're going to roll it out and let George play," said Ballam.

He has also built the largest collection of recordings of the human voice in America. "We have 60,000 recordings. A third of them are vocal recordings. We're in the process of digitizing them so they can be put on the Internet."

So, what's the big deal about one organ?

Well, they're not as easy to come by as you might think, he said. After Al Jolson added sound to "The Jazz Singer" in 1929, "talkies" were in, and theaters couldn't get rid of their no-longer-necessary organs fast enough. Some went to radio stations, where they provided sound effects. Some were collected by private citizens. Some were simply trashed.

So when Ballam got a call earlier this year about a Mighty Wurlitzer organ that a man in Pacific Palisades, Calif., was wanting to donate to a good home — well, "it's enough to make you believe in miracles," Ballam said.

The organ was owned by John and Nancy Schellkopf, who had, quite literally, built their house around it. "They had sound-proof flaps that would come down to cover the windows so the sound wouldn't blow out the neighborhood. And when I heard him play it, it blew my mind. I had just been back to Radio City Music Hall with my daughter, and this was the very same."

The Schellkopfs had already had 10 offers from places wanting the organ, several from the San Francisco area. "But he had heard what we're doing here with Utah Festival Opera. He had read about what we had done to restore the old theater and the old Mode 'O Day factory (now the UFO's headquarters). We'd have saved a million bucks if we'd torn that down and started over, but the fact that we didn't speaks of us as an organization that cherishes the past. And that's what they were looking for."

The organ was UFO's, but Ballam and friends would have to go get it — and that took six guys and a semi. Now all they have to do is raise the $50,000 it will take to refurbish and install the organ in the Ellen Eccles Theatre. They want to put the console on a hydraulic lift so it can be raised up from the orchestra pit and then wheeled backstage for storage. The space for the pipes and the ranks is already there from the original design of the building, but some additional chambers will need to be built.

It's just a wonderful organ, said Ballam. "It has all the bells and whistles. It has a rank of sleighbells, which is extremely rare. It has a marimba, a Chinese gong, cymbals, horns."

"It's a beautiful instrument," echoes Mike Ohman, assistant director of the school of music at Brigham Young University and the organ expert who will oversee the installation process. "It's a three-manual, 16-rank theater organ that we think was originally from Wisconsin."

Back in the 1920s, almost every theater had an organ, but Wurlitzers were sought after because of the quality of workmanship and voice. "To find one now of this quality is exceptional," said Ohman.

Ballam's goal is to have it in place for next summer's UFO season. Already, contributions have started to come in. "We had one donation from a woman who took out a loan so she could contribute in her grandmother's name, because she knew her grandmother loved the old organ in the Capitol Theater."

As a nonprofit organization, he added, "We've always relied on the kindness of strangers — and friends. We hope they will come through again." (For information on the organ or making a contribution, visit www.ufoc.org or call 1-800-262-0074).

The organ will give UFO an opportunity to do "more fun things in the theater — silent movies, concerts. We have an organ program at (Utah State University), and this will give the students an opportunity to learn these techniques."

In these days when everything can be created synthetically — even organ sound — why is it so important to have a real organ? Because, said Ballam, "there is nothing like hearing it live. We are two generations removed from people who have experienced that."

You can't replicate the same sound synthetically. "It's like doing a Power Point presentation of the Sistine Chapel versus seeing it with your own eyes. I can't wait to watch children's faces as they hear this for the first time. It will be like nothing they've ever heard before."

Too many children, he said, are growing up without ever hearing a live-philharmonic orchestra. "They think music comes from speakers, not from horns. And it's just not the same.

"My whole life has been about the real thing."


E-MAIL: carma@desnews.com

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