Cover Feature

American Organ Institute, 

University of Oklahoma, 

Norman, Oklahoma

Oklahoma History Center, 

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

A part of Oklahoma history, the Kilgen theatre organ originally installed in the studios of WKY Radio in Oklahoma City came to life again on April 24, 2017, under the fingers of John Schwandt. It was almost 81 years to the day since the instrument was officially debuted by Jesse Crawford, the “Poet of the Organ.”  In reality, when Crawford played that concert April 13, 1936, to mark the move to the ritzy new studios owned by E. K. Gaylord on top of the Skirvin Tower in downtown OKC, the organ had already been played for months. And in fact, it had already gained four ranks and a vibraharp, ordered from Kilgen as soon as the instrument was installed.

Similarly, the conclusion of the rebuilding of the instrument in 2017 was not the first time it had been taken apart and reassembled; it was the fifth. When WKY Radio, the third oldest (first transmitting in 1922 as 5XT) and the strongest radio station west of the Mississippi, took a backseat to WKY Television, which began broadcasts in 1949, the organ fell silent. The studios were moved to a new location away from downtown OKC in March of 1951, and that meant there was no place for the Kilgen organ that had for 15 years accompanied the daily lives of Oklahomans with the musical stylings of Ken Wright, the brilliant organist who would remain linked with this instrument until his death in 1978.

Gaylord sold the Kilgen (Opus 5281) to the City of Oklahoma City for $1,000, and the delightfully named local organ technician Roy Gimple installed it in the cavernous Art Deco expanse of the Municipal Auditorium. Sixteen years later, in 1967, the auditorium was renovated, renamed the Civic Center, and reoriented to seat 3,200 (half its original capacity) with the organ retained and installed in chambers on either side of the proscenium. There it played until 1976, when Paul Haggard, once employed by the Kilgen firm in St. Louis and now relocated to Oklahoma City, led a renovation of the instrument that culminated in a concert by Hector Olivera on September 11, 1977. Haggard knew the organ well, as he had been on the installation team back in 1935, and there he sat, next to Ken Wright, as they heard Olivera play a concert that included the music of the new movie Star Wars on the organ Ken called “my baby.” 

And so the organ played on, at least on occasion, until 1998, when the Civic Center was again closed and gutted for a new interior. The design didn’t include a place for an organ, and it fell to a group of local businessmen led by Greg Robertson to voice concern about its fate and to put on one last private concert for the mayor and the city council, by way of convincing them of the organ’s value. Robertson called on local organ celebrity Wally Brown, known particularly as the organist who accompanied the passionate preacher Oral Roberts in his crusades around the world, in which Brown punctuated the preacher’s electrifying utterances with “preaching chords,” and brought in the souls, and the sheaves, to the interminable strains of “Just As I Am.” Wally must have done something special, as the stony hearts of the local bureaucrats were softened and they agreed to spare the Kilgen from the wrecking ball and place it in storage, though its fate was unknown. 

Before much time had passed, Robertson and Bob Blackburn, who was then the deputy director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, came together in mutual agreement that the organ needed a home. In fact, the Oklahoma Historical Society had already broken ground on a new museum building that would stand in the shadow of the Capitol. “Dr. Bob” understood the unique role that Opus 5281 had played in the state’s collective consciousness, and a change order was issued to provide a room in the new building’s basement for the blower and two chambers flanking the rotunda of the new Great Hall, with its hard surfaces and view of the Capitol building. 

Robertson had appealed to Garman Kimmell for support. Kimmell was an engineer and inventor whose products revolutionized the oil and gas industry around the world, but he didn’t stop there. He was the medical physicist for the first open heart surgery team in Oklahoma City, designing and building one of the first heart-lung machines in the world. Later, he produced the vena cava filter, designed to catch blood clots as they entered the heart from the extremities, before they could cause great harm or death. His simple, yet intricate, basket design, copied from his successful design of a filter to deal with accumulation of sludge in an oil well, has been implanted in hundreds of thousands of patients. 

Kimmell also was passionate about music and enjoyed the mechanics and physics of the pipe organ, so he was intrigued by the planned installation of the Kilgen and agreed to fund it. A local organ enthusiast was hired to run the project, which unfortunately ran aground just before the organ was supposed to be powered up. The team dissolved and the organ sat, partially installed and silent. In 2006, the Oklahoma Historical Society invited multiple organ professionals to make an assessment of the situation. Everyone agreed that any plan to breathe life into Opus 5281 would require going back to the beginning. 

One of those professionals was John Schwandt, newly hired as the organ professor at the University of Oklahoma, where he had also founded the American Organ Institute (AOI). Schwandt’s vision was for a program that encompassed the pipe organ as a whole, including its unique expression in the American theatre organ, and in the study and practice of organbuilding and maintenance. Having already procured the space for an organ shop and outfitted it appropriately, Schwandt felt that a project to return a theatre organ to Oklahoma City was a natural fit for his institute. But the money had to come from somewhere.

At approximately the same time, Dusty Miller, a son-in-law of Garman Kimmell who had a particular love for the theatre organ, was contemplating a move back to Oklahoma with his wife, Barbara, having retired from his own career as an engineer in Pennsylvania. Learning of the situation with the WKY organ, Miller offered to help find a solution to the albatross in the chambers. Given time and planning, he gathered the financial commitment from his now-deceased father-in-law’s company and charitable foundation, as well as the Gaylord family, and resolved to make the Kilgen play again. Having consulted with a number of people, Miller began discussions with the principals of the AOI, just a few miles south at the University of Oklahoma, and asked for a plan. Being that the AOI and the History Center were both part of major state institutions, the move seemed natural, and furthermore would leverage the AOI’s internal resolve and external accountability to insure that the project would not fail.

On the part of the AOI, this was an endeavor that would follow several other smaller but successful projects in the state of Oklahoma. The AOI does not operate outside the borders of the state and is governed by a non-compete clause, and thus is set about encouraging the pipe organ culture within Oklahoma, which has long suffered disappointing instruments often cobbled together by locals, and has precious few capable organ technicians. There is a particular shortage of theatre organs. 

Given the instrument and the beautiful new History Center, the AOI gladly took on the challenge of a complete rebuild of the Kilgen. It was determined by all parties that this was not to be a restoration that would attempt to replicate the instrument at any given time in its history. This was rendered a fait accompli by the simple fact that the historical fabric of the “original” instrument was very tattered. The original relay was destroyed by a fire in the relay room in the 1980s, and the console had always been electric. The wind system, which had been designed to supply 10 ranks, was never equal to the task of powering 15 ranks on pressures of 10 and 15 inches of water column, and had thus been chopped up. The chests were an unfortunate mess. The pipes had seen some real damage, but were largely intact and thus, tonally, the Kilgen organ could be resurrected.

Extensive planning in coordination with Clark Wilson, now visiting instructor of organ at University of Oklahoma, and other leading theatre organists as well as several noted organbuilders and professionals, had produced a revised specification that fully utilized the available tonal resources. It was clearly stated that the agreed intent was to produce an organ that reflected the now-scarce Kilgen sound, but was not hamstrung by the console specifications as it was built or altered in its checkered history. This would be a clean and exciting instrument that was ready to engage both today’s young theatre organists and the general public, many of whom may never have encountered a pipe organ at all—much less one of this breed.  

The most obvious obstacle was in how to lay out the instrument, given the necessity of working within the provided dimensions. John Riester and Dan Sliger worked together to design a wooden super-structure that capitalized on the height of the chambers to allow three levels to comfortably accommodate the wind system, the pipes and chests, and the tuned and untuned percussions and effects. Each aspect of the instrument was treated in consultation with appropriate professionals, one of whom was Alan Nagel, whose father was the last shop foreman for Kilgen and subsequently purchased the company, retaining designs and files.

While all aspects of an organ’s design are crucial, voicing and tonal finishing are agreed to be essential to the success of an instrument. Almost all of the pipes from the instrument were cleaned and repaired in-house. John Schwandt and Adam Pajan (a member of The Diapason’s 20 Under 30 Class of 2016) then worked rank by rank, in cooperation with professionals such as Clark Wilson and Peter Batchelder, to restore the tonal characteristics of the organ.

There were hurdles along the project’s path, but none of them were defeating, given the breadth of experience drawn on to inform decisions as well as the enthusiasm and support of all involved.  Finally, the WKY Kilgen is played again for audiences of Oklahomans—including Ken Wright’s daughter, Margot, who was present at the inaugural performance, and Carolyn Rexroat Warner, who appeared on WKY Radio as a young hostess and as an ensemble member during the best years of radio programming, just prior to the explosion of television. Both agreed with others who knew the instrument in its original home: Kilgen Opus 5281 had never sounded better.

As part of the shared mission of the Oklahoma Historical Society and the American Organ Institute, a new interactive exhibit was designed and built by the AOI for installation at the museum. It contains a blower, reservoir, cross-section of a Kilgen chest with playable pipes, a small toy counter (perhaps to the chagrin of the museum personnel in proximity), a group of differing pipes, and playable 16 and 8 pipes. This has become the most popular exhibit in the museum, to the happy satisfaction of both parties.

The professionals and the students of the American Organ Institute are grateful to the Oklahoma Historical Society and the Kimmell and Gaylord families for making this project possible. We look forward to working with and on this instrument as it is used regularly in a variety of settings. Likewise, thanks are due to the many who stepped in to save the instrument at various points in its life, and to the professionals involved in this project. Most are listed below, but not exhaustively.

For those of us who are both natives of Oklahoma and lovers of the pipe organ, this instrument stands as a link to our past. It accompanied programs that were followed avidly and in times of great national distress. It was heard by our families and came into our homes. And once again, it can be heard accompanying our state song. Here in Oklahoma “we know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand!”

—Jeremy D. Wance

Associate Director

American Organ Institute

 

Professional assistance provided by:

R. A. Banks and Associates

Peter Batchelder

Columbia Organ Leathers

Tom Cotner

Duchon’s Organ Pipes

John Goulding

Kegg Organ Builders

Allen Miller Associates

Nickerson Pipe Organ Service 

Sean O’Donnell & Associates

Organ Supply Industries

Quimby Pipe Organs, Inc.

Reuter Organ Company

St. Louis Pipe Organ Company

Schaff Piano Supply

Schantz Organ Company

A.R. Schopp’s Sons, Inc.

Carlton Smith Pipe Organ Restorations

Villemin Pipe Organ Company

 

Oklahoma Historical Society and Oklahoma History Center website: www.okhistory.org.

American Organ Institute website: www.ou.edu/aoi.html.

 

Chamber analysis

MAIN

16 Tuba 85 pipes

16 Open Diapason + * 85 pipes 

16 Concert Flute 97 pipes

8 French Horn + 61 pipes

8 Clarinet + 61 pipes 

8 Viol d’Orchestre 85 pipes

8 Viol Celeste 73 pipes

4 Vibraharp + 49 bars

4 Marimba 49 bars

4 Chrysoglott 37 bars

SOLO

16 Tibia 97 pipes

16 Solo Violin 85 pipes

8 Posthorn  61 pipes

8 Trumpet 73 pipes

8 Violin Diapason ‡ 85 pipes

8 Kinura ++ 61 pipes 

8 Orchestral Oboe + 61 pipes 

8 Vox Humana 73 pipes

4 Chimes 20 tubes

2 Glockenspiel 37 bars

2 Xylophone 37 bars

2 Sleigh Bells † 25 notes

 

+ Added by Kilgen in 1936

++ Added while at WKY. Gottfried pipes, date and source unknown.

* 1–12 Wurlitzer Diaphone. Added while at Civic Center. Date and source unknown.

† Added 2017

‡ Originally specified, this rank disappeared at an unknown time. It was restored, using vintage pipes.

 

GENERAL

Vibraharp Motor

Marimba Re-it

Xylo/Glock Re-it

Great Sostenuto OFF

Master Expression

Record/Playback

 

COMBINATION PISTONS

General – 30

Pedal (toe) – 6

Accompaniment – 10

Great – 10

Solo – 10

Bombarde – 10

 

BALANCED PEDALS

Main Expression

Solo Expression

Crescendo

 

MISCELLANEOUS PISTONS

Harp Dampers On

Crescendo A

Crescendo B

Percussion Unenclosed

32 Harmonics Off

 

KNEE PANEL SPOONS

Cymbal Roll/Crash (double touch)

Drum Roll/Strike (double touch)

Tutti

GREAT

16 Post Horn (TC)

16 Trumpet (TC)

16 Tuba

16 Diaphone

16 Violin Diapason (TC)

16 Tibia Clausa

16 French Horn (TC)

16 Clarinet (TC)

16 Kinura (TC)

16 Orchestral Oboe (TC)

16 Solo Violin

16 Viol d’Orchestre (TC)

16 Viol Celeste (TC)

16 Bourdon

16 Vox Humana (TC)

8 Post Horn

8 Trumpet

8 Tuba

8 Open Diapason

8 Violin Diapason

8 Tibia Clausa

8 French Horn

8 Clarinet

8 Kinura

8 Orchestral Oboe

8 Solo Violin

8 Viol d’Orchestre

8 Viol Celeste

8 Concert Flute

8 Vox Humana

513 Tibia Fifth

4 Octave Trumpet

4 Octave Open

4 Octave

4 Tibia Clausa

4 Solo Violin

4 Viol d’Orchestre

4 Viol Celeste

4 Flute

315 Tibia Tenth

223 Tibia Twelfth

223 Twelfth (Viol d’Orchestre)

2 Tibia Piccolo

2 Fifteenth (Violin Diapason)

2 Piccolo (Concert Flute)

135 Tierce (Concert Flute)

1 Fife (Concert Flute)

8 Marimba

4 Marimba

4 Xylophone

2 Xylophone

2 Glockenspiel

4 Chrysoglott

Great to Great 16

Great Unison Off

Great to Great 4

Solo to Great 16

Solo to Great 8

Great Pizzicato

16 Post Horn (TC)

8 Post Horn

Solo to Great 16

Solo to Great 8

BOMBARDE

16 Post Horn (TC)

16 Trumpet (TC)

16 Tuba

16 Diaphone

16 Tibia Clausa

16 Vox Humana (TC)

8 Post Horn

8 Trumpet

8 Tuba

8 Open Diapason

8 Tibia Clausa

8 Clarinet

8 Orchestral Oboe

8 Solo Violin

8 Viol d’Orchestre

8 Viol Celeste

8 Vox Humana

4 Tuba Clarion

4 Octave Open

4 Tibia Clausa

4 Solo Violin

4 Viol d’Orchestre

4 Viol Celeste

223 Tibia Twelfth

2 Tibia Piccolo

8 Marimba

2 Xylophone

2 Glockenspiel

4 Vibraharp

4 Chrysoglott

Bombarde to Bombarde 16

Bombarde to Bombarde 4

Great to Bombarde 8

Great to Bombarde 4

Solo to Bombarde 16

Solo to Bombarde 8

ACCOMPANIMENT

8 Post Horn

8 Trumpet

8 Tuba

8 Open Diapason

8 Violin Diapason

8 Tibia Clausa

8 French Horn

8 Clarinet

8 Solo Violin

8 Viol d’Orchestre

8 Viol Celeste

8 Concert Flute

8 Vox Humana

4 Octave Open

4 Octave

4 Tibia Clausa

4 Solo Violin

4 Viol d’Orchestre

4 Viol Celeste

4 Concert Flute

4 Vox Humana

223 Flute Twelfth (Concert Flute)

2 Piccolo (Concert Flute)

8 Marimba

4 Marimba

8 Vibraharp

4 Vibraharp

4 Chrysoglott

Snare Drum Roll

Snare Drum Tap

Tom Tom

Tambourine

Castanets

Wood Block

Choke Cymbal

Tap Cymbal

Birds

Sleigh Bells

Cow Bell

Accompaniment to Accompaniment 4

Solo to Accompaniment 8

Accompaniment Second Touch

8 Post Horn

8 Trumpet

8 Tuba

8 Open Diapason

8 Tibia Clausa

8 French Horn

8 Clarinet

4 Tibia Clausa

8 Marimba

1 Glockenspiel

4 Chimes

Triangle

Traps to Second Touch

Great to Accompaniment 4

Solo to Accompaniment 8

SOLO

8 Post Horn

8 Trumpet

8 Tuba

8 Open Diapason

8 Violin Diapason

8 Tibia Clausa

8 French Horn

8 Clarinet

8 Kinura

8 Orchestral Oboe

8 Solo Violin

8 Viol d’Orchestre

8 Viol Celeste

8 Concert Flute

8 Vox Humana

4 Tibia Clausa

4 Solo Violin

4 Viol d’Orchestre

4 Viol Celeste

4 Vox Humana

223 Tibia Twelfth

2 Tibia Piccolo

135 Tibia Tierce

113 Tibia Larigot

8 Marimba

2 Xylophone

2 Glockenspiel

8 Vibraharp

4 Vibraharp

4 Chrysoglott

4 Sleigh Bells

8 Chimes

Solo to Solo 16

Solo Unison Off

Solo to Solo 4

Solo to Solo 625

Solo to Solo 513

Solo to Solo 447

PEDAL

32 Harmonics (resultant)

32 Contra Bourdon (resultant)

16 Tuba

16 Diaphone

16 Tibia Clausa

16 Violone

16 Bourdon

8 Post Horn

8 Trumpet

8 Tuba

8 Open Diapason

8 Violin Diapason

8 Tibia Clausa

8 Clarinet

8 Solo Violin

8 Viol d’Orchestre

8 Viol Celeste

8 Concert Flute

4 Chimes

Bass Drum

Tympani

Crash Cymbal

Tap Cymbal

Triangle

Accompaniment to Pedal 8

Great to Pedal 8

Great to Pedal 4

Solo to Pedal 8

Tremulants

Main

French Horn/Clarinet

Solo

Tibia Clausa

Vox Humana

Tuba

Trumpet

Post Horn

Untuned Percussion Pistons

Acme Siren

Auto Horn

Bass Drum

Bird

Block

Boat Whistle

Crash Cymbal

Door Bell

Fire Gong

Fire Siren

Police Whistle

Roll Cymbal

Sleigh Bells

Slide Whistle

Splash Cymbal

Snare Drum

Telephone

Thunder

Train Whistle

Triangle

Wind

Wind Chime

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