Photo of the McCook Console, complete with Howard Seat
This story made the front page of the McCook Daily Gazette the week of 12/27/99. Altho some of the information in the story is inaccurate, it is reprinted here for your enjoyment and we are proud that the Gazette played a role in returning the organ home, as did the TheatreOrgans.com homepages.
Internet helps bring theater organ home
Ray Search is photographed as a 15-year-old projectionist. (Photo courtesy High Plains Historical Society)
By RONDA GRAFF/Gazette Writer
New technology has helped bring the past back to McCook. Because of an online theater organ seller and an e-mail, the original organ from the Fox Theatre has returned to McCook. While it is not in working order, the McCook buyer plans to have the music flowing again in the 72-year-old building.
The organ's return trip started with Jerrell Kautz of Houston, a former McCook resident and founder of KZMC radio, who regularly buys and sells organs over the Internet. He found an organ in Denver with the words "McCook" and "World Theatre" etched in it and contacted McCook Daily Gazette Publisher Gene Morris about returning the organ to McCook. He in turn contacted John Hubert of McCook, current house manager of the Fox Theatre, which originally was known as the World Theatre.
Hubert plans to have the Marr & Colton organ professionally restored, which he thinks will work although it will be no small task.
The World Theatre organ was one of thousands of theater pipe organs installed across America in the 1910s and '20s. While originally the term "theater organ" referred to any organ installed in a theatre, as the instrument evolved, the term began to refer to this specific type of instrument, whether or not it was installed in a theater.
The existence of a theater organ in McCook and across America can be solely attributed to the fact that the movies of the time were silent. Music was required for these shows which usually include live on-stage acts such as singing and dancing.
The Marr & Colton organ was installed in 1926, when the World Theatre was built, and saw its first performance in January 1927. For the next five years, the organ and its organists delighted movie-goers with its orchestral sounds. But the writing was on the wall, because also in 1927, an event occurred, which would forever change the theater and the future of the organ - the film, "The Jazz Singer," debuted.
The first "talking picture" with talking and music meant musical accompaniment was no longer needed.
But during those early decades, the role of the movies, the theater organ and the theater played an important role in America, towns large and small. Ornately-decorated downtown theater became known as the "movie palace" or the "cathedral of the motion picture," and every city neighborhood and small town boasted at least one "Bijou," according to the American Theatre Organ Society. And that movie would likely be part of a large show with musical numbers and stage acts, all requiring a giant pipe organ.
And added incentive for an organ was the savings afforded by having to pay only one musician, who could produce sounds nearing an orchestra of a dozen players.
When the 970-seat World Theatre opened in McCook on Jan. 31, 1927, the theater, the organ and the idea drew thousands of people from three states and prompted a newspaper section dedicated to the theater opening and a well-received follow-up story.
"Another bright feather in McCook's cap." That is how writers referred to the theater on Jan. 28. "One of the finest theatres in the state with motion pictures, vaudeville and stage attractions," which was operated by the World Theatre Circuit with the World Theatre at Omaha as its parent playhouse organization.
The preview article continued: "In conjunction with big productions of the picture studios, there will be introduced vaudeville, music comedy and, now and then, an orchestra of national reputation."
The role of the organ and music in general soon came into play in the story: "Music will be a most important feature with World presentations.
"The Marr & Colton organ is the unified type, which has the effect of a 70-piece orchestra, can be produced. The longest pipe is 32 feet and shortest is the size of an ordinary lead pencil." The organ could reproduce a wide variety of instruments including violin, viola, cello, bass, trumpet, trombone, tuba, flute, clarinet, French horn, English horn, oboe and saxophone.
On opening night, the newly-formed orchestra and the new organ made their debut. The orchestra was directed by J. Sidney Gates of Kansas City, Mo., and included Geraldine Brown of Cambridge as the organist, Alexander Hamline of Omaha as the drummer, Al Raduenz of McCook on the trumpet and Rolland Larmon of McCook on the trombone.
All of this for 10 or 25 cents at the matinee or 10 or 40 cents at the evening show.
Those involved with the Fox Theatre recall its glory days and the role of the theater organ.
Ray Search of McCook has been involved with the Fox Theatre nearly its entire existence, playing a role in nearly every phase of the theater including repairing the theater's organ. He started as a sidewalk sweeper outside the theater and eventually moved inside to work as a reel rewinder. With each reel lasting only about 10 minutes, he was kept busy.
At age 15, he took over as projectionist after the previous worker couldn't keep a steady speed - he either went too fast or too slow, Search said.
At the same time, he was gradually learning more and more about the theater organs. He helped set up the Wurlitzer pipe organ at the Temple Theater in 1921, the first theater organ in McCook.
"I learned every little thing about it by watching and listening," he said. "I didn't have to go to college to learn that. I knew the insides and out of the organ," including the new Marr & Colton organ at the World Theatre.
The theater organs brought a bit of the city life to McCook. Before McCook got a theater with an organ, people used to go to Denver to hear organists, he said.
"That organ had everything in it," Search recalled about the Marr & Colton. "There were lots of cables for every little note."
"But what a great thing the organs were," he said.
Mildred Lymon played the organ for two years in the early 1930s at the Fox Theatre. She shared her duties with one other organist, usually playing the afternoon show.
The story of how Lymon ended up with the job at the Fox Theatre and her career afterward is almost at storied as the organ itself.
Born in McDonald, Kan., Lymon was in her sophomore year at the University of Nebraska and regularly took the train from McCook to Lincoln. One day, she and her father had some extra time before the train left McCook, so they walked up Main Street (now Norris Avenue) to take in a movie.
"The organ player wasn't very good," she recalled from her home in Escindo, Calif.
When she got to Lincoln, she wrote a letter to the theater manager, highlighting the performance, most notably the lack of ability, of the current organist. He wrote back, offering her the job.
At the end of her sophomore year, she moved to McCook and for the next two years she played everyday at the Fox Theater and the town's other theater, the Temple Theater. Her career in McCook ended with the arrival of movies with sound.
Lymon continued to play the piano, eventually playing with the American School of Ballet, at production all around New York City and with a troupe in Canada.
The 73-year-old organ now is awaiting its fate. Hubert is still in the investigation stage about the organ's history and the restoration process.
The actual organ and its attached, split seat are stored at the High Plains Museum in McCook, taking up a large section of a wall. Since the pipes range from the size of a pencil to 32-feet tall and number more than 300, they are stored in a separate building owned by Hubert. Because the last owner made the organ and its pipes fit into a private residence, the 32-foot pipe was cut in half, resulting in two 16-foot pipes, Hubert said. While the organ worked with this alteration, it is not the same as being in one piece.
Returning the organ to the Fox Theatre presents another concern because the inside of the theater has changed since the organ was removed in the 1930s. Along with an enlarged screen and stage area, the organ itself moved at least twice during its time in the theater, originally placed in the southwest end of the building and then moved to the northwest corner. Hubert was not sure why the organ was moved, but he speculated that people wanted something different and moving the organ was one way to do it.
Whether or not the organ is restored and returned to the theater, the fact that it has come about at all thrills those with first-hand knowledge of the organ.
"It's a wonderful idea," Lymon said. "An organ and a picture show - that's a very enjoyable experience."
Removing organs from theaters in the first place was not the wisest move according to Lymon. "People think they're making an improvement, but in the long run, they're not," she said.