By Beth Finke
A York Well Drilling truck pulls up in front of Champaign’s Virginia Theatre. A worker in grimy blue jeans jumps out of the cab, grabs a tool box and rushes inside. Water main problem? Of course not. It’s Warren York, making a quick stop between rigs to work on the Wurlitzer 185 Special.
Pipe organ fans might not recognize this 62-year-old Urbana well driller as the organist who plays before movies at downtown Champaign’s stately theatre. To York, however, the mix of backhoes and pipe organs is a natural one. "I built my first drilling rig when I was 15 and have been working with machinery ever since," he explained. "That’s what attracts me to the theatre organ. It is the biggest, most complex piece of machinery you’ve ever seen."
As the resident theatre organist at the Virginia, York entertains audiences before and during intermissions at movies and plays. His pipe organ overtures are a favorite of Roger Ebert at the annual Overlooked Film Festival. On Halloween each year, York delights silent film fans by accompanying the 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera. And he’ll be playing the sing-along concert again this New Year’s Eve, just as he’s done every year since 1990.
York’s work on drilling rigs pays his bills; the performances and work on the Wurlitzer 185 Special are all done as a volunteer. "Warren’s one of the few unpaid staff members who has a key to the Virginia," says Jim Spencer, Director of Operations at the Champaign Park District, which owns the Virginia Theatre. "He’ll come in some nights at three in the morning to work on the organ."
Fewer than one-third of the 350 operable theatre organs in North America are original installations. The Virginia Pipe organ, installed in 1921, is one of them. "It’s never been rebuilt," says York, "though I’ve rebuilt some things in it to keep it going." York has, in fact, invested thousands of his own dollars over the years to keep the organ up and running. With financial help from donations to the newly-established Champaign Park District Virginia Theatre Pipe Organ Fund, York hopes to someday rebuild the Wurlitzer 185 Special completely, adding another chamber to allow for more pipes and more sound. "We’ve got a lot of work to do on it yet," York admits. The reward for all his volunteer work on the organ? "The chance to hear it sing," says York simply.
An accomplished musician, York is regularly called upon to perform and work on theatre organs across the country. The money he earns from pipe organ concerts given in Detroit, San Francisco, Oakland, and Tampa all goes directly to the Virginia Theatre Pipe Organ Fund. "The way I figure," he shrugs, "It's kinda my rent for the chance to play the thing."
Never taught to read music, York plays everything by ear. He’s toted a small electronic organ around to play at clubs and special events ever since he was a teenager. At 15, the same year he built his first rig, he used rubber bands, fishing line and pipes to fashion foot pedals for his portable organ. When he attached his mother’s vacuum to pump the pedal on the invention, York claims she didn’t mind. "She was used to me building things like that. I was always into something mechanical."
York first took note of the Virginia pipe organ at a celebration in the 1960s. "They had the organ up and going then and a fella came and played it," he recalls. "I remember seeing it and I thought, ‘Well, that was neat.’" But York, just returned from Vietnam and trying to get his well drilling business back together, didn’t pursue the pipe organ.
Twenty years later, some theatre organ aficionados heard York moonlighting on his portable electronic organ at the Moose lodge in Champaign and convinced him to join them at an American Theatre Organ Society (ATOS) meeting at Indianapolis’ Hedback Theatre the next day.
The Hedback, known as the home of Footlight Musicals, houses a two-manual (two keyboard) pipe organ. "I got to play it," York reminisces. "it was the first time I’d ever played a pipe organ."
Tickled by the experience and eager to learn more about the mechanisms involved, York immediately signed up to help ATOS work on a pipe organ scheduled for installation in Indianapolis’ Manual High School. "All I knew then was if you push a note, wind blows through a pipe and it makes a sound," he says. "I knew there was more to it than that."
York was right. In theatre pipe organs, sound is produced by pressing keys on a console to electrically blow wind at high pressures through one or more sets of pipes. The pipes are usually hidden away in a chamber far from the console at a point where the sound produced can carry best to listener’s ears. Mechanisms fill small bellows with wind, to slam hammers on drums and other percussive instruments in the chamber. "I was fascinated with the mechanical aspects of the theatre organ," York says.
After working on the Indianapolis organ, York visited the Virginia Theatre. He was relieved to find the neat pipe organ he’d heard in the 60s still there. "The music rack was broken, a Christian Rock Group had used it as a stairway going up to the stage," he sighs. "The bench was lying to the left of the console. In pieces." With a theatre manager’s permission, the Wurlitzer was turned on. The pedal board lit up, but no sound came out. York checked the blower room, followed a conduit pipe across the stage, played with some switches, and after two or three hours he had enough of the organ going to play a few tunes. That was in 1989. York has been performing and working on that organ ever since.
Those who get a chance to hear York perform rarely forget the experience. "It’s a virtuoso performance," says Beth Fathauer, a Champaign graphic designer who heard York’s debut Phantom of the Opera accompaniment in 1998. "He plays the entire time. He never stops."
York has done Phantom three years at the Virginia, always playing the entire 98-minute film by himself and rarely breaking any of the self-imposed rules he’s developed for accompanying silent movies (see sidebar). Glen Davies, a visual artist from Urbana, was at the 2000 Phantom performance and marvels at the detail in York’s art. "He’d catch everything. There’d be a monkey off to the side of the screen playing cymbals, and he’d make that sound on the organ," Davies says. "He doesn’t miss a thing."
Pipe organs are complicated instruments, and problems sometimes occur that are difficult, if not downright impossible, to fix. "Warren is such a good performer that he can play around all the problems," marvels University of Illinois librarian Chris Anderson. A theatre organ enthusiast and ATOS member himself, Anderson sometimes helps at organ tuning sessions. With Anderson down at the keyboard, York can stay up in the chamber sliding stoppers, extending pipe collars, adjusting wires, and rolling and unrolling flat pieces of curved metal at the end of some tubes. "Tuning a theatre organ is tricky," allows Anderson. "Each pipe is tuned one by one."
Anderson intends to learn a tune or two on the pipe organ himself someday. For now, though, he’s content to hold notes one at a time. "And then, when we’re done tuning," he says. "I get to sit back and enjoy Warren’s playing."
When Anderson is not available, York works on the organ himself. He describes playing before movies, then sneaking up into the chamber to work while the film is showing. "I’ll be up above the pipes, being real quiet, then look around and think, ‘Ain’t this great?’" he says. "Nobody else would think that except me, looking at a bunch of pipes."
Rule #1: DON’T OVERSHADOW THE FILM. "When you’re playing a silent movie, remember the movie is the star. You’re just the accompaniest."
Rule #2: KEEP IT QUIET. "Don’t bombard the audience with sound unless there’s something big happening on the screen. Sometimes a note with two stops makes more of a statement than a whole handful of notes."
Rule #3: DON’T LEAD THE FILM. "Don’t give too much away. The film is going a certain direction. If you try to lead it somewhere, you’re going to distract the people in the audience and their minds are going to come off the screen."
Rule #4: DON’T PLAY MUSIC THE AUDIENCE WILL RECOGNIZE — except when a familiar piece is required for staged scenes. "If there’s a ballet going on, then sure, I may play ballet music the audience will recognize. Or if there’s a dance going on in a ballroom, I’ll play music they’ll recognize." Otherwise, York improvises his entire performance to avoid playing anything the audience might find familiar. "As soon as their mind says, ‘Oh! I know that song!’ their mind has come off that screen again."
Originally published in The Octopus, 8-14 December 2000, and copyright 2000 The Octopus. Minor typographical corrections only made by Chris Anderson, April 2001