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Michiana Chronicles writers bring portraits of our life and times to the 88.1 WVPE airwaves every Friday at 7:45 am during Morning Edition and over the noon hour at 12:30 pm during Here and Now. Michiana Chronicles was first broadcast in October 2001. Contact the writers through their individual e-mails and thanks for listening!

Michiana Chronicles: The forty-four-second dash

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Andrew Kreider
The pipes of the Kimball organ in Elkhart's Lerner Theatre

To reach the beating heart of the Lerner Theatre’s Kimball theater organ from the back of the auditorium takes precisely forty-four seconds. Leap from the comfort of your chair, thirty-eight strides down the side aisle, duck left through a red-curtained opening, then pound up four flights of steps (twenty-six in all) to the base of a green ladder, followed by a straight climb of ten rungs to a metal door in the ceiling. Push the door open with your head while climbing, and you land in a small, white-painted antechamber with a padlocked wooden door at the end. Grab the key from its hiding place, open the padlock and you are in! The north organ chamber - home to over 500 pipes of all shapes and sizes.

Forty-four seconds. But at a dead run, I’ve managed it in thirty-one. How do I know this, you ask? Because last week I had to do this mad dash three times in less than an hour.

It is our monthly lunchtime organ concert. And you have to understand, when that organ is being played by an expert, it’s pheonomenal. The majesty of the sound – instruments and percussion and train whistles and bird calls – all pouring out of a wind-powered machine built over a hundred years ago. It’s incredible. You have to hear it to believe it.

Unfortunately, as incredibly good as the organ can be on its best day, when something goes wrong, it’s really bad. Because all you need is one bit of dirt in the bottom of a pipe, or one stuck valve somewhere in the vast mass of plumbing in the belly of the beast, and you can get what’s called a cypher. A cypher is a stuck note - where an air valve gets stuck open, and a pipe just plays non-stop. Like a leaky waterbed in the apartment above, or a five year old with a new joke - it just won’t stop.

Well, that’s exactly happens in the middle of today’s performance. After forty-five minutes of beautiful music making, the B below middle C of one rank of pipes all of a sudden gets a cypher.

Celia, our organist, immediately recognizes what is wrong. She catches my eye at the back of the room and announces to the audience that she will be taking a ten minute break while the staff fixes the problem. She smiles at me with a glint of mischief and leaves the stage.

Forty-four seconds later, I have run, pounded and clambered to the north organ chamber. The B below middle C is playing loud and clear. But here’s the problem. The room is jam packed with pipes and I have no idea which one is the problem. Fighting rising panic, I get down on my hands and knees to be closer to some of the lower pipes, to see if I can hear which direction the sound is coming from. It’s hopeless - the note is just bouncing off the walls. But then it hits me - if the sound is produced by wind, then I just need to find the pipe that has wind coming out of the top! Encouraged by my brilliance, I dash up and down a narrow gang plank, waving my hands hopefully above the pipe tops. And wouldn’t you know it, it works! Led by the breeze, I find the culprit.

In triumph, I pull the pipe from its slot in the rack - and the note stops.

Setting the pipe carefully aside, I clamber back down to the auditorium. Celia looks non-plussed. And now that I am with her, I can hear what everyone else in the room can hear. A giant whooshing sound - of a 20 horsepower blower sending a gale of wind through the open hole I have just left in the chamber above. Don’t move, I tell her.

On my thirty-four second trip back up to the organ chamber, I text Glenn. Glenn is our organ tuner. Amazingly, he calls me back immediately. Don’t be a dummy, he says. Don’t take the pipe out. You need to “blue tape” it. What on earth do you mean, I start to ask. He cuts me off - just go get some blue tape and call me back. The audience observe me flying through the room to the tool chest.

Thirty-one seconds back up the ladder and into the chamber. Glenn picks up on the first ring. OK - take a piece of tape and put it over the tone hole at the bottom of the pipe. Then for heaven’s sake put the pipe back in its slot. I dutifully slap a piece of tape over the opening in the pipe and slide it back into its home. Suddenly, there is real silence. No cipher. And no rushing wind.

Downstairs, Celia resumes the concert, while I slink to the back of the room to nurse my bruised head and aching calves. The crowd is happy, and I need a cup of tea.

It takes forty-four seconds to get from the back of the theater to the heart of the organ. At a dead run, I’ve done it in thirty-one.

Compared to this, working with rock bands is a piece of cake.