Friday concerts bring historic organ to life

Posted: Monday, April 18, 2005

Every Friday at noon, J. Allan MacKinnon turns a 77-year-old Kimball pipe organ into a one-man orchestra, the lobby of the State Office Building into a concert hall.

With his touch, the organ comes alive with its 548 pipes, bird whistles, sleigh bells, drums, xylophone and glockenspiel. Tones, sometimes glorious, sometimes melancholy, resonate throughout the sun-lit building. When he plays Johann Sebastian Bach's "Toccata in D Minor," the landscaped area in front of the organ is the best seat for hearing the roaring, solemn notes hitting the building's glass ceilings and bouncing back.

"It's all about interpreting music, about arranging music for people to enjoy," said MacKinnon said. "This is the last intact theater organ in the state."

MacKinnon is the only person who regularly plays the organ. For the rest of the week, the giant organ sits mute behind glass panels in the lobby of the State Office Building.

The organ had its golden days.

In 1928, W.D. Gross, pioneer Alaska theater owner, had the organ built for his Coliseum Theater on South Franklin Street. The instrument complemented silent movies and was used until 1926, when talking motion pictures replaced the silents.

When Gross built the 20th Century Apartment-Theater on Front Street in 1939, the organ was moved to the theater with its console at the center of the stage.

"The console of the organ had its main cables running along the cement floor under the stage, so during the 13 years that organ sat in this position, the cables eventually became water-soaked and began to rot," MacKinnon, 60, said.

Then came Franklin Butte, a radio engineer stationed with the Army Signal Corps in Juneau. He rewired the main cables into the console and revived the organ. During 1954 and 1955, the organ was played daily before each evening show.

With the advent of Cinemascope pictures in 1953, the 20th Century Theater moved the organ console and cut the organ chambers to make room for a big screen.

"This was bad for the organ, for most of the sound from the pipes escaped through the holes in the ceiling resulting from this alternation instead of being projected to the auditorium," MacKinnon said.

The organ's traps were damaged during the reconstruction.

Then MacKinnon came along.

MacKinnon, who worked as a doorman at the theater in 1961, took upon the task of restoring the organ. He had learned how to play piano at age 7 and organ at 14 from Carol Beery Davis. And he had helped install another pipe organ in Juneau.

With the help of a theater maintenance man, MacKinnon rewired 73 trumpets into the console, built a direct electric relay under the pedals and moved the traps back into the organ.

The mighty Kimball organ was resurrected once again and used every Thanksgiving and Good Friday when the whole community gathered in the theater.

According to a 1977 Southeast Alaska Empire, the organ was played during statehood ceremonies by Butte in 1959 and during a visit to Juneau by John F. Kennedy. The organ was also featured on local radio shows with Milton Furness Jr. as announcer and Butte as organist.

In 1970, Miles and Letha Remley purchased the organ. They donated it to the Alaska State Museum in 1975. But the state museum wanted to dump the organ for more office space.

"The museum didn't know what to do with the organ," MacKinnon said. "This is not a Totem pole or an eagle tree. This is not something you install and let it sit there. It needs to be used."

This time, the whole community of Juneau came to rescue.

A citizen ad hoc committee raised $30,000 to restore the organ. Architect Frank Maier designed a glass showcase to store the organ in the lobby. Senator Bill Ray secured funding in the state museum's budget to build this "security enclosure." The organ was rewired by the company owned by C.M. Balcom, who installed the organ in Gross' Coliseum Theater in 1928.

Since then, it has become a tradition to have a Friday lunch concert.

After Butte and Davis died, and MacKinnon, who works for the state as an employment security analyst, carried the torch. In memory of Butte, MacKinnon plays Butte's signature song, "The Liberty Bell," every time.

His performance is full of action.

When he plays, his feet dance busily on the whale-rib-like pedals, his Mickey Mouse tie swinging along. The shutters at the top of the organ fold and open as he controls the volume with a pedal. The glass panels that enclose the organ vibrate with music.

MacKinnon selects his music according to the occasion and the audience.

To celebrate last week's Folk Festival, MacKinnon played some of Bob Dylan's songs, such as "Mr. Tambourine Man," "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and "Blowin' in the Wind." He also played a Scottish medley of "Johnnie Scobbie," "The Road to the Isles" and "Scotland the Brave."

MacKinnon plays theme songs from Walt Disney movies such as "Pocahontas" for elementary school students who take a field trip at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum and come to the State Office Building afterward for a lunch break.

MacKinnon has some loyal fans.

Carol Gray, a bookkeeper who works near State Office Building, goes to MacKinnon's concert almost every Friday.

"I sit here, looking at this fantastic view and listening to this glorious music," Gray said. "What a great way to take a lunch break."

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