2014-06-12 / Front Page

The Opera House Becomes an 'Organ Donor'

By Jacquelyn Moorehead


Liz Drayton, of the Opera House Board of Directors, holds one of the many sugarpine organ pipes being donated to the American Theatre Organ Society. (Photo by Jacquelyn Moorehead) Liz Drayton, of the Opera House Board of Directors, holds one of the many sugarpine organ pipes being donated to the American Theatre Organ Society. (Photo by Jacquelyn Moorehead) While the Newport Opera House shut its doors some time ago and has long worked to raise funds to support a major restoration, a once-vital facet of the theatre has moved on. Its silent film era organ has been disassembled and its parts donated, enabling the once-remarkable instrument to play on, in some form at least. The Wurlitzer Hope Jones Orchestra unit was brought into the Opera House in 1926 to accompany silent films.

Liz Drayton, of the Opera House Newport Board of Directors, said dismantling and donating the organ was the best way to pay homage to the organ’s and silent film’s history. “Our contributions will help keep organ music alive and help people understand the incredible history of this theater,” she said.

In the Opera House’s glory days, the organ sat directly in front of the stage and played a major role in the silent film experience. The console, a horseshoe shaped key-desk, had two keyboards, which at a press of a key played any type of sound ranging from flutes and whistles to drums and xylophone. It was a mechanical orchestra designed for silent films, and the Opera House was one of the first in the area to employ such a system.

“It just sat dormant for years,” Drayton said sadly, “but when they put the console outside during remodeling at the Opera House, someone accidentally took it to the dump.”

“This was a very specific organ with a very specific purpose,” Drayton said, adding that the only use for the organ now is as replacement parts for other working organs.

At the beginning of the silent film era, theaters would have 40- 60 member orchestras to accompany movies, but the American invention of an orchestra organ reduced the size of the band to one person.

“This is a uniquely American instrument made for the heyday of theater; a lot were repossessed when talking films ended the organ era quite abruptly,” Donald Phipps, founder of the Eastern Massachusetts Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society (EMCATOS).

Bob Evans, the group’s president, and Phipps removed the working parts. The organization, founded in 1956, preserves theater organs, and it owns and maintains organs at the Ziterion Theater in New Bedford and the Knight Auditorium at Babson College in Wellesley. The donated parts will be used in organs throughout Massachusetts.

“Unfortunately, the only value the organ has is as parts for other instruments,” Evans said. “Without the console, we couldn’t do a restoration.”

The nonprofit Newport Performing

Arts Center is working to restore the theater back to its original purpose as a performance space and hopes to hold the grand opening for the renovated Opera House in 2017, just in time for it's 150th anniversary.

Drayton, who would like to save some of the smaller remaining pipes as possible gifts for sponsors of the new renovation, said before it is all said and done, she wants the pipes to perform at the Opera House. “I’d like to find a musician who can play them one last time on our stage,” she said.

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