Brett Fehlman from the Crome Organ Co. out of Reno, Nev. works on setting up the Wurlitzer pipe organ inside Santa Monica High School's Barnum Hall on Monday afternoon. (photo by Brandon Wise)

SAMOHI — The walls of Barnum Hall will soon echo with the sound of music, organ music to be exact.

Installation began Saturday of a 1920s Wurlitzer organ donated to the recently renovated Santa Monica High School auditorium.

The organ, which should be ready to play by the end of the month, was the final piece of a nearly million-dollar community effort started by Restore Barnum Hall in 1997 to refurbish the theater to the same quality as when it opened in 1937.

“The hall was built with organ chambers so it would have been a big waste not to put another organ in there,” said Jean Sedillos, chair of Restore Barnum Hall, which continues to fund the maintenance of the auditorium.

The hall’s original organ was deemed beyond repair after it was damaged during the 1994 Northridge earthquake and Restore Barnum Hall had hoped to find one to replace it within the next few years.

“We didn’t even seek one but people were offering them before we even tried to look,” Sedillos said.

Samohi was offered two Wurlitzer organs and decided to keep the one donated by Gordon Belt, a member of the Los Angeles Theater Organ Society.

“I do know that Santa Monica High School has a very active musical program,” Belt said. “That’s the reason I wanted [the organ] to go to a high school instead of a regular auditorium where it wouldn’t be used as often.”

Production on Wurlitzer organs stopped in the 1920s when the silent films they were made to accompany were replaced by talking films, and Belt had to assemble his organ from the parts of several instruments, including one at the Nuestra Señora Reina de los Angeles Church by Olvera Street. He added to that foundation with pipes and pieces from other sites across the country, building an extra room onto his house to accommodate the organ.

“It’s a composite organ,” he likes to call his finished product, which comes with three manual keyboards and 1,500 pipes and will make noises, such as a doorbell, horses’ hooves and crash symbols, that were used as sound effects in silent films.

Because of this new instrument, Samohi is creating a partnership with the L.A. Theater Organ Society that would include a yearly concert. The two groups are also working to perfect a deal that would give the L.A. Theater Organ Society access to the organ for music lessons in exchange for maintenance and upkeep of the instrument.

“I’m looking into having an after-school program to teach kids the organ who might be interested,” said Samohi band director Terry Sakow. “These instruments are pretty rare and there’s a whole art to maintaining them. It’s a pretty interesting instrument, pretty unique.”

Sakow added that he and the choir director both hope to find new arrangements for their students to perform that will utilize the organ’s unique sound.

“There’s something about a pipe organ. When you hear it live for the first time, it’s an awesome sound that can’t really be captured in a recording,” he said. “There’s nothing quite like it.”

Having the organ means that Samohi can also add to the types of events it hosts each year.

“It gives us another range in instrument that makes the space more useful,” said Carey Upton, manager for Barnum Hall. “It’s such a wonderful, beautiful concert hall and it gives us a whole new list of music we are able to bring in.”

One of these events might even put the Wurlitzer to use the way it was intended.

“We’d love to show some silent films,” Upton said. “It’s a fun experience. It’s very different than going to the movies today.”

For many, the organ brings a piece of the past to Samohi and helps the tradition of organ music continue on into a new generation of musicians.

“We’re trying to make younger people aware of the theater organ,” Belt said. “I think that it’s something the youth of today should still be aware of, and the instrument is adaptable to most types of music today.”


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