Theater-organ lover feels right at home at keyboard

By Steve Stephents Dispatch Staff Reporter Columbus, Ohio Dispatch Newspaper Article

The old-time theater pipe organ - an instrument designed to transport a listener in time and space - does its job disconcertingly well when its tones waft from the windows of Tom Hamilton's Upper Arlington home.

There, in a nook off the living room, sits a full-size replica of the Ohio Theatre's Morton organ. The organ barely leaves room for the two original Ohio Theatre seats behind it.

"When I was a little boy, I went to the Ohio and fell in love with the sound of the organ," Hamilton, 66, said. "I said, 'Some day, I'm going to play something like that." Something very much like that.

Hamilton's version, which he commissioned from a Toronto organ company and had installed in 1987, has 36 speakers- and 24 stereo channels with the power of 2,000 watts. Hamilton doesn't have room for pipes, so his organ uses elecronics to create its sound.

"They did a good job of reproducing the sound, even down to the reverberation you hear in the theater," Said Hamilton, a retired electrical engineer who installed some of the electroronics himself.

Authenticity was important so he took exacting measurements of the Ohio's organ.

"One dimension was one-quarter inch out of specification. So we made this one one-quarter inch out of specification, too."

It's not as if Hamilton can't play the real thing when he wants. He owns a piece of the actual mighty Morton.

In 1963, after the Ohio's organ sat unused for 20 years, Hamilton organized a group of men who volunteered to fix and play the Morton. In return, Hamilton got the right of first refusal to buy the organ if the theater ever sold it.

Hamilton and other men in the group played the Ohio's organ for occasional shows. In the late 1960s, when it looked as if the Ohio would be demolished, theater management sold the organ to Hamilton and Carlos Parker, who later became the building manager at the Ohio.

But Hamilton and others decided the whole building should be preserved and mounted a community effort

"Over time I gave my share of the organ back, all except a 1 percent interest," Hamilton said. "That 1 percent allows me a key to the theater so I can get in and play it when I want."

Hamilton admits he hasn't sat down at the Ohio's organ since he had his built. He plays his own organ at least 30 minutes a night.

"It relaxes me before I go to bed," he said. "Sometimes I'll play with the doors or windows open. I'll finish a piece, and all of a sudden I hear clapping" from neighbors who have set up chairs on nearby lawns.

Like the Ohio's Morton, Hamilton's organ is equipped with all the sound effects needed to accompany silent movies - train whistles, horses, rain, thunder and dozens more. Hamilton has his own collection of silent movies, which he shows to churches and retirement homes while he provides accompaniment Of course, he can't take his own organ, so he makes due with what is available.

He admits that collecting theater organs is an expensive hobby.

"Even my wife doesn't know what I paid" for the replica. But it was well worth the cost, he said.

"If you play a trurnpet, you only play one note. I want the whole blame orchestra. That's what I've got here."

At one time or another Hamilton has owned the organs from the Palace and Lincoln theaters, too.

"I love theater organs, if you haven't guessed it yet."


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