The Samuel L. Clemens Performing Arts Center was formed as a result of a community effort, named after Elmira's adopted son, who wrote and is popularly known under the name of Mark Twain. He married a local woman and spent 20 summers in Elmira writing at the family's summer home. The Clemens Center was reopened in 1977 after a renovation which resulted in a seating capacity of 1,650 and became suitable for live performance by removal of drapes and other treatments which deadened the room. The theatre is once again home to Broadway musicals, classical concerts and a wide realm of popular entertainment for the Southern Tier of New York State.
The organ at the Clemens Center has undergone several trials by water; subsequent renovations have resulted in an instrument quite different from its debut in 1925. The organ was built by the Marr & Colton Company of Warsaw, NY and originally consisted of a three manual console controlling 20 ranks in three chambers (Left, Right and Echo). The stop unification was somewhat limited and seven of the 20 ranks were on "straight" ventil chests.
The organ experienced the typical 1920's-1930's life cycle:accompaniament for silent films and stage shows, then limited use following the advent of sound films.
In 1946, floodwaters from the nearby Chemung River damaged the console and Kinetic blower. Installation of theatre air conditioning in the 1950's left the Echo chamber gutted. Some damage also occured in the other two chambers.
In 1961, a group of local theatre organ enthusiasts began the daunting task of repairing the damaged components and replacing missing ranks. The purchase of a three manual/fifteen rank Marr & Colton organ from the Palace Theatre in Jamestown, NY greatly aided the project. Many years of effort working around a busy movie schedule resulted in a playable organ and a concert was presented in 1965. The organ was occasionally played by visiting organists for informal gatherings until 1972.
In June of 1972, the Chemung River again flooded the city. some eight feet of water stood on the stage and the console floated for days until the orchestra pit could be pumped out. Glue joints in the console dissolved and the cabinet collapsed into a sorry heap of wood and mud.
The theatre owners elected to refurbish the building as necessary, but had no interest in rebuilding the organ.
The theatre closed in 1977 and Elmira civic leaders championed the opportunity for tis transormation into a performing arts center. The Samuel L. Clemens Center for Performing Arts was formed and the building renovations were soon underway. With financial support from the Clemens Center, members of the 1960's rebuilding team (David Teeter, the Peckham family and Montford Spencer) begain the rebuilding task again. A four manual Wurlitzer horseshoe console was purchased from Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawana, NY. A post horn was added and the organ was included on the opening night program featuring Ella Fitzgerald in October of 1977.
In 1978, the stop unification was expanded and an electronic memory combination system was installed in the console. An annual series of theatre organ concerts began that season featuring many outstanding artists.
In 1982 water came yet again! However this time the damage occured in the Main (left) chamber due to a large roof leak. Many components, including the chests and relay were severly damaged. The insurance settlement provided a core fund for a two year rebuilding effort by the Peckham family. The Main chamber was redesigned, the console specification was revised and a Z-tronics relay was installed. Also, several ranks were exchanged between the Main and Solo Chambers for better tonal balance: an Aeolian French Trumpet was added and a Wurlitzer Style D Trumped replaced the original Marr & Colton Tuba Sonora. Additionally, a 12-note Wurlitzer Wood Diaphone was donated by the Rochester Theatre Organ Society. These pipes came from the Regent Theatre in Rochester, NY.
In October 1985, the organ was again playable and its use continues to be part of the programming at the Clemens Center. In spite of its trials by water and building alterations, this organ remains the largest existing Marr & Colton theatre organ in an original theatre location.
David Peckham has been associated with L.A. Peckham & Son Pipe Organ Service since 1983. On most Sunday mornings, David can be found on the organ bench at the Horseheads, NY First United Methodist Church (with the trems off).
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