Historic organ is in need of tuneup

Under healthier circumstances people could spend their noon hour today hearing a performance on the 94-year-old Kimball Theatre Pipe Organ in the State Office Building lobby. But while human symptoms of the COVID-19 pandemic are in remission, the long-idle instrument needs some speciality care and perhaps, ahem, organ donors.

“Sadly, ever since COVID and when the concerts stopped, the organ has fallen into disrepair and is unplayable,” T.J. Duffy, who alternated weekly lunchtime concerts with J. Allan MacKinnon for many years until they were halted in 2020, wrote in an email interview this week.

MacKinnon, in an interview Thursday, said “it needs tuning and there are a few dead notes.” The organ also needs an assessment of what specifically needs repairing and how much it will cost, and efforts are underway to see if a Seattle company that has maintained the organ in the past can do so now.

“Some of their technicians have gotten quite elderly and we’re not sure if there’s anybody still doing that kind work,” he said, adding there are others elsewhere who can be sought out if necessary.

The 1928 organ with its 548 pipes (“ranging from pencil-size to eight-foot lengths,” according to an official description) was an object of little attention during much of the workday Thursday. Aside from a few passersby stopping momentarily to look at the wall-mounted plaques about the organ’s history before passing on, only a lone tour group of about a dozen people lingered long enough to hear some words about the now-silent instrument.

Only a handful of employees in the building spent their lunch hour in the lobby, but there were fond memories of more tuneful times and hopes they will eventually return.

“I tried to come as often as I could,” said Rodrigo Guzman, a job coach for REACH since 2017 who works with custodians in the building employed by the program, describing the organ’s sound as “amazing.”

“It’s pretty cool, like the old cathedrals and the old churches,” he said. “It’s interesting to watch so many pipes, so many keys, so many elements.”

The organ was originally installed in Juneau’s Coliseum Theatre in 1928, then moved to the 20th Century Theatre in 1939-1940. It remained there until 1976, with MacKinnon among those performing on it, when it was moved to the State Office Building.

The Friday lunchtime concerts are enough of a landmark occurrence a wood plaque next to the instrument still declares the next concert is on that day at noon with MacKinnon performing. But a paper sign that’s been posted next to it for some time notes the performances are actually canceled indefinitely, although the “good news” is a committee is working “to help support and maintain the instrument.”

The efforts in recent years are being made by Friends of the Alaska State Library, Archives and Museum, since the museum owns the organ. A post on the group’s Facebook page in November of 2019 notes “the State Office Building reverberated with the thrilling sounds of Stars Wars, Mama Mia, Indiana Jones movies, and the Beer Barrel Polka, among others” in a performance by an organist visiting from Portland, Oregon, in a concert before third-grade students and state employees during which $270 in donations were raised.

“But tuning costs so much more than that,” the post noted, inviting further donations to the organization’s maintenance fund at its website.

What effort will be made for the more intensive “post-pandemic” healing is still a work in progress, but Duffy and MacKinnon — and casual listeners like Guzman — agree it’s an effort that’s worthwhile.

“To me the worst thing one can do to a musical instrument is NOT play it,” Duffy wrote. “There was no vandalism or construction issues. It’s just old and there is no money to give it the consistent routine maintenance it requires. In my nearly 13 years of association with the organ it had only been tuned twice.”

Preserving the theater organ is all the more important because they are now very rare instruments, he added.

“They were all the rage in the 1920s as they provided live real-time accompaniment to silent films during the silent film era,” he wrote. “There are less than 300 nationwide and this is the only public one in Alaska that is used regularly.”

MacKinnon, who figuratively quips “I’ve been associated with that organ for a thousand years,” said it is still mostly in good condition and, as with many ailments, the healing process is just a matter of time.

“It will be played again,” he vowed.

Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com.

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