What does a pizza shop have to do with organ music? If you suddenly have mental images of Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center opening its doors to paper plates dripping with savory, tomatoe-dripping pastry and cups of barley and malt, think again. But, if you are in the 700-seat Organ Stop Pizza restaurant in Mesa, Arizona, you can have the experience of eating your favorite pie while listening to the high-pressure Wurlitzer theatre organ 363 evenings a year played by Lew Williams and others. It was built for the Denver Theatre, installed in 1927, and was used regularly until the early 1930s with the advent of the talking picture.
Enter Kansas City's Music Hall Sunday, September 15, 2013. The house lights go down, the spots come on an empty stage, and suddenly you hear music that fully engulfs the cavernous room; loud music coming from the full-length burgundy drapes on either side of the Music Hall's massive stage. There is no visible cause for the sound, but you expect the center curtains to rise, revealing an entire big band; no, this is an organ program. Just then, there is movenent just below the center front of the stage. As the happy music continues, a gaudy white, 1500 pound console with gold filigree rises from the depths to stage level, adorned by a guy with a powder-blue jacket, intently pressing keys with both hands and pedals with both feet, filling the room with solo saxophone, backup band, bells, snares and all kinds of live percussion creating familiar music, at least for the Lawrence Welk crowd. It isn't Widor. Lew Williams really included music for those who feel warm and cozy with the music of Duke Ellington, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, Mancini or Abba; the music is intended to tickle, not challenge the ears
Many classical organists support the theatre organ movement, it is rather like supporting national parks for the keyboardists. Lew Williams himself is classically trained, with a Bachelor of Music and Performer's Certificate from TCU, graduate training at the Conservatory of Music in Geneva, Switzerland and a Master of Music degree from SMU; he is among the few who found a job doing what they enjoy.
The modern ideal wind pressure for classical organs is 2 to 3," theatre organs typically use 7 to 10" of pressure, giving them much more presence and ability to produce believable sound effects. Wind instruments, both brass and reed, sound particularly genuine. While there are prominent organ builders who stay quite busy building and maintaining classical instruments, theatre organs are being restored, usually not in the theatres for which they were designed, as most movies come with soundtracks nowadays. The American Theatre Organ Society and chapters, and locally, Kansas City Theatre Pipe Organ, Inc., are recruiting support, both human and financial, to keep thes grand dames in service. If you have in interest in learning more about thes organs and how you can get involved, click the links.