March 26, 2008

Theatre organ concert, and more, at RTG Sunday

Fred Johnson tuning the RTG's Wurlitzer

"Gee, Dad, it's a Wurlitzer!"

That advertising slogan from the '50s will be heard a lot this Sunday, I predict, when the Dairyland Theatre Organ Society cranks up the big Wurlitzer at the Racine Theatre Guild for a three-artist concert.

No offense to musicians Jack Grassel, Jill Jensen and Dean Rosko -- about whom more later -- but the star of the show will be the 80-year-old Wurlitzer, which started life in 1928 at Racine's Capitol Theater.

Tuesday night, the Wurlitzer was getting ready for the concert. Fred Johnson of Kenosha was running the organ through its paces, tuning and testing. Johnson, a machinist at Insinkerator by day, organ tuner and organist by avocation, was one of the Dairyland volunteers who helped remove the organ from the Capitol Theater in the '70s, and then installed the restored instrument into a specially-built space in the back of the auditorium at the Theatre Guild in 1982.

Open the door to the organ's lair -- it's the size of a long, narrow closet -- and squeeze in among the pipes: brass and other metal in the middle, wood box pipes climbing up the walls. (You'll have to squeeze in sideways.)

The organ is a seven-rank instrument, meaning there are seven sets of pipes (anywhere from 61 to 97 notes in each set) with each rank producing the "voice" of a different instrument. There's a Vox Humana (human voice), Tibia Clausa, Concert Flute, Salicional, Salicional Celeste (string), Trumpet and Diapason. Above the organ room and visible from the auditorium, if you look closely, are the organ's percussion instruments: a xylophone, chimes, glockenspiel and all the "toys" needed for silent films' sound effects. The organ is "winded" by a five horsepower turbine blower.

But reading about its specifications, and hearing it up close, are two entirely different experiences. I was still in the cramped pipes room when Johnson, sitting at the little test console in the back of the auditorium, fired it up; LOUD! And beautiful... a more intense sound than a store full of iPods could dream of providing.

Sunday's concert at the Racine Theatre Guild is billed as a "musical trio:" Jack Grassel and Jill Jensen -- she sings and he plays guitar; and organist Dean Rosko. Grassel was named one of the ten best guitarists in the U.S. by Guitar One Magazine; Jensen, his wife, has been named "favorite female vocalist" by the Journal Times' readers' poll. Rosko, organist of the Milwaukee Brewers, also plays at at Milwaukee's Oriental Theatre.

Sunday's concert begins at 7 p.m.; tickets at the box office are $12. Information about the Racine Theatre Guild can be found at its website or by calling 262-633-4218.

The Dairyland Theatre Organ Society was founded in 1969 and owns and maintains the Wurlitzer organ in Milwaukee's Riverside Theatre. Memberships and information about the society's other events can be obtained by writing to DTOS, 1541 Prairie Drive, Racine, WI, 53406.

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