Saved from the woodpile, John Dickinson High School's two working theater organs are still in action with annual shows and productions

As Glenn Hough sits down at the console of the white organ at the edge of the stage at John Dickinson High School, he breaks into a wide grin.

“It’s like being a conductor,” he says, hitting buttons and flipping switches.

Seconds later, the theater of the Pike Creek area school fills with the rich sound of church music, the low end bass rumbling in your ears, the high end awash in the distinctive warble of a pipe organ.

For over 40 years, Dickinson has been home to a 1920s-era Opus 7050 Kimball pipe organ that once sat at the now-defunct Boyd’s Theater in Philadelphia.

The organ, which recreates the sound of a full orchestra by pushing air through a series of pipes and percussion instruments, was originally used for live performances and to add music and sound effects to silent films.

Working through a program through RKO-Stanley Warner, school community member Bob Dilworth was able to obtain the organ after “much, much negotiation” from the theater’s new owners in 1968.

When Dilworth and company inspected the organ, they found years of disuse had left it in poor condition.

“We fixed it up enough at the theater to give a ‘Farewell Philadelphia’ concert in February 1969,” Dilworth said, noting that famed Philly organist Larry Ferrari performed for a sold-out house for the show. 

A year later, when the organ was fully repaired and installed, Ferrari came to Dickinson for its inaugural concert at its new home – again, a sold-out performance.

“We’ve been doing shows ever since – we’re almost to 300 full-fledged concerts,” Dilworth said.

The Dickinson Theater Organ Society’s annual shows attract audiences from throughout the region and talent from across the globe, according to theater manager Carl Black.

“The instrument is known internationally,” Black said. “It’s the fourth largest theater organ in the world, and probably one of the three top performing instruments in the world, so people really want to play on it. They love to come here. And it’s right here in Pike Creek.”

A few years after installing the Kimball, the DTOS acquired a second “Master” organ console from the former Stanley Theater in Baltimore.

Completely gutted when it was donated, DTOS members reworked and updated the organ to allow for dual-organ shows, with the Kimball and the Dickinson Theater piano all linked together.

Organ crew leader Paul Harris manages a group of nine volunteers who work to keep the organs and their pipes in working order.

Made up of 4,490 pipes hidden away in the walls and spaces of the theater, Harris said the instruments work by pushing air through pipes specifically tuned to perfectly replicate the sound of different orchestral elements.

“If the player wants a saxophone, when they hit that coordinating switch, then that pipe reproduces the sound of a saxophone,” Harris said. “If they want a percussion instrument like a xylophone or glockenspiel, there’s an actual instrument up there for that sound.”

The organ’s complete inner workings include three chambers, 66 ranks (or sets) of pipes, 11 tuned percussions and other drums and cymbals, and sound effects – literally, bells and whistles.

A 30-watt generator in the basement creates and pushes the air for the performer, as they work keys, switches, buttons, and a series of floor pedals to execute preset soundscapes.

The ultimate organ experience

Hough likened the experience of playing the organ to being an airplane aficionado, hanging out at airshows, dreaming of one day flying an F-16.

“This is the F-16,” he said of the Kimball.

Black said that although the society hosts a number of shows every season, the concerts are no longer the sell-out affairs they once were.

“It’s an aging audience, for certain,” Black said. “We’d obviously like to see more people here for the shows, because it’s simply such a beautiful instrument.”

With six shows on the calendar for the 2018-19 season, the Society is also hosting an open house night on Saturday, Oct. 20 from 1 to 5 p.m., where people can see the organs in action, view the pipes and instruments, and check out a show with the original 1925 Lon Chaney silent classic, “The Phantom of the Opera.”

The first show this season is Saturday, Sept. 22 at 7 p.m., featuring Alex Jones from the Eastman School of Music, the winner of the 2017 ATOS Young Artist Competition.

The Society is also hosting a special free holiday program on Saturday, Dec. 1 at 7 p.m., with free tickets available at the show.

“This is our way of giving back to the community that has been so supportive of our programs, and to show off just what we have here and what it can do,” Black said.

For a complete list of shows, ticket information and photos, visit dtoskimball.org.