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Couple restoring 1927 theater organ

‘We are saving it from destruction’

By Scott Thoma

Bryan and Bonnie Green of Morgan have renovated and restored numerous church-type organs. But the one they are currently working on restoring holds special meaning to them.

Bryan Green holds one of over 200 sets of pipes that will be housed in a room he specifically built for the 1927 theater organ on the second floor of the former Methodist Church in Morton. Photos by Scott Thoma

The organ is a 1927 Robert Morton Theatre model built in Van Nuys, California and is a similar type to those used by the movie industry for its silent films produced in Hollywood.

“We came across it while searching online and the people that had it were willing to give it away free to a good home,” Bryan explained. “We really wanted it, but the only problem was that it was in Denver.”

After deliberating for a little while, the Greens informed the owners that they would make the trip west for the organ. So Bonnie and a family friend from New Prague drove to Denver five years ago to pick up the organ and return to Minnesota.

“There was a lot of work that needed to be done on it,” Bryan said. “But we have both worked on many organs so we were comfortable that we could restore it.”

The Greens worked for five years for the Rutz Organ Company that restored organs in Faribault in the early 2000s and became proficient in their craft.

“We have restored over 20 organs; sometimes three at one time in various stages,” Bryan stated. “A lot of the organs we worked on were from small country churches that couldn’t afford a new organ and the old one would have ended up in a scrap heap.”

The Greens stopped working for the organ restoration company in 2005.

In 2015, the Greens purchased the former Methodist Church in Morton that closed its doors in 2012. The church was built in 1891 and remodeled in 1990.

The Greens have since turned the church into a business place that features Bryan’s professional photography business, as well as Bonnie’s custom frame shop.

Bonnie Green works on rewiring the components of the organ.

Bryan utilized many of the pews and other furniture pieces that were inside the church and recreated them into other projects, including a well-designed loft that will house the organ, and a small room that will contain the organ pipes. The beautiful oak wood of the pews from the church can now be seen on a first-floor ceiling in one area that adds a certain character while also retaining memories of a church that was once used for many years. Bryan duplicated the cutout design from the backs of the pews to match the wood railings leading the upper floor and loft.

“I wanted to build the loft and remodel the upstairs part of the building first before we assembled the organ. I did all of that over the winter and now were are working on the organ, which is currently in many pieces.”

The process of disassembling, repairing/restoring and then reassembling the organ all takes time and patience. Besides each of the Greens having a business to run at the former church, Bryan also farms around 1,900 acres of land around the Morgan, Morton, Franklin and Olivia areas. Bonnie also is employed with the Bayer soybean production facility south of Redwood Falls.

The organ’s original wiring was outdated and unsafe and is currently being rewired.

“Bonnie does most of the wiring,” Bryan said with a smile. “She remembers the color coding better than I do. It would take me twice as long.”

The Greens work out of a former Methodist Church from Morton. The organ is being installed in this building.

In all, Bryan estimates that they will have put in “around 300 to 400 hours” into restoring the organ once its completed.

“There have been some challenges for us because it was an old theatre-type organ and there are two ways to play the keys,” he said. “It’s almost as if you are playing two instruments at the same time instead of one.”

Playing a piano and playing an organ are similar, yet vastly different. While a piano has 88 keys, the organ the Green are working on restoring has 152 keys, 205 sets of pipes and 30 foot pedals. “Each pipe plays one note,” said Bryan.

A theatre pipe organ is an American musical instrument that was developed in the early 1900s to replace expensive live orchestras that accompanied silent films. Playable by only one person, the theatre organ is called a “unit orchestra” because it contains many ranks of pipes that imitate a full range of orchestral instruments, as well as real percussion instruments played from the console, and sound effects used for silent films.

The sounds effects that accompanied the organ the Greens acquired include a bird whistle and tambourine.

Unlike classical instruments, the theatre organ console is set up in a “horseshoe” configuration. Pulsations of air through the pipes enable a unique vibrato effect that magnifies the sonic experience.

Bryan Green shows the foot pedals that have been restored and will be use for the 1927 theater organ he and his wife are restoring. Photo by Scott Thoma

The resulting sound of this type of an organ is unmatched because it has the power of a symphony orchestra, while also being able to replicate the sound of a single flute or violin.

Theatre organs can play virtually any type of melodic music from classical, to modern popular music, show tunes, movie scores, orchestral transcriptions, and jazz.

“The sound will be loud enough to be heard throughout the building,” Green promised.

One of the goals of the Greens is to recreate a silent movie in Green Lighthouse, utilizing the completed organ.

“I think that would be a lot of fun,” Bryan said. “People would be interested in seeing how the organ played a part in a silent movie.”

But just don’t expect either of the Greens to be sitting behind the console.

The original plate from the Robert Morton Organ Co. Contributed photo

“Neither of us can really play,” he said. “It’s a very difficult instrument to play. It takes years to learn. We have a neighbor who can play the organ really well and he said he would come in and play it for us.”

There is a reason why restoring this organ and having it housed inside a former church is near and dear to the Greens’ hearts.

“For one thing, we are saving it from destruction,” Bryan said. “We spent a lot of years working in churches restoring organs. And I’ve taken a lot of wedding photos in churches, so it does hold special meaning to have this organ here.”

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