Wind on the Prairie: Pipe Organs of Cedar Rapids, Iowa

David C. Kelzenberg

Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Visions of tall waving fields of corn spring to mind; or, perhaps, Grant Wood's ubiquitous imagery--a certain farmer, standing next to his wife, pitchfork in hand, with that familiar farmhouse and its Gothic window in the background. To visitors, Cedar Rapids' historical role of breadbasket city is evident: Numerous grain milling, corn processing, and meat packing industries ring the center of city, with the giant Quaker Oats plant--the largest cereal mill in the world--holding place of honor right in the center of downtown. Blindfolded, it's easy to tell when you are in Cedar Rapids--all of these varied food production enterprises contribute their share to an unmistakable "ambience" which permeates the city; a friendly olfactory greeting which welcomes the prodigal Cedar Rapidian back home.

But pipe organs? Of the many images this medium-sized heartland city might bring to mind, good pipe organs is not likely to be at the top of the list, even among the fairly knowledgeable. Yet Cedar Rapids is home to a few well-kept secrets, including not only pipe organs, but also opulent former movie palaces--theatres whose likes have all but vanished from most of our bigger cities. This paper will examine the history of three important Cedar Rapids organs-two theatre organs and one orchestral concert organ-all of which were built and installed during the same half-decade, and all of which were recognized as historically significant by the Organ Historical Society during their National Convention in 1986. In 1998, the American Theatre Organ Society held a Convention in Cedar Rapids for the first time. I was honored to serve as Master of Ceremonies for that convention, during which all three of these instruments were heard, in a series of seven concerts.

1928 was a banner year for theatres in Cedar Rapids. A number of smaller theatres and vaudeville houses had existed in the city previously, but 1928 witnessed the construction and opening of two spectacular movie palaces in the heart of downtown Cedar Rapids--theatres built and furnished in the grand style, the likes of which this city had never seen before. Both theatres boasted every modern convenience and accoutrement. Built at the end of the prosperous "Roaring 20s," and without the slightest premonition of the national disaster which loomed less than two years in the future, these theatres were designed to be elegant showplaces to rival what one saw in the biggest of cities. No expenses were spared in equipping them with the latest in technology, fashion, and comfort. And, their first audiences were treated to motion pictures, live stage shows, and music provided both by pit orchestras and pipe organs. Miraculously, both of these theatres--The Iowa and the Capitol--and the organs heard on their opening nights, survive to the present day. This is especially fortuitous, as both of these organs are unique examples of the theatre organ genre.

Opening night organist Don Pedro
stands at the Iowa Theatre's
spectacular 'Rhinestone Barton'
console, in this photograph dating
from the theatre's earliest years.
(From George Cervenka collection.)

Beating the competition by some three months, the Iowa Theatre was first to open its doors, on June 6, 1928. Standing on the corner of First Avenue and Third Street, this approximately 1,200-seat house boasted a prime location, and its connecting office building was prime downtown real estate. The Iowa was the brainchild of a somewhat shady promoter named Calvin Bard. If the rather fanciful prose of the opening night program is to be believed, Bard ran away from home at the age of ten to join the circus, where he became friendly with a certain drummer named Dan Barton. Bard and Barton went separate ways upon leaving the circus, but their continuing careers in the field of show business would intersect--as we shall shortly see--some 26 years later, in Cedar Rapids' beautiful Iowa Theatre.

The Iowa Theatre's celebrated
three-story -tall, electrically-
illuminated ear of corn is
clearly visible in this night
shot from the mid-1940s.
(Courtesy B'hend/Kaufmann Archives.)

One of the Iowa's most spectacular features was a giant electric sign in the shape of an ear of corn, three stories tall and set at a 45-degree angle at the corner of the building. Illuminated by hundreds of colored light bulbs, it was clearly visible for many blocks along both First Avenue and Third Street. Ted Paulson, son of the Iowa Theatre's chief contractor O.F. Paulson, remembers from the theatre's earliest days a "flagpole sitter" who spent several weeks on a small platform above this sign, high above downtown Cedar Rapids. Unfortunately, this unique historical artifact no longer exists. It was removed and sold for salvage at a change of ownership, although it did survive into the 1970s.

The Iowa Theatre ushered in a new level of extravagance in entertainment to Cedar Rapids. That it would be outdone in almost every way in just three short months by its larger rival the Capitol Theatre in no way diminished the contribution which the Iowa made to the community. And, as the giant ear of corn sign demonstrates, the slightly newer Capitol did not outdo the Iowa Theatre in every way.

The Iowa Theatre was lavishly decorated by hand. A special glitter paint was actually applied by blowing it through drinking straws, right onto wet plaster! However, its most amazing feature, for many, was its Golden Voiced Barton Grande pipe organ. The Bartola Musical Instrument Company of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, makers of the Barton organ, were known for gaudiness of decoration on their consoles, and the bold, assertive quality of their organs' sound. The head of Bartola was none other than the old circus acquaintance of Calvin Bard, Dan Barton, who brought much of his circus "showmanship" into his organ building. For Cedar Rapids, Barton conceived the most spectacularly and gaudily decorated organ console Bartola was ever to produce. This console was covered with a deep black velvet material, which was completely covered with small spiraled patterns of sparkling glitter. All console edges were trimmed with literally thousands of rhinestones, and two large diamond-shaped panels, imbedded with hundreds of rhinestones, were positioned on both sides of the fallboard above the manuals. Because of this spectacular and uniquely decorated console, this instrument has become known as the "Rhinestone Barton."

The effect of this spectacular display, particularly as the console rose from the pit into a gel-colored spotlight, must have literally taken the breath away from those early patrons. There is reason to suspect that Dan Barton felt particular pride in this instrument (even though remarkably--as we shall see--his firm did not actually build it!): According to the opening night program, Dan Barton was there in the Iowa Theatre's audience to witness its premier performance, with George Cervenka conducting the Iowa Theatre Concert Orchestra, and organist Don Pedro at the console. Also according to the program, organist Pedro was "late of the Spanish king's court staff of musicians... (and) will bring to you some of the unusual novelties with which he has recently entertained Europe's royalty." Pedro eventually continued his career as an organist in Chicago, and it is unknown whether this fanciful background was a product of 1920s show-business hype.

Decades later (in the 1960s), when Dan Barton--long out of the organ business by then--was located by a new generation of theatre organ "fans," the Iowa Theatre instrument was one which he vividly remembered because of its spectacular and unusual decoration. But, its special console is not its only unique feature. It has a spectacular sound to match its spectacular decoration; a sound which, while fundamentally similar to the brassy, assertive Barton sound, has its own special "flavor."

There are two reasons in particular for this unique and spectacular sound. First and most obviously, the auditorium into which the organ speaks has been dramatically reduced, to about 1/3 of its original size. This happened in the 1980s, after the theatre had closed and was purchased by the Cedar Rapids Community Theatre (now Theatre Cedar Rapids). The house was simply too large for their purposes, and by remodeling and bringing the house size down to about 500 seats, they created office and rehearsal space which was badly needed, while significantly reducing their operating expenses. As a consequence, the organ--designed to fill a space roughly three times the size of the current room, has no trouble making its presence known.

The other reason may be found in the instrument itself--it doesn't sound exactly like a Barton, because--as intimated above--it isn't really a Barton at all! Like several of his 1920s competitors, Dan Barton was flooded with orders for new theatre organs. And, like most of his competitors, he "farmed out" some of his orders to other builders--in this case, to the Wangerin Organ Company of Milwaukee. So, while the Rhinestone Barton carries Bartola nameplates, it is--at 3 manuals and 14 ranks--the largest of several Wangerin-built instruments, supplied to fill orders for Bartola, and delivered as "Barton Organs." Wangerin was a respected supplier of church organs, and their instruments were acknowledged to possess superior mechanical and tonal qualities. This instrument certainly speaks for the quality of their work. Particularly noteworthy are some spectacular reeds (including a Saxophone and a powerful English Horn), and three ranks of strings which literally must be heard to be believed. They are keener than a knifeblade, and rival many reeds for brilliance--indeed, they can be heard over the full organ!

The instrument is almost entirely Wangerin-built. Some of the reed pipes were probably "farmed out" by Wangerin in turn to Denison. It had been presumed that the console was provided by Barton, but recent restoration work now suggests that the console was also produced by Wangerin, and was merely decorated by Barton.

The late David Junchen, the theatre organ scholar/restorer who began the monumental Encyclopedia of the American Theatre Organ, considered the Rhinestone Barton one of his very favorite instruments. He included photos of its spectacular console in both of the Encyclopedia volumes that he produced, and wrote about its unique sound.

After the stock market crash of 1929, the theatre (like most businesses) fell on hard times. During the hard years of the great depression, much live entertainment in theatres was abandoned. Like most American theatres, those in Cedar Rapids became primarily movie houses. With the increasing pervasiveness of sound movies, the orchestras and organs were seen as an unnecessary extravagance. First to go were the relatively expensive orchestras. There was little need for organs when the movies featured their own soundtracks, and they quickly fell into disuse as well.

Promoter Calvin Bard apparently left town with many outstanding debts, including one for the Iowa Theatre's pipe organ. Ted Paulson, whose father (O.F. Paulson) was the Iowa's general contractor, relates another interesting historical anecdote: In the early 1930s, Dan Barton apparently contacted the senior Paulson about the money still owed for the Iowa's pipe organ. Barton threatened to repossess the instrument, to which Paulson replied, "It's right here--come on over and get it!" Fortunately for Cedar Rapids, Barton apparently decided that there would be no market for the instrument elsewhere, or, for whatever reason, that it would not be worth the trouble to remove it. In any case, it is most fortunately still in its original home in Cedar Rapids.

Another early staff organist of
the Iowa Theatre was Polly Kidd,
shown here gracefully astride
the Rhinestone Barton's leather
Howard seat. (From George
Cervenka collection.)

As in many of America's theatres, for many subsequent years, the organ sat unused. In the early 1960s, the Iowa Theatre was remodeled, and a stage extension was built over the orchestra pit, effectively sealing off the long-dormant organ console. For the next two decades, the console was completely inaccessible, and a particularly uncooperative management permitted no access to the instrument, even as, in the late 1970s, a renaissance of interest in the nearby Paramount Theatre's organ was taking place. Most people forgot that the Iowa Theatre even had an organ. A blessing in disguise, this may have saved the instrument from both destruction and "midnight organ supply" theft. Eventually, some interested individuals gained access to the instrument--with considerable difficulty. In 1980, the theatre was finally closed as a movie house, and the building was sold to the Cedar Rapids Community Theatre. Shortly thereafter, a private non-profit corporation was formed to purchase the organ itself. Funds transferred benefited the theatre in the form of a new sound system, and placed the organ in the hands of a group dedicated to protecting and preserving it in its original home. The remodeling of the building, which drastically altered the size of the auditorium, also made the organ much more accessible. The current owners of the building recognize the value of the instrument, and its future is reasonably secure. The owners of the organ, Cedar Rapids Barton, Inc., have done much to restore the organ to its former glory. Work remains to be done, however; particularly in the console, where much of the original expensive decoration has been lost, and where the combination action is only marginally functional. Even with these shortcomings, the Rhinestone Barton remains a spectacular instrument. Organist Ron Rhode recorded his popular 'Cornsilk' CD here, and a new recording by Scott Foppiano, 'Back In The Black,' will be released in 2003. In addition, the Cedar Rapids Area Theatre Organ Society (CRATOS) regularly presents theatre organ concerts on this instrument. Here is a rank listing for the 3/14 Wangerin ("Rhinestone Barton") installed in Theatre Cedar Rapids (originally the Iowa Theatre), Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Wangerin Opus 510, 1927:

MAIN CHAMBER(wind) SOLO CHAMBER(wind)
Diapason 8'15" Tibia Clausa 16'15"
Concert Flute 16'10" Oboe Horn 8'10"
Clarinet 8'10" Vox Humana 8'8"
Tuba 16'10" Saxophone 8'10"
Viole d'Orchestra 8'10" Kinura 8'10"
Viole Celeste 8'10" English Post Horn 8'15"
Dulciana 8'10" Solo String 8'15"
ChrysoglottMarimba harp
Xylophone
Bells
Chimes
Bass, Kettle, Snare Drums
Cymbal
Tambourine, Castanets, Tom-Tom, Chinese Block, Triangle, effects.

Down the street and around the corner from the Iowa Theatre stands an even more imposing edifice, the Paramount Theatre. Opening shortly after the Iowa, on Saturday, September 1, 1928, it was originally named the Capitol Theatre, and was part of the Publix/Balaban & Katz chain.

Publix's A.H. Blank and Sam Katz were marketing geniuses, and they created for Cedar Rapids a theatre that would have been a showplace in any city. The Capitol opened with great flourish. Its opening had been heavily advertised for several weeks, and when the big day arrived, it was heralded by fireworks and airplanes which dropped prizes in the vicinity of the theatre. A regional search had turned up several youngsters who claimed to have never seen a motion picture--they were provided with rail fare to the city and enjoyed the show as guests of the Capitol on opening night.

Interior of 2,000-seat Paramount Theatre for the Performing Arts
(originally the Capitol Theatre), Cedar Rapids, Iowa, showing
Wurlitzer console on left side of orchestra pit. (By George Henry.)

The Capitol was bigger in every dimension, more spectacularly equipped, and more opulent than its downtown rival, the Iowa. Some 2,000 could be seated in air-conditioned comfort in its spacious auditorium. It also housed a large office building which claimed as tenants some of the most important businesses in the community, including, on its top floor, the studios of pioneer radio station WMT.

While both theatres had attractive outer lobbies, the Iowa Theatre's opened directly into the main foyer at the back of the auditorium. A staircase in the foyer lead to the balcony foyer, with access directly into the loge section of the balcony, and secondary staircases leading directly into the aisles of higher regions of the balcony.

Contrast this utilitarian arrangement to that which patrons found at the Capitol. First, the lobby opened into a grand Hall of Mirrors, supposedly patterned after the Hall of Mirrors at the Palais de Versailles in France. This huge, high-ceilinged room featured large, ornate cut-glass chandeliers reflected in giant mirrored walls. At the end of this Hall of Mirrors one encountered the first few steps of the grand staircase. Patrons could either turn left into another ornate and massive hallway, or proceed up the grand staircase to the balcony. The grand staircase also proceeded to the left, and on both levels one finally arrived at the theatre foyers, nearly a block away from the first point of entry. A second grand staircase connected the main floor and balcony level foyers. From the balcony foyer, another set of grand staircases ascends, not directly to the upper balcony, but to another entire full-width foyer! At the Capitol, every room, every corridor, every foyer, and every staircase was designed to suggest grandeur, and opulence was universally conspicuous. Even the lower level lounges were reached via a long, winding corridor, and every nook and cranny, every bend in a hallway, displayed a piece of sculpture or an oil painting.

It has been suggested that the Capitol Theatre surpassed the Iowa Theatre in every way, but this is not entirely true. The Capitol boasted a beautiful marquee, but it was not as spectacular or as memorable as the Iowa's immense electric ear of corn. Furthermore, there is the matter of their pipe organs. In this arena, the Iowa Theatre clearly out-shined the Capitol as well, with its 14-rank Wangerin/Barton "out-ranking" the Capitol's organ by three ranks. Still, the organ installed in the Capitol was and is a significant instrument in its own right.

The Paramount Theatre's
picturesque Hall of Mirrors,
with the grand staircase
to the balcony level
beginning in the distance.

The Publix chain was buying Wurlitzer instruments for its theatres, and the Cedar Rapids Capitol was to have a Wurlitzer organ. The Rudolph Wurlitzer Company of North Tonawanda, New York, was, of course, the quintessential--and by far the largest--manufacturer of theatre pipe organs. "Wurlitzer" became both a household word and a generic term for theatre organs, in the same way that Frigidaire and Kleenex did for their products. In contrast to the Iowa Theatre's gaudy black console, the Capitol's--spectacular in its own way--is a light antique ivory color, with gold leaf trim. The Cedar Rapids Capitol's was to be the first of a series of "special" Wurlitzers designed specifically for the Balaban & Katz theatre chain. According to Judd Walton's Wurlitzer opus listing, the Capitol's Wurlitzer is Opus 1907, a Balaban Style 1A. (Wurlitzer also built Balaban Styles 2, 3, and 4; no Style 1 was ever built.) Only seven of these Balaban Style 1A instruments were ever built, and the Cedar Rapids Paramount's is unique, being the only one still installed in its original home.

Console of the Paramount Theatre's 3/12
style Balaban 1A Wurlitzer organ.
(By Ray Frischkorn.)

The Balaban Style 1A was derived from the Wurlitzer model 230, a popular 3-manual/11-rank specification. However, it differs from the standard model 230 in several important ways. Most importantly, the string ranks are entirely different. Whereas the 230 typically used a Viol d'Orchestra, Viole Celeste, and Salicional for its complement of string ranks, the Balaban 1A employed the more useful Violin, Violin Celeste, and Solo String ranks. There were also several differences in the way the models were unified.

The featured staff organist on opening night at the Capitol Theatre was Stanley Anstett, who had studied at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. In addition to organist Anstett, opening night patrons enjoyed Richard Dix in the feature film "Warming Up," the Capitol Concert Orchestra, and Paul Spor, the "Prince of Pep," with the Capitol Joyboys, in Publix Stage Entertainment.

Within just a few years, Paramount bought out the Balaban & Katz chain, and Cedar Rapids' Capitol Theatre became the Paramount Theatre. However, the Great Depression and the advances in sound film technology had sounded the death knell for vaudeville and live music and entertainment in this theatre as effectively as they had elsewhere. While Hollywood's cinematic masterpieces continued to bring in patrons for the next several decades, the Paramount's seven floors of backstage prop and dressing rooms, large stage, and massive lighting panel were seldom used. Likewise, its once-featured Mighty Wurlitzer organ, like its Wangerin/Barton counterpart down the street, was almost never heard by theatre patrons.

In the 1950s, a local organ technician named Howard Burton was permitted to make some minor repairs to the Wurlitzer, and he began to play the organ during movie intermissions. For some reason, this use of the organ was short-lived. Then, in 1967, a young teenager accepted his very first job as an usher in the Paramount Theatre. That teenager was this writer. For the princely sum of 75 cents per hour, I wore a bright red coat with gold trim, escorted patrons down dimly lit aisles, and picked up empty popcorn boxes after the last show.

I also became fascinated with the Paramount's pipe organ, which was still in very good condition and accessible for playing (unlike the Iowa's Barton, which had been completely inaccessible for years). While the organ was virtually never heard by the public, I was one of four people who regularly played it when the theatre was not open for business. Other regulars were Burton; businessman George Baldwin (who had been, as a small child, in the audience for the Capitol's opening night show, and who still regularly enjoys playing the organ to this day); and a local chiropractor named Robert Hines.

In 1969, Howard Burton again generated local interest in the organ, and became the driving force behind the formation of the Cedar Rapids Area Theatre Organ Society, or CRATOS. Slowly, CRATOS--since its inception, a chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society--began the process of restoration of the Paramount's Wurlitzer. By this time, the theatre itself had begun to deteriorate to an alarming extent. But CRATOS, initially in the person of Howard Burton, cleaned and refurbished the organ, and began its series of "Theatre Organ Spectaculars" which continues to the present day. (The huge job of restoration and ongoing maintenance of the Wurlitzer soon fell to Jim Olver, a dedicated volunteer who almost single-handedly returned the organ to superb condition, and kept everything working for over two decades, until health problems forced him to give up this labor of love.) That first CRATOS concert featured veteran theatre organist John Muri. Cedar Rapids turned out to hear its Mighty Wurlitzer for the first time in decades, and the house was sold out. Subsequent "Spectaculars" featuring artists like Gaylord Carter, Rex Koury (composer of TV's 'Gunsmoke' theme), Al Bollington (famous for playing pedal solos in his army boots), Ashley Miller, and a young Dennis James continued to bring in crowds. Indeed, CRATOS did much to promote young theatre organists: Ron Rhode, Lew Williams, and Walter Strony all presented their first public performances in Cedar Rapids.

There was great concern for both the Paramount Theatre and its pipe organ when Tri-States Theatres, the Paramount's last private owners, decided to permanently close it in 1974. The theatre had seriously deteriorated due to "deferred maintenance" before its doors were closed, and it appeared that this landmark might face the same fate which had befallen so many formerly grand downtown theatres, such as New York's Paramount and Roxy Theatres, and the San Francisco Fox. But some Cedar Rapids citizens refused to let this happen. Philanthropists Peter and Lorrayne Bezanson purchased the closed Paramount Theatre, and immediately "sold" it to the city of Cedar Rapids for the price of $2, for use as a performing arts center. A fund drive was initiated for the purpose of restoration of the Paramount Theatre, and the decision was made to carefully and correctly restore this beautiful landmark to its former glory. No expense was spared in this restoration--new seats were installed, and everything was cleaned and painted. Master painter Joe Hughes spent six years of 12-hour days to restore the walls, employing a marbling technique learned from his father during the 1920s. Damaged and missing glass was replaced in the huge chandeliers and mirrors, and duplicates of the original carpeting and magnificent stage curtain were created and installed. And, thanks to CRATOS, the Wurlitzer pipe organ was in superb shape. When the building reopened as the Paramount Center for the Performing Arts, it was no longer a movie house. It was a beautiful home for the Cedar Rapids Symphony Orchestra, for stage shows and concerts, and for CRATOS Pipe Organ Spectaculars.

Unlike many theatre pipe organs, the Paramount Wurlitzer remains largely in original condition. For the most part, CRATOS has elected to restore rather than replace and upgrade. The organ still uses its original Wurlitzer relay, and the pneumatic stop and combination action is still fully functional. There have been a few minor modifications to the specifications. One significant change was the addition of a brass trumpet rank in 1986, bringing the organ to 12 ranks. And, a 16-foot extension of the Tibia Clausa was added in 1998. Also during that year, organ specialists Brant Duddy and Clark Wilson performed a complete re-voicing of the entire instrument.

Here is a rank listing for the 3/11 (now 12) Wurlitzer model Balaban 1A, installed in the Capitol (now Paramount) Theatre, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Wurlitzer Opus 1907, 1927:

MAIN CHAMBER(wind) SOLO CHAMBER(wind)
Diaphonic Diapason 16'10" Tibia Clausa 16' (orig. 8')15"
Concert Flute 16'10" Orchestral Oboe 8'10"
Clarinet 8'10" Tuba Horn 16'15"
Vox Humana 8'6" Kinura 8'10"
Violin 8'10" Marimba harp
Violin Celeste 8'10" Xylophone
Solo String 8'10" Bells
Brass Trumpet 8' (not original)10" Cathedral Chimes
ChrysoglottSleigh Bells
Bass, Kettle, Snare drums
Crash, Tap, Sizzle, Brush cymbals
Tambourine, Castanets, Chinese Block, Tom-tom, Sand Block, Triangle, effects.

Just about a year after these two theatres opened their doors for the first time, another important pipe organ was being built for the city of Cedar Rapids. This would be an impressive concert instrument, bought and paid for by the people of the city, and not to be installed in a church or theatre, but in the city's municipal auditorium, the Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

During these early years of the century, organ music of all kinds was vastly more popular than it is today, and Cedar Rapids was only one of dozens of American cities, including San Francisco, Minneapolis, Cleveland, and Boston, which had or were to purchase pipe organs for public buildings. Cedar Rapids planners apparently received very good advice, for they selected the firm generally acknowledged to be the finest builder of concert instruments of the time--Ernest M. Skinner--to build their city's concert organ. (Skinner also built instruments for First Presbyterian Church and Brucemore, a large estate belonging to the wealthy Sinclair family. The latter instrument is also extant, original, and playable, although in need of restoration.)

Cedar Rapids Municipal Organist
Marshall Bidwell at the console
of the city's then-new E.M. Skinner
concert organ. In 1931, when this
photograph was taken, the organ
had just been installed in the
Veteran's Memorial Coliseum.
It is currently installed in the
Sinclair Auditorium on the
campus of Coe College."
(Courtesy The Diapason.)

Presumably, that good advice came from Marshall Bidwell, organ professor at Coe College, and a strong proponent of the cause of organ music in Cedar Rapids for the previous ten years. Bidwell was widely respected as a teacher and concert artist throughout the country. His opening night recital on this instrument was played before four thousand people (several hundred others were turned away at the doors), on the night of April 2, 1930. Subsequently, Bidwell was placed in charge of this instrument, and appointed to the position of Municipal Organist for the City of Cedar Rapids.

The Skinner organ was a typical example of the "orchestral" style of instrument so favored at the time, and brought to perfection in the work of E.M. Skinner. While smaller than some of the Skinner organs in larger cities, it was fairly complete in specification and possessed of many of the special "color" stops for which Skinner was justly famous. Unfortunately, it was installed virtually at the end of the "golden age" of organ music in the first quarter of the 20th century. While Bidwell initially performed before packed houses in the Coliseum, within two years the audiences had dwindled to just a few dozen per recital. Bidwell gave up his regular recitals in the Coliseum, and resumed weekly recitals at First Presbyterian Church, which he also served as organist. Then, in 1932, Bidwell left Cedar Rapids, accepting a new position with Pittsburgh's Carnegie Institute of Music, and beginning his long association with the Carnegie family. The big Skinner was now played no more than three or four times per year.

At the same time, a young woman returned to her home in Cedar Rapids, after attending the New England Conservatory of Music. That woman--Eleanor Taylor--would become the respected "matriarch" of the Cedar Rapids organ world, and would be associated with the Cedar Rapids Skinner organ for the next five decades. Initially Taylor, who had been a promising student of Marshall Bidwell while in high school, assumed his job as organist of the First Presbyterian Church. Within a few years, she has also assumed his old teaching job at Coe College. Before long, she was making overtures about moving the Skinner organ to Coe, where it would be used and heard far more frequently than it was in the Coliseum. (At the time, Coe had a 3-manual Estey described by Taylor as a "hootin' box of whistles.") However, arrangements for such a move were difficult, due primarily to the complicated ownership of the organ--it was owned partly by the Veterans of Foreign Wars and partly by the City. Fortunately, her efforts were unsuccessful, as the Coe College chapel, along with its Estey organ, was completely destroyed by a fire in 1947.

Eleanor Taylor's dream to bring the Skinner organ to Coe College was finally realized in 1952, and the organ was installed in the new Sinclair Auditorium. Some minor changes were made to the instrument at this time, including the addition of a Plein Jeu to the swell. Now, Taylor had a fine teaching and performance instrument at her disposal, even though it was of a style which was quickly becoming unfashionable. She continued to attract talented students, and served as a role model for many young organists in the community, this writer included. One talented young theatre organist whose life was touched by this organ, who has played it on many occasions (and who continues to champion its cause) is Jeff Weiler, who attended and graduated from Coe College.

In 1971, more changes were made to the organ, including the addition of several ranks from the old E.M. Skinner organ from First Presbyterian Church, which had recently acquired a new Reuter organ. Unfortunately, some of these changes--while considered improvements at the time--deviated from the original Skinner tonal ideals. A few original ranks were removed, including the Great First Diapason (the Second Diapason remains). Some "upperwork" was added, including 4-rank mixtures on the Great and Pedal. However, the great Skinner "color" still shines forth, and the instrument remains one of the least altered moderately large E.M. Skinner organs still in superb playing condition. The beauty and durability of Skinner's work is nowhere more evident than in this beautiful four-manual drawknob console, controlling some 60 ranks, and still fully functional after over 7 decades.

Here is the current specification of the Ernest M. Skinner organ, Op. 771 (1929), originally installed in Veteran's Memorial Coliseum, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, currently installed in Sinclair Auditorium, Coe College, Cedar Rapids, Iowa:

GREAT CHOIR (enclosed)
Open Diapason16'Quintaton16'
Bourdon (ped)16'Orchestral flute8'
Diapason8'Dulciana8'
Claribel Flute8'Principal4'
Octave4'Flute Ouverte4'
Harmonic Flute4'Nazard2-2/3'
Twelfth2-2/3'Piccolo2'
Fifteenth2'Tierce1-3/5'
MixtureIVCorno di Bassetto8'
Trumpet8'Tremolo
Chimes Harp
Flemish BellsCelesta

SWELL (enclosed) PEDAL
Lieblich Gedeckt16'Resultant32'
Open Diapason8'Diapason16'
Rohrflute8'Open Diapason (gt)16'
Flute Celeste8'Quintaton (ch)16'
Gamba8'Bourdon16'
Voix Celeste8'Lieblich Ged. (sw)16'
Octave4'Octave8'
Flute4'Cello (sw)8'
Nazard2-2/3'Flute8'
Flautino2'Gedeckt8'
Plein JeuIIISuper Octave4'
MixtureVFlute4'
Waldhorn16'Principal2'
Cornopean8'MixtureIV
Flugelhorn8'Ophicleide16'
Vox Humana8'Waldhorn (sw)16'
Clarion4'Tromba8'
TremoloClarion4'

SOLO (enclosed) COUPLERS
Violoncello8'SW/GT16-8-4
Gamba celeste8'SW/CH16-8-4
Harmonic Tuba8'SW/SOLO16-8-4
English Horn8'SW/PED8-4
French Horn8'SW16-4
Trem.CH/GT16-8-4
ChimesCH/PED16-8-4
CH16-4
TOE STUD COUPLERSSOLO/GT16-8-4
SW/PEDSOLO/PED8-4
GT/PEDSOLO16-4
SOLO/PEDGT/SOLO16-8-4
SOLO/GTGT4
GT/PED
SOLO/SW

PISTONS EXPRESSION PEDALS
Generals1-6CH
Divisionals1-8SW
Ped1-8SOLO
TuttiCRESCENDO
Gen. Cancel


(This is a revised version of the article originally published in Theatre Organ, the Journal of the AmericanTheatre Organ Society, July/August 1998, and used here with permission. The author wishes to thank the following for invaluable assistance in the preparation of this article: Darren Ferreter, Joy Weiler, Paul Montague, Larry Chace, Ted Paulson, and Dennis Ungs.)


About the author: David C. Kelzenberg (b. 1951) has studied music performance and music theory at Quincy University and at The University of Iowa. He has an interest in all keyboard instruments, including the organ, harpsichord, clavichord, and piano, and has made a special study of the history of early keyboard performance in the 20th (and 21st) century. He is co-owner of the international Internet mailing list PIPORG-L, and founder and co-owner of HPSCHD-L (devoted to stringed early keyboard instruments such as the harpsichord and clavichord). David Kelzenberg lives in Iowa City, Iowa, with his children Michael and Jennifer, and feline companions Wanda Landowska Kelzenberg and Marcel Dupré Kelzenberg. He is a computer specialist employed by the University of Iowa.