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Removal for renewal: Capitol Theater's organ gets a complete restoration

It took four days to remove the 90-year-old organ

It took four days in early April to disassemble the 90-year-old Grand Barton pipe organ in the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center for the Arts before it was loaded onto a semitrailer. The massive instrument was then driven to Reno, Nevada, where it will undergo a complete restoration over the next few months at a cost of $275,000.

"There are bad springs, there are bad gaskets, there is bad felt, there is bad leather. It's just all of the material in it is 90 years old and simply failing or falling apart," says Steve Schroeder, technical director for Overture Center.

Much more was required to remove and repair than the console — the massive, ornate instrument with multiple sets of keys, pedals and stop tabs audiences see the organist playing stage right. Out of sight but in need of attention, too, are more than 1,200 pipes and other components of the massive instrument.

The Grand Barton Organ, built by Bartola Musical Instrument Co. in Oshkosh, stood in the orchestra pit in the opulent Capitol Theater when it opened as a silent movie house in 1928. The venue was renamed the Oscar Mayer Theater when the Madison Civic Center opened in 1980. As part of the development of the Overture Center, the theater was renovated and reopened as the Capitol Theater in 2006, with the organ brought out of storage and given its permanent home to the right of the stage. 

The restoration project started with the removal of everything from the backstage right and left chambers — the air regulators, sound-effect devices and the hundreds of pipes, ranging from the size of drinking straws to wide-mouthed, 16-foot-tall metal tubes.

"That's another issue. Some of the pipes are leaning or bent out of shape," Schroeder says as he gives a behind-the-scenes tour prior to the organ's removal. "You see right there is a pipe that's lying down. Because the mechanics inside the organ aren't working right, some of these don't shut off. And the only thing you can do when they don't shut off is pull the pipe. It removes the problem, but it doesn't fix anything."

Over time, some of the metal pipes were replaced with PVC tubes. Those will not return with the organ. The contract requires Crome Organ Co. in Reno to replace any components only with materials of the time the organ was originally manufactured.

Although refurbished several years ago, the organ's toys, or sound-effect devices — including a bird whistle, snare drum, crash cymbals, train horn and xylophone — will be re-examined, too.

In the current restoration, a six-member crew spending four days in early April taking it apart and packing it up for the trip west. The organ is now in the hands of Crome Organ Co., a family-run business for three generations and 123 years.

Crome was one of three companies to submit bids to restore the organ, which is one of only three Barton organs in the country that remain in their original historic theaters. A successful fundraising campaign will cover the cost.

Schroeder knows well that organs such as this one are complex instruments that require specific skills and experience to maintain. As it happens, when Schroeder was a teenager, he worked for an itinerant organ tuner who came twice a year to Wisconsin Rapids, Schroeder's hometown, to tune several church organs.

"I would help him take the organ apart, repair it and put it back together," he says. "So I do have some knowledge of what's involved in an organ. Just not the knowledge that's required to do what we need done here."

After the restored organ returns in September, it will take about a month to reassemble. But it should be back in working order by Oct. 19 when a 1914 film starring Charlie Chaplin opens the next season of Duck Soup Cinema. And once again, the Grand Barton organ will fill the Capitol Theater with dramatic, timeless music.

Joel Patenaude is associate editor of Madison Magazine.


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