After more than five years of restoration, the Michigan Theater's pipe organ is back in full voice.
by Fionn Pooler
From the December, 2019 issue
The Barton Organ, which was installed prior to the opening of the theater in 1928, can still be heard on an almost daily basis, entertaining moviegoers pre-show as well as accompanying some of early Hollywood's most famous silent films on the big screen. It's played by a revolving lineup of professional and volunteer organists, some of whom have been deeply involved in the renovations.
The revitalization began in 2014 with the organ console and blower, which were each rebuilt and improved. In 2018, the pipes and their mechanisms in the left chamber of the theater's main auditorium were rebuilt and restored. And finally this past summer the right chamber was returned to its original glory. October saw the organ's triumphant comeback, providing a suitably spooky accompaniment to the silent horror classic Nosferatu.
"It's pretty common that a pipe organ has to be rebuilt about every forty or fifty years, and this organ is ninety-two years old," says David Hufford, whose company Renaissance Pipe Organ Co. did the restoration. Hufford, who's also one of the theater's house organists, says that after so many years of service it was getting to a point where it was "literally falling apart." It was due "for a rebuild to put everything back in like-new order."
Hufford holds two U-M degrees in organ performance, but he credits his aptitude for restoring them to a childhood spent fixing everything he could get his hands on. Combined with his love of pipe organ music, that led naturally to work as a technician and the founding of his company with business partner Elgin Clingaman in 1993.
While the work on the organ's electrical systems involved modern updates--technology and building code have come a long way in ninety years--the rest of the renovation has been as historically accurate as possible. This includes using the same glue (horsehide) and wood finish (amber shellac) as when the organ was first installed. "All the work in the chambers is being done
just in the manner of the original work," says Hufford. "We consider this part of the work an historic restoration because we're not altering anything."
Russ Collins, executive director and CEO of the Michigan and State theaters, is keen to stress the role the organ has played in the history of the theater. When, in 1979, developers were seriously discussing turning it into a food court, the volunteers who had worked on the organ rallied the community to save the theater. "It's got historical importance," Collins says, "in terms of the origin of the current configuration of the Michigan Theater as a nonprofit community institution."
The immediate goal, Collins says, was to have the organ back to regular use, with a bigger celebration planned for January for the theater's ninety-second birthday. The organ "is rather unique in that it's played several times a week, fifty-two weeks a year, for the public," Collins says. "That was the tradition before we closed it down for renovation, and it will continue to be the policy for the foreseeable future."
"Even at ninety-two years old, the organ continues to generate quite a lot of excitement at the theater," Hufford says. "It's always a real thrill when we're playing before the movies and we have parents bring up their kids to see what's going on.
"It really does remain a very vital and unique part of the Michigan Theater."
[Originally published in December, 2019.]
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