Alumni Remember Treasured Theater Organ

A meeting of the city’s Historical Society at Anaheim High’s Cook Auditorium offered several alumni from the ‘40s and ’50s an opportunity to share memories of playing or hearing the school’s treasured Robert Morton Theater Pipe Organ.

Those who couldn’t attend sent e-mails or called to “recall their happy days” of playing the organ or enjoying the music others created on the now vintage instrument which was taken out of storage for the event.

Don Shilling, Class of ’50, was one of the alumnus in attendance who remembers playing the organ and taking lessons on it. Virginia Criss from Class of ’41 recalled hearing the organ being played as a part of concerts and other performances. “It was exciting because the organ was brand new then,” she said.

The organ, manufactured in 1928 and installed in the (Victoria) Liberty Theater in Oklahoma City, was purchased in 1940 by the AUHSD for installation in Cook Auditorium, which was constructed as part of a WPA Project after the 1933 Long Beach earthquake and opened to the public in 1936.

Among the organ’s expert players was James Friis (1946) who recently passed away. His classmate Delmer Rogers remembers when he and James performed George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue at a school assembly in 1945. ” James, a fine organist, played the orchestral part on that classic organ, while I commandeered the piano solo. . . It was a highlight of my young years.”

Peggy (Kohlenberger) Boland from AHS Class of ‘54 also played Anaheim’s 3/12 rank organ (three levels of keyboards and 12 ranks divided between two chambers). During her senior year, Peggy performed at all the assemblies, frequently playing the Star Spangled Banner and the Alma Mater. On Monday nights, she would play for community forums featuring travel log programs.

She also remembers the custodian in that day being musically talented and, if he was working in Cook after school when Betty was practicing, he would join her on the grand piano located in the auditorium’s orchestra pit. She said he also played the organ and taught her songs from the ‘30s.

She also played the classical organ at church and found the theater organ delightful because of all the bells and whistles. “You could make such fun music with the theater organ.”

Efforts were made in the ‘80s to refurbish the organ. Unfortunately, the instrument was not configured in the correct manner and did not have the best tonal quality. After a few concerts, it was no longer played. More damage to the organ was caused by a flood from a broken ceiling pipe. When water threatened the organ console, the cables leading to an electro pneumatic relay system were severed so the organ could be removed from the auditorium. The organ’s pipes were later damaged by vandals and by electricians who used the chamber as a short cut during their work.

A plus side to refurbishment project is the swell shades, which were obtained from the USC Bovart Auditorium. According to the experts, the swell shades are “gangbusters” and they have never seen more in a theatre installation. Also encouraging news is the organ’s original Spencer blower, which is still in good working condition.

Theater organs and the music they produce are undergoing a revival as people realize the organs and their intricate pipe work are irreplaceable. Santa Monica High School installed a refurbished Wurlitzer, donated by the LA Theater Organ Society, in its recently rennovated Barnum Hall.

Closer to home, the Fullerton high school district, with the support and expertise of the OC Theater Organ Society, restored its Plummer Auditorium Wurlitzer Organ, one of the few Wurlitzers that still resides in its original installation site. The organ is frequently played for community concerts.

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