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Grand Theater Hosts International Musical Organ Convention
Written by Sergei Blair Correspondent

Members of the American Theatre Organ Society (ATOS) look at one of the organs at the Grand Theater in East Greenville during their Sunday morning visit as part of the 2015 ATOS convention being held in Philadelphia.

Hundreds from all over the world flock to a local theater to see the premier musical instrument

        They came from as far away as the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland and across the entire Unites States to the Upper Perkiomen Valley to see the historic 1923 Marr & Colton theater organ being played inside the Grand Theater in East Greenville.

        About 475 organ enthusiasts, who are all members of the American Theatre Organ Society (ATOS), came in a large convoy of tour buses to the region Sunday, July 5, as part of the society's annual convention. The group also toured the world-renowned Allen Organ Company in Macungie where digital organs are manufactured and sold to clients around the world.

        It was a first such event of this magnitude and diversity to take place in the area in recent history.

        "This is a tremendous opportunity for the Upper Perkiomen Valley, one that gives our theater international recognition," said Ed Buchinski, owner of Grand Theater.  He said the planning for this year's convention began two years ago when ATOS announced that the theater was selected to host the silent film review during the weeklong convention. The convention ran from July 2 to July 7 and is hosted by the Dickenson Theater Organ Society chapter in Wilmington, DE.

        Due to limited theater sitting, the group was divided into two sections; first group saw a humorous silent film starring Buster Keaton at 9:30 a.m., while the second group toured Allen Organ manufacturing plant and was treated to a special organ recital there. Later in the afternoon, the groups switched activities.  

        The Oregon-based American Theatre Organ Society is an international non-profit organization founded in 1955 and is comprised of members who are passionately committed to preserving musical theater pipe organ heritage that began in the early 20th century. The organization's 2,400 worldwide members join ranks in 65 individual chapters but remain a tight-knit community with a similar appreciation for theater and pipe organs.

        "Theater organ was built for accompaniment of silent films to be like a mini orchestra so that a theater operator could have one organist instead of whole pit of musicians to make the music for silent films," explained Ken Double, president of ATOS.

        "The theater organ found its way into great big theaters in big cities and little theaters in small towns to make music for sound films," said Double. "What better place to have a silent film demonstration than a theater where the organ does sound film all the time in a very traditional location."

        Inside the ornate Grand Theater, visitors of all ages were treated to a special showing of "Go West," an hour-long 1925 silent film. Famed organist John Baratta accompanied the film on the Marr & Colton 3/13 Theater Organ by meticulously choreographing all 95 scenes to fit the thematic pattern of the film.  Much like in the early 1920's, before "talkies" were first introduced, many American theaters had a live orchestra band that provided sound and effects for silent films. 

        "People normally just hear organs play music at church and the reason why we wanted to do a film is to point out that these organs really were made to supply music for silent films," Baratta said. He explained that soon after sound was incorporated into motion pictures the need for theater organs went out the door.  So what the Grand Theater has today is seen as rare, drawing crowds from diverse places as result.  After years of being run down and then many months of extensive renovation, the theater reopened its doors in July 2005.

        Under the new management, the theater once again became a staple of local entertainment but its improvement didn't stop there. As part of a two-phase organ installation project, Buchinski and his team worked carefully to incorporate two Marr & Colton consoles into the theater's original and modern sound system located behind the stage. The chambers are intricately hidden behind the stage curtain and reveal an impressive maze of the 13-rank organ when the curtain is pulled.

        Although both vintage consoles are connected to the organ, only the three-manual console is used to play. The 3/13 (3-manual, 13 rank) console was installed in 2014. Theater manager Carl Black often entertains the moviegoers on the organ before the start of each showing.

        Jean de Boer had flown from Amsterdam for the weeklong convention and said that he was impressed after seeing the Grand Theater's organ. De Boer, a member of the Dutch Organ Society, said in Holland there are about six theater organs remaining and most of them are in poor condition. He said he doesn't want to talk bad about organs in his country but noted that the American instruments are in much better shape. "These organs here sound so nice," he marveled in a Dutch accent.

        He said American musicians often come to Amsterdam to play the organs and for him, visiting the United States is a chance to see his friends again. "There's a lot of interaction here with my friends and it's just nice to see each other again." He added with a smile, "For me this conference is a holiday."

        Double, who led the convention, said he and his team were impressed with the warm reception and the local hospitality.

        "We so often spend so much time in big cities that it's just great to be out in a little bit more of a rural setting," Double said. "This is a delightful and very quaint little community and this theater is absolutely a gem." 





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