Pay­ing the Piper Com­poser puts clas­sic or­gan back to work in cus­tom stu­dio

Nathan Barr re­claims the Wurl­itzer or­gan that once oc­cu­pied the scor­ing stage at Fox — and puts it back into ac­tion

Variety - - Contents - Story by JON BURLINGAME

WHEN COM­POSER NATHAN BARR found the in­stru­ment he had been look­ing for, he built a stu­dio for it.

Barr (“True Blood,” “The Amer­i­cans”) col­lects un­usual mu­si­cal de­vices, es­pe­cially me­chan­i­cal ones from the early 20th cen­tury. His search for a the­ater or­gan started when he scored “Hem­lock Grove,” a Net­flix hor­ror se­ries that earned him his first Emmy nom­i­na­tion. Five years ago, he dis­cov­ered an old Wurl­itzer pipe or­gan in floor-to- ceil­ing crates in a ware­house in Reno, Nev. The or­gan had oc­cu­pied the scor­ing stage at 20th Cen­tury-fox; you can hear its grand and pow­er­ful sounds in such clas­sic scores as Bernard Her­rmann’s “Jour­ney to the Cen­ter of the Earth,” Jerry Gold­smith’s “Pat­ton” and John Wil­liams’ “Witches of East­wick.”

In­stalled at Fox in 1928, the or­gan was de­signed to ac­com­pany silent films but re­mained in use un­til 1997, when the stu­dio sold it. When Barr bought the in­stru­ment, it had been ac­quired by Ken Crome, an or­gan ex­pert. Crome and his father had main­tained the in­stru­ment for decades, dat­ing back to the 1950s. “He had worked on it as a kid and, as many peo­ple did, hated when the stu­dio dis­man­tled and sold it,” says Barr.

The com­poser had long con­sid­ered adding a small scor­ing stage to his home stu­dio, but the Wurl­itzer de­manded a much larger space. A the­ater or­gan is not just the vis­i­ble, horse­shoe-shaped con­sole with key­boards and ped­als; it’s also 1,500 pipes re­quir­ing three cham­bers of their own, plus sub- cham­bers to house and quiet the nois­ier me­chan­i­cal as­pects of vin­tage ver­sions (a 1928 story in Mu­sic Trade Re­view called the Fox or­gan a Wurl­itzer Orches­tral- Cathe­dral model).

Barr found a build­ing in Tarzana he could turn into a record­ing stu­dio, re­built specif­i­cally to house the Wurl­itzer: The 8,000-square-foot Ban­drika Stu­dios (named af­ter the fic­tional coun­try in Hitch­cock’s “The Lady Van­ishes,” a Barr fa­vorite) has a 1,500-square-foot record­ing stage that can ac­com­mo­date 50 to 60 mu­si­cians.

The restora­tion process has taken four years and likely cost in the hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars (Barr de­clines to say). Yet, he adds, Fox main­tained the or­gan so

well that “you rarely see pipework that looks so ex­tra­or­di­nary. This has got to be one of the most well-kept, beau­ti­ful Wurl­itzers left in the world.”

Pasadena the­ater or­gan­ist Mark Her­man agrees. “This is a very spe­cial in­stru­ment,” he tells Va­ri­ety. “Ken Crome ob­vi­ously had to re­store ev­ery­thing, but it’s one of the clean­est and most beau­ti­ful the­ater- or­gan restora­tions I’ve ever seen.”

Her­man calls the clar­ity of the in­stru­ment un­par­al­leled. “The way it speaks out of the cham­bers, with noth­ing im­ped­ing the sound, into a room with re­ally fine acous­tics, makes it the ideal stu­dio in­stru­ment,” he says.

Be­cause it was man­u­fac­tured near the end of the silent-movie era, the or­gan was de­signed to pro­vide the per­former with a wide range of sounds — from sim­u­lat­ing orches­tral in­stru­ments (strings, wood­winds, brass) to per­cus­sion (drums, marimba, chimes) and even sound ef­fects (sirens, fire bells, horses’ hooves, bird­calls).

“The whole point was to give one per­son, sitting at the or­gan, max­i­mum abil­ity to com­ple­ment a silent film,” Barr ex­plains. The con­sole has three key­boards and is con­nected to a nearby up­right pi­ano — a 1929 Wurl­itzer model that was once part of the Port­land, Ore., Para­mount The­atre — mak­ing pure pi­ano sounds pos­si­ble too.

Barr called in one of the world’s most re­spected record­ing en­gi­neers, Peter Cob­bin (for­merly di­rec­tor of en­gi­neer­ing at Lon­don’s Abbey Road stu­dio), to tweak and hone the acous­tics of the room. Cob­bin says he was “in awe of the col­ors, the tim­bres, the pos­si­bil­i­ties of such a mag­nif­i­cent in­stru­ment” and praises Barr for his vi­sion and com­mit­ment to build­ing an acous­tic stage.

Cob­bin was at the mix­ing board for the late-may record­ing ses­sions — in­volv­ing both the or­gan and a small string sec­tion — for Barr’s score to “The House With a Clock in Its Walls,” billed as a “gothic hor­ror fan­tasy com­edy.” The Sept. 21 re­lease will mark the or­gan’s 21st- cen­tury de­but for movie au­di­ences.

“To­day, some type of MIDI key­board is of­ten used with many elec­tronic ma­nip­u­la­tions to make the sounds of the pipe or­gan,” notes Richard Nei­dich, chair­man of the board of the Amer­i­can The­atre Or­gan So­ci­ety. “Nathan’s stu­dio will be able to re­pro­duce scores that have not been pos­si­ble for more than 30 years [with] pure or­gan or, more likely, orches­tra and or­gan.”

Ladd Thomas, who played the in­stru­ment on many oc­ca­sions at Fox, in­clud­ing for Jerry Gold­smith’s “Star Trek: The Mo­tion Pic­ture” and John Wil­liams’ “Home Alone” scores, says he’s thrilled that au­di­ences will hear it again. “It’s a land­mark or­gan of that era,” he ex­plains.

Barr says he’ll use the new record­ing stage pri­mar­ily for his own projects. “Given how par­tic­u­lar and un­usual this space is, I don’t en­vi­sion this ever be­com­ing a com­mer­cial op­er­a­tion,” he says. “But cer­tainly there will be many who record here in the years to come, and many col­lab­o­ra­tions.

“I want to do salon con­certs,” he adds — just one of many ideas float­ing around at the moment. He en­vi­sions play­ing silent Harold Lloyd come­dies with or­gan ac­com­pa­ni­ment, “and with all sorts of other in­stru­ments.”

The com­poser re­mains fas­ci­nated by the tech­nol­ogy that went into the cre­ation of the in­stru­ment. “Some­times it’s not even about the sound they make,” he says. “It’s about the his­tory and in­ge­nu­ity of it, the aes­thet­ics of it — it’s all one big pack­age.”

Or­ganic Re­newal

Barr seems small amid the 1,500 pipes of the re­stored Wurl­itzer.

One-man Band The or­gan can sim­u­late other in­stru­ments and per­cus­sion — and play sound ef­fects.

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