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Pipe dreams: Longtime Catonsville group brings theater organs back to life

Buddy Boyd of Baltimore, president of The Free State Theatre Organ Society, plays the theater organ currently being restored at Spring Grove Hospital.
Buddy Boyd of Baltimore, president of The Free State Theatre Organ Society, plays the theater organ currently being restored at Spring Grove Hospital. (Nicole Munchel / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Buddy Boyd grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and became fascinated with theater organs and their music. Before turning 20, Boyd already was involved with organ groups, and his love for the old-time instrument only became stronger over time.

Bernie Kuder also heard theater organs many times during his childhood years in Baltimore. The sound they produced enthralled him, and Kuder has remained involved with theater organs despite the fact that the presence of the instrument has been fading in recent years.

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Now, both Boyd and Kuder are part of The Free State Theatre Organ Society Inc., based in Catonsville for 40 years. Boyd is president of the organization, while Kuder serves as secretary. They’re also co-crew chiefs on a project in which their group is restoring and installing a pipe organ in the Rice Auditorium at Spring Grove Hospital Center.

Those on the crew work on the organ one day a week and have done so for the past 12 years, and Boyd is hoping the project will be completed sometime in the next two years. In other words, it’s a project that could take 14 years.

Why would they do something like this?

“It’s a love of the music, that’s why we do this,” Boyd said. “I grew up in Richmond. I grew up with all of these things playing and making music, and I loved it. It was both popular and classical transcriptions.

"They were playing opera, they were playing orchestral, they were playing all of that … [and] modern music. You could do it all, and I heard it all, and I fell in love with the sound of the instrument.”

Both men, retired engineers, have enjoyed working on the challenging project. Kuder lives in Phoenix, Maryland, and drives about 25 miles to be at the Rice Auditorium early in the morning to start working. It’s truly a labor of love with him.

“I’m usually here by 7 or 7:30 in the morning, and I work until 4 or 5 — sometimes later,” Kuder said. “I was raised with the theater organ. It’s because I love the sound. I do everything [that’s needed]. I just enjoy the sound.”

The theater organ they’re refurbishing now has three keyboards but will eventually have four.

It’s shaped like a horseshoe and features limitless types, combinations and mixes of music. Currently, the sounds are virtual since they’re coming out of computers loaded with recordings of other instruments, compiled from around the country.

They try to get the best of each sample of music, whatever it is, and the choices are endless. Boyd said they often buy their virtual music from the website hauptwerk.com, which offers a voluminous variety of music.

But theater pipe organs have been disappearing over the years and, simply put, aren’t around too much anymore. George Andersen, one of the directors of the American Theatre Organ Society, said in an email that 1910-1940 was the heyday for the instrument. Various companies like Wurlitzer, Robert Morton, Kilgen, Page, Barton and others installed more than 3,000 in theaters and radio stations.

Andersen said many were then taken out of theaters and placed in private homes, and sites like pizza parlors and restaurants, among others. As of now, he estimated that fewer than 1,000 are still around — either installed or sitting in storage somewhere collecting dust — with fewer than 100 remaining in their original locations.

“The number dwindles every day,” Andersen said.

Many considered the theater pipe organ a unique instrument, and Andersen said that Wurlitzer referred to it as a “unit orchestra,” meaning one organist could replace a 15- or 20-piece orchestra and fill a large auditorium with sounds that people enjoyed.

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He also noted that theater organists perform various tasks, like playing the melody on one keyboard, accompaniment on another, bass with their feet, rhythm and sound effects through various controls and also picking the orchestration with stop tabs that select the instrument each keyboard controls. The organist also handles the volume of sound with expression pedals.

“Where else can you hear one person being conductor, soloist, accompanist, drummer, orchestrator, sound effects guy and arranger all at the same time and on the fly?” Andersen asked. “It takes a unique talent to do that successfully.”

As for the theater organ that Free State is working on, that came to the group from someone in Northern Virginia. Boyd said they’ve invested about $40,000-50,000 on the project, and it appears to be money well spent as the group did have another pipe organ there before, but it was about half the size. Most of the group’s money comes from donations, including through wills.

The Free State Theatre Organ Society, which is a chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society but was incorporated independently, has a deal with the state of Maryland that provides space on the stage in the Rice Auditorium where the organ sits plus an entire three-story building used as a work/storage area. That’s where the staff members come on Tuesdays to rebuild whatever parts are needed and then install them. They also do events for the patients and community, offering free shows with the organ about once a month.

Boyd, who lives in Baltimore, certainly has had enough experiences to expand his musical palette. While working as a field engineer, he often went on long trips to places like Israel, Greece and Iraq. He also spent time in Scotland while serving with the Navy.

Still, there’s something about this old-fashioned instrument that pulls him in. Boyd is involved with another group in North Carolina, and that one is working on four theater organ restorations. In addition, he’s got his eye on what might be the next Free State project.

There’s another pipe organ which happens to be sitting below where they’re working at Rice Auditorium, and it’s been there since the 1960s. When asked about it, Boyd simply grins.

“It could use a little tender, loving care,” he said.

Boyd smiled again when questioned on why he spends so much time working with the theater organs.

“It’s a hobby,” he said. “It’s a love. It’s an insane passion.”

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