The History of the Barton Organ
From: The Michigan Theater Celebrates Twenty-five Years of Organ Overtures
Sept./Oct. Feature Article from The Journal of the American Theater Organ
Author: Dr. Henry B. Aldridge
It all began on an October evening in 1972 when Rupert Otto seated himself at the console of the newly restored 3/13 Barton pipe organ in Ann Arbor's Michigan Theater and waited for the closing credits of The Poseidon Adventure to end. As the curtain closed over the screen and the house light came up, he began to play his theme from Gordon Jenkin's Manhattan Tower and for the first time in over 25 years, movie audiences heard the sounds of the Michigan Theater's pipe organ. Most patrons that night were so surprised that they sat down and listened for the entire intermission. Some of the curious gathered around the console as it came up on the four-poster lift.
Now, twenty-five years later, audiences are no longer surprised by the organ. Rather, they have come to expect it. Rupert Otto has moved on to a comfortable retirement in Chelsea, Michigan, but his duties are now carrier out by a staff of 5 organists who give public performances on the Barton at least six times per week (These days, there are 6 organists and the organ is normally played Wed-Sunday. A daily calendar of events listing organists and show times is available online at www.michtheater.com under "films". Click here to link to the MI Theater Organ Department site and see an up to date list of MITH organ staff). In addition to these regularly scheduled "overture" presentations, the Barton is used to provide music for silent films and is occasionally featured with the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra. During the past thirty years, the instrument has been played thousands of times and has been heard by more people than any other pipe organ in the area.
The Michigan Theater's Barton was built as Opus 245 and was installed in the fall of 1927, just prior to the theater's opening on January 4, 1928. The instrument is three ranks larger tan the standard 3/10 configuration known as the "Butterfield Special" usually placed in the theaters operated by the W.S. Butterfield chain throughout Michigan. The additional ranks include a Post Horn, Solo String and Oboe Horn. Also, the organ has a larger scale Tibia and a more powerful blower. The console is a "deluxe" model with five solo pistons, seven great pistons, and seven accompaniment pistons. With extra voices, higher wind pressures, and amore console versatility, this particular Barton is exceptional. The instrument is just the right size for the auditorium and can fill it easily with sound without being over powering. No one seems to know why the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor would receive an instrument that was different from those found in other Butterfield houses. On possibility is that the Ann Arbor Michigan Theater's manager Gerry Hoag, insisted on a more "deluxe" model. The other is that the Michigan in Ann Arbor is somewhat larger than most Butterfield houses; thus a larger instrument was needed.
The Barton was played for the first month following the theater's opening by Floyd Hoffman who was a staff organist for the Barton Company. In February, 1928, the was replaced by Harold Loring. W.A. Warner took over from Loring in June, 1928 and played for the next three months. In September, 1928, Bob Howland (click here to see feature interview page) began a two year tenure. In 1932, Paul Tomkins became house organist and remained in that post until the early 1950's. Surviving records are spotty, but they seem to indicate that the organ was used regularly until Tomkins was drafted in 1941. Following his return from active duty, Tomkins played only on special occasions until some time in the early 1950's.
Originally, the instrument was used to accompany silent films and at other times in combination with the theater's eleven piece orchestra. Talking films arrived at the Michigan Theater in the summer of 1929, and the orchestra was dismissed. From then on, the organ played a solo or novelty number. No written descriptions, photographs, or recordings survive from the early years, but the organ was mentioned in newspaper advertisements on a regular basis throughout the 1930's.
In the 1960's, the instrument suffered water damage which disabled much of the pipework in the Main or left side (Proscenium Left. Stage Right). This included the Diapason, Tuba, String, and String Celeste ranks. However, the rest of the organ was playable, and there exist tape recordings of late night performances by such notables as Bill Nalle, Patty Driscoll, and Quentin Maclean. During the years when it was not in active use, the organ was protected by a canvas cover and by a vigilant theater staff. Manager Gerry Hoag liked the instrument and made sure that it was protected. He never contemplated disposing of the organ as did the managers of so many other theaters at the time.
Restoration of the Barton began in the spring of 1972 and took just over one year to complete. Members of the Motor City Chapter of ATOS provided the labor and expertise, but were supervised and coordinated by Ben Levy of Ann Arbor. Levy, a professional engineer, gained experience with pipe organs by assisting with he installation of the Fisher Theater Wurlitzer in Detroit's Senate Theater. Levy, and a crew consisting of Dave Lau, John Minick, and Henry Aldridge plus a number of individuals from Motor City releathered the console, cleaned all pipework, and repaired water damaged chests.
By spring of 1972, the organ was sufficiently restored so that it could be played in public. Motor City sponsored a preview concert in June, 1972, by Lyn Larsen. He brought the glittering gold and red console up to the strains of Hail to the Victors the famous University of Michigan fight song. The sellout crowd was enthralled by the instrument and demanded several encores of Larsen. Following the success of that concert, the theater's manager decided to feature the organ in public performances on a regular basis. Thus in October, 1972, the movie overture tradition began.
At the same time, Motor City members living in Ann Arbor started an ambitious series of monthly open houses at the Michigan Theater. These "Second Sunday" programs featured a concert by a local or regional organist and then an open console period during which guests could play. Second Sundays attracted a loyal group of theater organ fans who were later to be very important to the theater itself. Under the direction of Barbara Cook, Ruth Rolstrom, Bo Hanley, and Jo Lau, the Second Sundays flourished until the early 1980's. They were publicized by a newsletter that proved to be an important way for sharing information about the theater and its future. Throughout the 1970's, the organ was maintained by Ben Levy with the able assistance of Grant Cook, Bob Hanley, Dave Lau, and Howard Rolston.
In the spring of 1978, organist Rupert Otto heard a rumor that the Michigan Theater was to be converted into a hopping mall. He informed members of Motor City and immediately the group committed itself to saving the Michigan Theater. During the next twelve months, Motor City members successfully enlisted the help of Ann Arbor mayor Lou Belcher who established the Michigan Theater Foundation with incorporating officers Earl Green, Henry Aldridge, John Hathaway, and Belcher himself.
The Foundation then began negotiations with the family of Angelo Poulos who constructed the Michigan Theater in 1928 and still owned it. They entered into a 50-year lease with W.S. Butterfield Corporation in 1928, and it was the expiration of this lease and Butterfield's failure to renew it which had brought about the Poulos family's search for a new use for the Michigan Theater building. The family had no desire to demolish the Michigan Theater, but thinking that the building's continued use as a theater was out of the question, they began to explore other options. Their first plan was to gut the interior of the building and convert it into retail space.
One week before the theater closed, the nonprofit Michigan Theater Foundation successfully negotiated a long-term land contract purchase agreement with the Poulos family, and prepared to take over the theater in August, 1979, immediately following the end of the Theater's operations as a commercial motion picture house. During the final week, Butterfield manager Barry Miller thoughtfully scheduled The Sound of Music and graciously asked the staff organists to play for every show. For one grand week, the Barton was played at every performance of the film. The Michigan Theater closed its doors as a movie house on August 4, 1979, and final organ overture honors went to Newton Bates who lowered the Barton on its four-poster lift to the strains of Goodnight Sweetheart. Everyone concerned hoped hat the theater's closure would be brief, but no one knew for certain.
Fortunately, the theater was dark for only six weeks! In early October, 1979, the Michigan Theater Foundation presented the film Gigi, and the Barton organ played again to a house of over six hundred people. Other movies followed, and groups were soon inquiring about renting the theater for concerts and meetings. During that first year, volunteers, many of whom were ALTOS members, staffed, cleaned, and programmed the Michigan Theater.
By May, 1980, the success of the Michigan Theater seemed assured, and the Michigan Theater Foundation hired a full-time manager to take over operations of the building. He brought together a staff, and gradually freed chapter members from their obligations as janitors, popcorn sellers, and film bookers. As the Michigan Theater ventured into live programs, some ATOS members feared that there would be fewer opportunities for the Barton to be heard. However, this proved to not be the case due to (the fact that) a sufficient number of films continued to be booked to keep the Barton before the public. The only casualty of the Michigan Theater's new role as a community performing arts center was the "Second Sunday" monthly t
eater organ open house. The theater interior became so busy with rehearsals, set construction, cleaning, and maintenance that the once vacant Sunday mornings became fully scheduled. With the end of the Second Sunday open houses, the role played by the chapter at the Michigan Theater gradually declined. Today, organ related activities are supervised exclusively by the Michigan Theater Foundation. (Click here to link to the MI Theater Organ Department site)
Silent movies have been a staple at the Michigan Theater since the Barton was restored. They were featured during ATOS concerts by Lyn Larsen, Gaylord Carter, Lee Erwin, Dennis James, and Karl Cole in the 1970's. In the 1980's, the Michigan Theater Foundation scheduled silent film presentations featuring Carl Daehler's Ann Arbor Chamber Orchestra with Dennis James at the organ. More recently, the theater has inaugurated a Sounds of Silents series featuring both organ and orchestral accompaniments. (Click here to link to the MI Theater website and online film/events calendar) Some of the other silent films that have played the Michigan are: Phantom of the Opera, The Birth of a Nation, La Boheme, Don Juan, Robin Hood, Sherlock Jr., Thief of Baghdad, Nosferatu, and Metropolis.
In 1956, he Michigan Theater was modernized when the W.S. Butterfield corporation decided to remove mirrors, chandeliers, sconces, and decorative mouldings. The resulting stripped-down surfaces were painted a dull gray. In 1986, the theater was partially restored in a $1.2 million endeavor that returned the grand foyer and most of the main auditorium to their original gilded appearance of 1928. In 1998, the balance of the theater will be restored , and this will include the balcony, outer lobby and facade. In addition, a small screening room and more restroom facilities will be constructed on property immediately adjacent to the north side of the theater. (Editors note: These changes have since been completed. The final restoration of the theater was effected with the erection of the new vertical Marquee as part of the 75th anniversary celebrations in the Fall of 2002.)
The Michigan Theater Foundation considers the Barton organ to be an integral part of the historical theater and has therefore decided to retain the instrument's original combination action, relay, and four-poster lift. The Foundation is committed to keep the organ as original and historically accurate as possible. Also, the Foundation wants to insure that the instrument will continue to be a center piece of the theater. By keeping the console firmly attached to the cable and windline conduit, it hopes to guarantee that the instrument will never be moved from the theater's orchestra pit and relegated to a a dark corner of the the stage.
The extraordinary success of the Michigan Theater's Barton organ can be traced primarily to the excellent relationship which has always existed between the "organ people" and the theater management. When the Motor City Chapter of the ATOS initiated the restoration project in 1970, it had the complete support of the Michigan Theater's longtime manager Gerry Hoag. The theater provided funds for supplies needed to restore the organ, and Motor City always respected the fact that the instrument was the property of the theater. It was this recognition that led members of Motor City to support regularly scheduled public performances rather than limiting the instrument's use to private club functions.
In addition, many of the people who worked on the organ became active in other aspects of the theater's operation after it was purchased by the nonprofit foundation in 1979. In fact, it was a nucleus of the theater organ devotees who established the foundation and actually operated the theater for more than a year until a professional staff could be hired. Ben Levy, who supervised all maintenance on the organ until his death in 1995, was active on several of the foundation's committees as were David Lau, Grant Cook, and Newton Bates. As a result, the professional staff have come to know the individuals who work on t organ and consider them to be invaluable assets to the Michigan Theater.
Another explanation for the success of the Michigan Theater's Barton is the high standard of performance quality expected of the organists. There are now five staff organists and these include three professionals John Lauter, Jim Leaffe, and Father Jim Miller. Newton Bates and Henry Aldridge are volunteers with many years of training and experience. Over the years, the theater has moved toward the employment of paid organists and away from a dependence on volunteers. As a result, the quality of the playing is outstanding. Many of the public overtures are of concert quality. (Click here to link to the MI Theater Organ Department site)
The same professionalism also applies to maintaining the organ. Following Ben Levy's death, the theater hired Scott Smith of Lansing, Michigan, to take care of the Barton. Scott is also a distinguished concert artist and an experienced staff organist himself. He understands that the Barton must be in excellent playing condition at all times and makes frequent trips to Ann Arbor to insure that everything will be perfect when the organ is played. This reliance on paid, professional staff guarantees that the Barton is ready at all times.
What this all adds up to is that the Michigan Theater has become one of the best places in the country to hear theater organ music of high quality. In the month of September, 1997, for example, the organ was played 22 times for film overtures and was used to accompany four silent feature-length films. During the previous years it had played over 300 items in public. This number included 15 silent films, several weddings, private parties, and concerts.
The Barton organ is very popular with movie going audiences who expect to hear it regularly. They always applaud enthusiastically at the end of each performance. The theater regularly receives telephone calls from patrons who want to know when the organ will be played. A common remark that staff members hear from patrons as they enter the theater's lobby is "Wow! They're playing the organ!" Visitors often express their disappointment when the organ is not played.
Over the years, the Michigan Theater has become he most active theatrical venue in Ann Arbor. Over 150,000 people attend events in a given year, and these include films, concerts, plays, parties, weddings, lectures, and business meetings. The Michigan Theater is home to the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, the Ann Arbor Civic Ballet, and the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival. In addition, the university of Michigan Musical Society, and the Ann Arbor Civic Theater hold events in the Michigan.
At the core of the Michigan Theater's programming are motion pictures. The theater's screen is lit almost every day with a wide variety of classic, foreign, independent, experimental, and revival films. The Michigan has become one of the most successful art cinemas in the united States. Some of the theater's most recent successes have been The Crying Game, The Piano, Hamlet, Shall We Dance, and The Full Monty. People come from over 100 miles away to see the theater's outstanding schedule of films. Through it all, the Barton pipe organ continues to be the Michigan Theater's central attraction, a beloved showpiece and community treasure.
Long may she remain!
Henry Aldridge is a Professor in t Department of Communication and Theater Arts at Eastern Michigan University and is Director of the MI Theater Organ Department.
For a complete list of times and performers at specific events, please visit the MI Theater online film calendar at michtheater.com