Three theater pipe organs are still being played throughout the city thanks to a unique history and tradition among local enthusiasts.
Driving the news: Every holiday season, typically the busiest time for organists, new visitors at the Redford Theatre are introduced to the world of theater organs.
- It’s home to a Barton pipe organ installed upon the theater’s opening in 1928.
- While places like the DIA and Little Caesars Arena have classic pipe organs, they aren’t made like the theater organ, which also has pipes with special effects sounds like birds, whistles, and steam horns.
Why it matters: “It’s not as huge as it used to be, but it’s making a comeback that you can see from the number of smaller towns that are restoring what’s left,” Carl Kiehler tells Axios. As a member of the Motor City Theatre Organ Society, which operates the Redford, he has volunteered there since 1977. “In a lot of places there’s only one theater and they realize it’s the heart of the community and they’ve got to save it.”
Zoom in: Two organs were saved from the old Fisher Theatre in the 1960s installed inside the Fox Theatre downtown and the Senate Theater on Michigan Avenue.
- The Senate had been unusable for decades until volunteers with the Detroit Theater Organ Society led a restoration in 2013. Kiehler calls it “spectacular.”
Fox Theatre’s theater organ has two consoles. The console is what you see, the organ itself is the chamber of pipes and percussion instruments being struck by sticks and mallets.
- A history of the dozens of pipe organs in Detroit during the 20th century and where they are today can be found here.
Both local organ organizations are members of the American Theatre Organ Society.
- “We are the only two chapters of the whole entire organization that own their own building. The other chapters around the country maintain their organs in theaters that somebody else owns,” Kiehler says.
- That’s become a big deal as more old theaters are torn down or replaced, as finding a home where they can be properly used is logistically challenging.
- The organ that called the recently demolished United Artists Theatre home since 1927 was removed from the theater in 1974 and reinstalled in the Universal Mall in Warren in 1980.
- Most of the organ and its console are now installed in Lafayette, Indiana.
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