"Checking the Organ"

Oct 7, 2016

Checking the organ

 Out of all the equipment in the theater where I work, the organ is our baby.  It’s a 1924 Kimball Theater Organ, rebuilt from scratch with loving care.  There are hundreds and hundreds of pipes – they sit high up, hidden behind gold leaf and filigree, in two madcap chambers set into the walls on either side of the stage.  Everything is powered by wind – the trumpets, flutes, piccolos, tubas, glockenspiels, bird sounds, train whistle , fire engine siren.  A gifted organist can make this instrument sing, cry and imitate a tornado – all in the space of a single minute.   As you can imagine, this instrument gets regular checkups, just to make sure the pipes are all in tip top shape.  And that’s what we are doing today – my boss and I – checking the state of the North Organ Chamber. We climb the ladder to the attic outside the organ chamber.  In front of us is an Alice-in-wonderland wooden door, padlocked tight against unwanted visitors.  We turn the key, flick on the lights, and venture in.  Oh, what a sight!  Two steps up bring us onto a small wooden mid-air walkway, flanked on either side by a forest of wooden pipes.  The largest stand some sixteen feet tall, gleaming pillars of blonde wood, each with its name and pitch inscribed.  Nestled beneath these musical redwoods are the humbler undergrowth - the reeds in their racks – less shiny, some looking as unassuming as a cigarette butt jammed into a table.  Overhead are the gongs and cymbals, their menacing-looking mallets poised, ready to strike awe in listeners.  Further back, on the floor of the chamber down below, I can make out the form of an upright piano, its strings and hammers exposed, ready for wind-powered action.  Carefully, we move towards the back of the chamber.  Behind the Tuba pipes, a ladder promises access to the floor level, and beyond that, just visible between two wooden beams, the very back corner of the room. Would you look at that?  My boss says, peering between the beams.  There’s a hole in the floor back there!  Sure enough, right in the corner, there is an eight-inch wide hole in the floor.  It’s probably been there for decades.  No wonder we have trouble keeping this chamber at the right humidity!  We’ve got to get that fixed, he says. I think I can get back there, I hear myself saying.  My boss looks at me, then at the narrow gap between the beams.  Well, you go for it, he says.  But look out, it’s a really tight squeeze.  I flash him a confident smile.  No problem – I’m flexible… He hands me a can of foam sealant, and tells me to have at it.  He has some phone calls to make. Left to my own devices, I take stock of my rather restricting challenge.  I discover that if I turn sideways, I can just fit my head and chest through the gap between the beams.  Next comes my lower half.  With a satisfying and almost audible “pop,” I  squirt through the gap and find myself hanging onto a wooden strut a couple feet above ground level.  I made it! Reaching back through the gap, I grab the sealant, then drop to the gound and cover the offending hole with sticky yellow goo.  It bubbles happily, expanding with frightening speed.  Soon there is no sign of the hole, or of the floor above it.  Mission accomplished. Feeling proud of my achievement, I turn around to leave.  And this is where it occurs to me:  It is easier to angle my middle-aged frame head-first through a small gap in a downward direction, than it is to do this movement in reverse.  I spend fifteen minutes in a fruitless and increasingly panicked effort to jam my body feet-first upwards into the space through which I came.  Finally, I give up and prop myself above the sea of goo, assessing my options.  Scanning the walls, I notice for the first time a shadowy opening at floor level.  Peering into the gloom, I can see a familiar piano in the distance!  Freedom!  But now a new problem – I can’t go in head-first.  I’ll have to lower myself and go in with my feet.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I figure.  Down I go – jack-knifing my body into the space.  Legs first, then hips, then chest, arms and head.  Lying face-down on the smooth wooden surface of some giant pipe, I begin to do the dance move known to young folk as “The Worm.”  Undulating my body, sliding backwards along the narrow path until I slide out into the open.  Saluting the piano, I climb past the wind-powered orchestra, back through the small wooden door, lock everything tightly and return to the ground.  I have no plans to go back to that corner for many decades. At the end of the day, when I tell my kids about this harrowing experience, they are magnificently unimpressed.  Their only comment: Dad, you’ve got to stop eating so many nachos! For Michiana Chronicles, I’m Andrew