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The journey of the Kimball Theatre Organ


Photo by Jason Dziver.

On a Tuesday afternoon in March, Jason Barnsley, the National Music Centre’s collections and exhibitions technician, is playing some movie jazz on the Kimball Theatre Organ.

Barnsley is a trained organist who plays and tunes the assemblage of pipes, valves, cables and instruments that make up the instrument, which lives on the third level of Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre.

Using both hands and feet to control the keys and levers, he can play the pipe organ, snare drum, xylophone, glockenspiel and several other instruments to give the audience the feel of an orchestra.

While the popular theatre organ is admired and played daily at the NMC, it hasn’t always lived a dignified life. For years it lived in a basement with its pipes bent to accommodate an eight-foot ceiling.

The silent film era 

The theatre organ was manufactured in 1924 by the Kimball Piano and Organ Company to accompany silent films, and was first installed in St. Helens Theatre in Chehalis, Washington.

Barnsley says playing a theatre organ requires some serious dexterity, along with a great deal of improvisation and focus.

“You have to be able to play music with one foot and one hand while maybe hitting a drum with one foot, and maybe changing something else with another,” Barnsley says.

Theatre organists during the silent film era didn’t always have sheet music in front of them, but usually a cue sheet from the movie production house that suggested what pieces to play during certain scenes. They followed closely along with the movie, and in many cases improvised a score to set the mood and tone — and provided the sound effects on top of that.

“There’s stories about organists playing and becoming so engrossed in the film they’re watching that their playing starts to trail off, and the audience — who were great hecklers — would throw popcorn and yell at them to play again. We’re so inundated by moving pictures we don’t even think about it, but put yourself back into 1915 — moving pictures must have seemed like magic or witchcraft.”

Squished into a basement

After the St. Helens Theatre flooded in 1952, the Kimball Theatre Organ sat in six inches of water, losing its finish and leaving the ivory keys worn through to the wood.

Luckily for the Kimball, Glenn D. White Jr., a 23-year-old guided-missile engineer for Boeing, bought the organ for only $1,000 (less than one tenth of its original value), and in seven trips, transported the theatre organ and its various parts to his parent’s house. He set it up in the basement, chipped out a section of the basement concrete wall to get it to fit, and bent the taller pipes of the organ so it could stand upright in the basement.

White Jr. happened to enjoy installing and repairing pipe organs in his spare time, and helped restore it to its former glory. But when he got married and moved out, his parents were stuck with it. It changed ownership a few times before eventually being donated to the NMC by Alberta-based organist Carol Otto.

Today it has a happy home in the NMC where it’s a treasured artifact. Some components like the chime stands and legs were rebuilt, but most of it is in its original condition.

The pipes are still bent because it doesn’t really affect the tone — and is part of the provenance of the instrument.

 Liked this story? Read the full feature in the May/June issue of Where Calgary and uncover the secrets behind five museum artifacts. 

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