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Keyframe Article
A Day of Pipe Organs in Ohio

A Day of Pipe Organs in Ohio

by Michael Clark


Readers of this journal will probably recollect that I have the good fortune to be able to visit Ohio each year on business, and in 1996 the visit, unfortunately, could not be made to coincide exactly with the MBSI Rally at North Tonawanda. However, I have only one weekend per year in another country which appears to be blessed with such a large number of organ enthusiasts, not only mechanical but also concert and theatre types and, with the benefit of continued research in the UK before departure and the aid of a few (rather expensive) telephone calls from the hotel on arrival, one finds amazing hospitality from an interested group of enthusiasts eager to meet you and talk or help pursue the interest of listening to pipe organ music. So it was that on Saturday, 20 July 1996 I had breakfast at 6:30 as usual in the café next to the motel and at 7:15 I was already heading south on what turned out to be a 31/4 hour journey (including the stop for gas and a large coffee as refreshment in transit).

I had spoken to my prospective host twice in the week, once to make contact and later to accept the invitation made and confirm a mutual time. Detailed directions supplied had made the journey easy and I arrived only a minute or two after the scheduled moment. My host's family had delayed their outing to say hello and I was made extremely welcome. The already open organ trailer in the drive was waiting for its VIP audience, garden chairs and a can of ice cold Coke were produced and the music played. The instrument said 'Grand Gavioli Organ' on the front, and the design had a familiar look to it. The card on the trailer said that it was a G4 89-key organ with 443 pipes and, to me, the sound it made could have been that of a Gavioli restored from some past history and making an unusual appearance in the country where the Band Organ is king.

However, all was not what it appeared and the story of the organ that unfolds from the owner is all the more interesting because he built the organ and all its features including the decorated front himself. Using discarded packing crate material and, after examining and measuring an instrument which was owned by another enthusiast in the area, together with the use of photographs on UK record sleeves, 10 years work culminated, in 1977, in the completion of an instrument which is a credit to the builder and a beautiful object to both look at and hear, particularly when you have free run of the trailer inside and out.

Ken Smith in front of his "Gavioli" - Photo: © Michael Clark

After a good selection of tunes, the trailer was packed up ready for an engagement the following day and I was escorted into the organ room at the house and there stood another wonderful spectacle - a Ruth, or was it?

Once again, this time over some scrumptious home-made sandwiches and chocolate brownies left for us by the absent family, I was told of an organ that had been in the possession of a local amusement caterer. Detailed measurements and drawings were made of this instrument and converted, in 4 years, into another organ based on a model 38 Ruth, a more recent addition being a new façade based on a Wellershaus. With four registers and 320 pipes, this 63-keyless organ again made a distinctive sound recognisable from the Ruth organs in the UK.

The visitors book indicated that quite a few FOPS members and other organ enthusiasts from the UK had already tracked these instruments down. Other names were mentioned in conversation showing my host was quite conversant with mechanical music in the UK. Ken Smith, of Blacklick, Columbus, is the builder of these fine instruments and he continues to contemplate further instruments as the presence of a number of ranks of pipes in the corner of the music room suggested.

Ken's involvement didn't finish there, however. I had, on making my original arrangements with him, been careful to mention that another interest of mine was theatre organs, having already discovered, to my amazement, that there was an organ still in situ in the Ohio State Theatre in downtown Columbus, which was playing that very weekend as a preview to, and interval entertainment for, the golden oldie film Gi Gi, and I would obviously like to see this event. Well, on arriving at Ken's home that morning, he had expressed the wish that I should do just as I like and I could go down to Columbus as suggested and he would come with me. That would be a great help since I guessed that on my own I would probably get lost easily but better was to come; Ken turned out to have been a projectionist at this theatre up to quite recently and so he knew just where to park, just where to go inside and, therefore, at 1:00pm we were there in the most ornate 'cinema' I have ever seen. No wonder they call them movie palaces. At 1:30 on the dot, the organ began to play and Clark Wilson at the console rose majestically from under the stage for 30 minutes of grand musical entertainment. I had been told to make myself at home and was therefore surprised when I went down from the circle to the stalls to see the console close up that, in a theatre which hold 2,897 people, a good audience was building up downstairs ready for the film.

The organ is a 4 Manual, 20 Rank Robert Morton instrument, installed at the theatre at the time of its opening in 1928. It was played until 1943 when its use became rare but it was fortunately protected from external vandalism until 1969 when a group of enthusiasts commenced arrangements to restore and play the instrument. The theatre itself was extensively restored in the 1980s and modernised to accommodate some of the national touring companies of the theatrical world. The organ console is on a lift under the front left corner of the stage and the pipework is in wing chambers on either side of the stage. The organ is played regularly for events such as this.

When the film began, I went back into the foyer and stairs area which, like the auditorium, is of the Spanish-Baroque style, as is the basement. A few souvenirs from the shop, and I whisked Ken back home for another drink and a chat about people and instruments before I left to make another appointment before closing time.

Travelling north east towards Cleveland, about 60 miles away is a town called Mansfield, Ohio; home of winter ski-slopes and summer sports car racing meetings. My interest, however, was in the form of a Carousel which I had been directed to at the junction of 4th Street and Main Street, right in the heart of downtown. The sound of the organ inside the impressive 'pavilion' which encloses the carousel could be heard in the car as I came up the main street and, after parking, I walked round the building and gardens which comprise the Richland Carousel Park. Inside, the Carousel is still attracting riders even at 5:15 in the afternoon, the purchase of tokens at the refreshment / souvenir shop for 50 cents a time allow you a ride. The organ mentioned is a Stinson JB66 being a small organ built not many miles from Mansfield in 1991, the same year that the Carousel itself was completed. The ride consists of 22 fine animals - zebra, lion, bear, cat, ostrich, rabbit, goat, tiger and hippocampus as well as 30 styles of horse and two carved chariots decorated with local scenes which are adapted to allow the securing of a wheelchair brought onto the platform up a convenient ramp.

The 80ft diameter pavilion has windowed roller shutters on all sides and a comprehensive warm air heating and air-conditioning system which allows the facility to be open all the year round; comfortable in both extremes of temperature experienced in this inland area. Additional comfort for those who like to relax and listen and watch, rather than ride, is in the form of a number of wooden rocking chairs placed around the interior of the building. In the immediate vicinity of this building are a carousel carving company which also promotes education and interest in the craft by conducting tours, a specialist independent carousel gift shop and a number of other trades and museums which have moved into the area making the revitalisation of this run down city centre most interesting. $1,250,000 (£800,000) was a fair risk which appears to have paid off, keeping one of the traditional crafts of this American State alive into the future.


Copyright © 1996 Michael Clark

Originally published in edition 1 of The Key Frame 1997.


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