The Orange County Register
Santa Ana, California

December 14, 1998
Morning News Edition, Page A1

Building On Their Pipe Dreams
Three O.C. men are putting a lot of effort, money and living space into restoring antique theater organs. `We're all a bit nutty,' says one.


Some guys tinker with cars. Some build kitchen cabinets. Then there are those renegade few who reassemble pipe organs in their garages.

At present, at least three Orange County men are toiling away at organs, and who knows how many more might be out there.

These are not the plastic, plug-in organs that wheeze like clogged noses in winter, but the grand, antique organs with fields of pipes and paralyzingly complex air-driven innards of metals, leather and wood.

"We're all a bit nutty," said Don Near, 61, of Cowan Heights, a State Farm Insurance agent who has been installing a pipe organ in his garage for about six years. "The sad thing is, if I ever get it working, then I'll have to learn to play the dumb thing."

Randy Bergum, 41, of Placentia has been working for about six years on a 1,000-pipe Wurlitzer organ from the 1920s that he bought for $6,000. Bergum lives in a one-bedroom apartment with the organ console, cardboard tubes of organ blueprints, detached keys, a special pot in which to cook horse-hide organ glue, peculiar homemade tools for working on organ bowels, and boxes of organ paraphernalia that only an expert could identify.

"I just got sucked in," Bergum said. "It's very strange."

The pipes, which would require a 17-foot ceiling to stand up straight, the blower and other large components are packed in boxes and stored in various spots that Bergum doesn't reveal to just anybody. Lately, in his free time, Bergum has been sanding organ keys with three grades of sandpaper and buffing them to precision evenness.

"I want it to be right. I can't rest until it's right," said Bergum, a mechanical engineer.

Art Nisson, 54, of Orange Park Acres has been restoring a big theater organ in his garage since about 1991. It has 28 sets of pipes, which makes it almost five times the size of the one Bergum is working on.

Nisson's restoration efforts are reaching a fever pitch because he believes that this month, after seven years of toil, the organ will produce a sound. Supportive friends have been coming over to assist, and he has hired helpers as the milestone approaches.

"I have sort of a mechanical fascination with large complex things," Nisson said, trying to explain why he has a pipe organ in his garage. "As soon as we built the house, I thought, `Gee, it would be neat to have a real pipe organ. ' " Nisson loves pipe organs so much that he also has installed one at the auto dealership he owns - British Motor Service on Katella Avenue in Orange. Customers occasionally are caught off guard by its jaunty tunes.

"People will start craning their necks to see what's in the office," said Near, Nisson's friend. "They can't believe it."

None of the men actually plays the organ, but they dismiss this as a minor drawback. The joy is in the machinery, in bringing order to a chaos of organ parts.

A certain camaraderie between organ restorers also brings satisfaction. Near and Nisson first met in the parking lot of the Home Depot in Tustin several years ago during a rendezvous with a theater-organ parts broker from Kansas City, Mo.. Each was purchasing organ pipes.

"We pulled up to his big truck with our little trucks and unloaded this stuff like it was contraband," Near said. "You don't want anybody to know what you're doing because they think you're really weird."

Near has been going over to Nisson's house a lot lately to help him in his big push toward sound. Meanwhile, back at his own house in Cowan Heights, his own organ has a long way to go.

A few years ago, he walled off about one-third of his three-car garage to be used strictly for organ pipes. His idea is to place the organ console inside the house, and cut holes in the wall dividing the house from the garage so the music can flow in.

"We say `organ' and most people think of a dreary funeral parlour or a church. But a theater organ, if it's well-played, is a very exciting thing," said Near, chairman of the 140-member Orange County Theater Organ Society. "Love songs are wonderful on a theater organ. And opera. Verdi. Puccini. `Madame Butterfly' on a theater organ! `Climb Every Mountain' - phenomenal on a theater organ!"

Near traces his love for theater organs to the roller rink of his childhood. As he circled the rink on his skates, he would stare at the organ, hoping to catch a glimpse of the pipes in action as he rolled by.

"I was always inviting my friends to go skating," Near said.

"They'd skate, and I'd go to see the organ. Of course, I'd never own up to that."

Without restoration buffs like these, theater organs probably would be almost extinct by now.

Theater organs, which are no longer manufactured, appeared on the scene around the turn of the century to accompany silent movies. They were different from church organs because of the types of sounds they made. Their pipes were crafted to produce an array of sound effects - train whistles, bird tweets, Chinese gongs, sirens, cymbals, snare drums, bells - to fit the movies, as well as the capacity to play the popular tunes of the day.

The organs were the new alterative to orchestras, which were expensive and sometimes went on strike.

But the instruments became obsolete almost as quickly as they became popular. Movies with sound were their downfall.

"Many of them sat around in theaters unused. During World War II, a lot of them were yanked out and sold for scrap metal," said Wayne Flottman, program director for the Los Angeles Theater Organ Society. "In the early '40s, there were several cases of them being bought for almost nothing, or given away. It wasn't unusual for someone to buy one for $100."

Many of Orange County's old movie theaters were once equipped with the organs. Although most have disappeared from the theaters, some live on in private homes, or have been taken apart and their parts distributed among several organs.

The old Orange Theater, for example, once had a theater organ.

It was sold to a private owner, but then it got termites and was sold off for parts. Both Nisson and Near obtained parts of the Orange organ and placed them in their organs.

The nucleus of Nisson's organ is a 1927 Robert Morton model that once stood in the Kauffman mansion in Pacific Palisades. He expanded the instrument with parts from the organ that once stood in the El Portal theater in Hollywood, the Orange organ and pieces from Indiana, Louisiana and elsewhere.

"Once you start knowing all these people in the organ business, they find things for you," Nisson said. "All of a sudden, organ parts show up on your doorstep."

Bergum's 1920s Wurlitzer originally stood in the Fox West Coast Theater in Santa Ana's old downtown, once Orange County's premiere movie palace. The organ was removed from the Fox West Coast upon the advent of films with sound, and went on a half-century odyssey across California before Bergum bought it in 1992 and returned it to Orange County.

The story of the organ's sojourn was passed down by word of mouth from one owner to the next, the way generations pass down folklore.

First, says Bergum, the organ went to the San Miguel Mission, then in 1965 to a private owner in Castro Valley, then to another owner in San Lorenzo.

Bergum is so interested in his organ's past that he visited the San Miguel Mission - he drove there in his Volkswagen Vanagon with a personalized license plate that says "WRLTZER" - to see if he could discern exactly where it stood.

In his apartment, Bergum keeps notebooks chronicling his restoration process in painstaking detail, complete with hand-drawn diagrams. He say no thorough guides on restoring theater organs exist, and he wants his notes to serve as a guidepost to those who come after.

One of the granddaddies of theater-organ restoration in Robert Trousdale of North Tustin, 74, who was the key force in the restoration of the Wurlitzer organ in Fullerton High School's Plummer Auditorium.

He started out just as Nisson, Near and Bergum did, loving organs and then restoring one at home. He bought his first organ about 1970, built a little house in his back yard to put it in, and about six years later the organ was playable. Trousdale is one of the proud few who can say he finished his project.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time, they just say, `I can't do this and my wife is complaining about all this junk all over the house,' " Trousdale said. "And he passes it on to the next fella."


On Jan. 16 and 17, the Los Angeles and Orange County theater-organ societies will co-sponsor Wurlitzer Weekend, a two-day concert series featuring four of Southern California's best theater organs.

Tickets are $12 per concert or $30 for all four. Call (888) LATOS-44 for information. The schedule:

Jan. 16: At 9:30 a.m., organist Ken Rosen will play the three-manual, 13-rank Wurlitzer at the Orpheum Theater in downtown Los Angeles. At 8 p.m., organist Walt Strony will play the three-manual, 16-rank Wurlitzer at the San Gabriel Civil Auditorium.

Jan. 17: At 10 a.m., organist Barry Baker will play the four-manual, 44-rank New York Paramount Studio Wurlitzer at the Bay Theater in Seal Beach. The grand finale will be at 2 p.m. at Fullerton's Plummer Auditorium, where organists Lyn Larsen and Jonas Nordwall will play the four-manual, 35-rank Wurlitzer and the new Allen "George Wright Signature" electronic organ.

Want to know more about theater organs? Try these:

The 800-member Los Angeles Theater Organ Society holds concerts and meetings and publishes a newsletter. Call (310) 217-9202 for information.

The Orange County Theater Organ Society has 140 active members and participates in theater-organ events. Dues are $15 a year. Call Ed Bridgeford at (714) 529-5594 for information.

Orange County's grandest theater organ, the restored Wurlitzer at the Plummer Auditorium in Fullerton, is the subject of a Web site at lummer/index.html


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