Dr. Bob’s Pipe Dream – Ted Streuli

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Dr. Bob’s pipe dream
Ted Streuli

Dr. Bob has a pipe dream.

Dr. Bob, in case you just moved to Oklahoma, is Bob Blackburn, who heads the Oklahoma State Historical Society. And he’s excited because with a little wrangling, he found a way to get $500,000 for an organ restoration.

And not just any organ, but a Kilgen Opus 5281. It is one of just four such organs that are playable, and one of only 10 in existence. In their day, the Kilgens were to organs what Powell was to flutes. The Kilgen Organ differs from other organs in a number of ways. While they come from the same roots, the theatre organ is quite different for the church or classical organ. Instead of hymns, a theatre organ was used to accompany silent movies with effects for comedy and drama. Theatre organs are generally louder and their pipes sound like musical instruments, such as trumpets and saxophones, with special effects like drums, bells, and whistles. Despite the introduction of motion pictures with sound in the late 1920s, theatre organs enjoyed great popularity in the 1930s.

The Kilgens built more than 4,000 tracker-action organs for small churches, but they also built some big ones. Among them were the organs for both the chancel and grand gallery in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. The Gallery Organ, dedicated in 1930, was built for $250,000 – more than $3.5 million in today’s currency. It has 7,855 pipes ranging from 32 feet to one-half inch in length.

This particular organ was manufactured by the George Kilgen and Sons Company of Saint Louis in 1935. The Kilgen Opus 5281, a four manual, 14 rank theatre-style pipe organ, was installed in the new studios of WKY radio- then located in the Skirvin Tower building, just before the station went on the air in 1936. When E.K. Gaylord launched WKY-TV in 1949, television was pretty much just radio with a camera. By then the WKY organist was Ken Wright, a Kansan who came to prominence as the staff organist for radio station KMOX in St. Louis, where he began playing in 1931. Gaylord brought Wright, a lanky, balding man with a tiny Clark Gable moustache, to Oklahoma City. If you are diligent enough on eBay or Amazon, you might find a vinyl LP of Wright playing the Kilgen at the Skirvin.

The Kilgen was moved to the Civic Center Music Hall, then to the History Center, where it sat – unplayed and unplayable. Enter John M. Riester, who runs the American Organ Institute shop at the University of Oklahoma. The AOI repairs organs, and Riester got busy with the Kilgen. The organ has a lot of perishable parts. There’s leather under every pipe, and there are leather reservoirs. It needed a new electrical system, the console needed refinishing and its 15 sets of pipes were due for cleaning and tonal regulation. The job took about 4,000 man-hours.

“It’s the most-heard pipe organ in the state,” Riester said. “It’s a jazzy instrument. With pipe organs, you have instruments that are geared toward concert performance or church performance. It was built with pop music in mind because it was for radio rather than silent films. It’s not the sappy type of sound you’d expect to hear in a theater.” And now, since the organ is part of the Oklahoma History Center, you will have an opportunity to hear much more from it. This summer, on July 23, the “Songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein” will be performed on the pipe organ by Dr. John D. Schwandt. The bad news is the concert is currently sold out, but the good news is that there will be other performances planned in the coming months. Bob’s pipe dream has come through.

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