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Moller in BBC studio at Jubilee Chapel
Moller Organ shown in London BBC Studio (Jubilee Chapel)
TRAVELING MOLLER

During the thirties the theatre organ was almost completely gone throughout the US due to the advent of sound movies. The organs were still heard in large theatres which had stage shows and on radio programs in studios which were pipe organ equipped, but largely fell to disuse in most other instances. This was not true across the Atlantic in Great Britain where theatre organs were still immensely popular. The BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) was broadcasting organ programs from theatres, but due to the lateness of the hours that they could use the organs the BBC decided to equip a radio studio with a theatre organ and had Compton build a theatre organ for them. It was considered to be one of the finest theatre organs ever built in Britain and was immensely popular on the airwaves. The BBC organ went on the air in October 1936 and comprised four manuals with 23 units and included a grand piano playable from the console and a complete range of tonal and non-tonal percussions. Reginald Foort was a staff organist at the BBC and was extremely popular with British audiences He was allowed to take two outside engagements a month and found that they were always sold out performances. Vaudeville was extremely popular in the years prior to WW2 and Foort got the idea that an organ performance would be a popular addition to the vaudeville bill. The theatres were always run along the same lines with two shows nightly except on Sunday when all the theatres were dark. The shows were normally changed weekly. Most theatres were not organ equipped so he surmised it would be necessary to have an instrument which could be taken down after the last show on Saturday night, transported to the next theatre, usually within a 100 miles and set up ready for the first show Monday evening. Foort describes the Traveling Organ in his book "The Cinema Organ" and following is excerpted from his narrative.. He decided that an organ of at least four manuals and 16 ranks would be the minimum requirement for his instrument. He set about designing the organ and ultimately designed an 5 manual 27 rank instrument. For various reasons the British organ builders would not or could not build what Foort wanted. He found the M. P. Moller of Hagerstown, Maryland was willing to build an organ to Foort's specification with the understanding that he not complain if he didn't like what he got. Foort's idea was to build an organ on a grand scale which would be impressive when compared to other theatre organs that may be installed in nearby theatres. The organ had the following ranks: Tuba Mirabilis, Tuba Horn, Brass Trumpet, Chorus Trumpet English Post Horn, Diaphonic Diapason, English Diapason, Tibia Clausa I, Tibia Clausa II, Tibia Clausa III, Doppel Tibia, Vox Humana I, Vox Humana II, Clarinet, Krumet, Orchestra Oboe, Saxophone, Musette, Viol d' Orchestra, VDO Celeste, Gamba, Gamba Celeste, Orchestra Strings (2 ranks), Muted Strings (2 ranks) and Concert Flute. Five ranks were carried down to 16' pitch to form a magnificent Pedal Organ, Tuba Mirabilis,
Chorus Trumpet, Diaphonic Diapason, Concert Flute and Gamba. (Moller had insisted that the organ needed a pedal string and provided the Gamba at no extra charge...unfortunately the Gamba metal was too soft to endure over the road trips and was put into storage) The Tibia I was supposed to be the biggest ever built. That stop and the reeds were on 15" wind.
The organ arrived in London in 1938 and immediately started touring the vaudeville circuit. Foort resigned from the BBC to tour with the organ. They had engaged a staff of fifteen and purchased four 30 ft road trucks to transport the organ. Altogether the organ weighed 30 tons and the staff to handle it consisted of four truck drivers (who rapidly became expert organ builders) 3 real organ builders, 2 electricians, 2 stage riggers, 1 young messenger, a manager in charge of everything whose wife acted as secretary and an advance publicity man.

Organ chests and pipes being setup in theatre
The 27 ranks were distributed over nine steel frames with enormous casters, each section complete in itself with its own wind chests, regulators and tremulants. All wind trunks were flexible and connected like fire hoses, while all electrical circuits were of the plug in type. The main cable contained over 750 circuits and was joined to the console by a removable steel plate held in position by two large thumbscrews. With a normal theatre get out it took about 4 1/2 hours to take the organ down and load it onto the trucks. The photo above shows the large crew required to set up the organ. The swell shutters were hung from stage rigging in front of the pipes and during the finale of the program were raised to show the pipework
Setting up organ and blower
The biggest problems was the different electrical currents in Britain which required carrying six blowing motors. It was amazing how little tuning was required, apart from an occasional slipped stopper in a tibia pipe, the flue stops stayed dead in tune and Moller had fitted the tuning wire on every reed with a set screw which prevented the reed from getting bumped out of tune over rough roads.
Traveling Moller caravan
These comments from Bob Conway of Kingston, Ont, Ca.

"Regarding Reggie Foort's Traveling Organ, before the war, it was stored in four or five pantechnicons, (large trucks to you residents of North America), and they were garaged in a large mover's garage next door to where I lived as a boy. Many the time I would wander in when they were either going or coming, so the truckers and the building crew got to know me, and one day I was invited to go along with them to Harringay Arena where the organ was going to be set up for a Reggie Foort concert. I remember it as being quite an organ, (much bigger than the one in the church where I was a choirboy), and although at the age of 12 or 13, I wasn't allowed to actually try to play it, I was allowed to sit at the console and marvel at all the tabs, pistons and foot controls. I was even allowed to stay for the concert, and was introduced to Reggie Foort as his youngest "techie". I never saw it assembled again, although I often heard it on the wireless when the BBC had it for organ recitals, with Quintin Maclean playing it. After the war it went to Holland which is where John Vanderlee would have heard it. "

Unfortunately the timing of this project was not good. The war in Europe cut short the travel of this unique organ and after a successful 10 months it came to an abrupt halt when half of the trucks were taken for the transport of war materials. Another unfortunate result of the war was he loss of the BBC theatre organ in one of the early bombing raids. Foort offered the BBC the use of the Moller and it was installed in a unused Methodist Chapel the BBC took for an interim broadcast facility. The Moller found a home in Jubilee Chapel which lasted long past the end of WW2 and changes on the entertainment scene after the war made it apparent the resumption of the traveling organ was no longer practical. Foort sold the organ to the BBC after the war and it remained in the Jubilee Chapel nearly eighteen years. 

These comments from Stanley King

"The Foort Moller was the BBC Theatre Organ after the war and was housed in a disused Methodist Chapel in East Road Hoxton North London England. This organ was broadcast every morning at 10.am
( known as the "10 o'clock bash!") on th BBC. The organist in charge of all this was Sandy McPhearson who at that time was the staff organist of the BBC. I was happy to be one of the organists who broadcast this instrument."

When the BBC decided the Moller no longer fit into their broadcasting scheme the organ was sold to Netherlands Radio VARA and installed in a studio in Hilversum. There is little information about this period of the Moller's history and it is said that it was very rarely heard on broadcasts.

These comments from Aida van de Brake:

"The organ appears to have been sold in the 60s to the NRU, Dutch Radio Union, which later was called NOS, Dutch Broadcasting Association, the company that encompassed all the Dutch public (not commercial) national TV- and radio stations (VARA, TROS, AVRO, VPRO, etc., etc.). I gather it never went back to England."
 

In the 1970's the Moller was given a new chance to be heard when San Diego business man Preston "Sandy" Fleet purchased the organ from the Dutch radio station for his pizza restaurant. The Moller made the trip back across the Atlantic, first returning to the Moller factory in Hagerstown for repairs and updating before installation in it's new home in the "Organ Power Pizza" in Pacific Beach, California, just outside San Diego. The organ remained basically the same as originally designed by Foort except for the replacement of the Moller Tibia I by the WurliTzer Solo Tibia from the Brooklyn Fox and the addition of a Trumpet enchamade which brought the organ up to 28 ranks. 

These comments from Wendell Shoberg :

"When Sandy Fleet bought the Foort Organ, it was decided the the MollerCo. would rebuild and clean up the organ for display behind glass shades. I was sent to Amsterdam to meet Peter Moller Daniels and Dirk Flentrop, who represented the Dutch Radio. We were taken to the church in Hilversum to inspect the organ. I was there as Sandy's representative. At that time the organ was playing (sort of). Just as an aside, there was a 2 manual tracker in the front of the church (which was used both as a studio and a house of worship.) The organ was removed, crated and shipped to the Moller factory by a factory crew. When the organ arrived at the factory, Sandy took his San Diego crew to Hagerstown to see the organ and meet Reggie. At that time the Moller Co. was trying to get into the "Pizza Organ" fad. They had their prototype set up at the factory, and we were given a private two hour concert. The organ was erected at the factory, just as the new organs were so that when it arrived in San Diego we set it up just like a new organ. The organ at that time was basically original with the exception or replacing the Doppel Tibia with a Brass Sax, and the original Saxophone with a French Horn. There were twelve 32' Skinner wooden Bombard pipes added to the 16' Diaphone. There also was added a second set of percussions mounted in the rafters out in the room." 

Reggie at Pacific Beach Organ Power Pizza
While in San Diego several recordings were made of this organ by DORIC RECORDS. One recording reunited Reginald Foort with the organ and other recordings showcased "Organ Power" organists George Blackmore, Cheryl Cree, Chris Goruch, Jim Hansen, Wayne Seppala, and Tommy Stark. Here Reggie is reunited with his Moller at the ORGAN POWER PIZZA in San Diego as shown in this photo from the album cover of Reggie's recording on his former organ.
These comments from Robert Shumway:

"Reggie was very proud of the job that Moller did when building the organ. There were times when they moved it and never even had to tune a reed pipe after setting it up again.
I worked on a lot of organs for Reggie in Chicago (and for Bill Houck of Replica Records) Reggie was a really wonderfully nice sort of person. Suprisingly when he was just talking to be friendly he talked more of history than he did of his organ and his music. He could discuss the Norman Conquest with the best of them."

With the demise of the "Organ Power" the organ was purchased by J. B. Nethercutt and donated to the City of Pasadena. Everything that had been installed in Pacific Beach was moved to Pasadena except for the Trumpet En Chamade which was donated to a church, the style D Wurlitzer retained by Sandy Fleet and the tuned tympanis from the Brooklyn Fox that went to the museum at San Sylmar. The original Moller chimes also went to San Sylmar and a smaller WurliTzer set replaced them. At Pacific Beach a 28th rank had been added, a 16' Pedal Tibia and 12 notes were added to the Bombarde to extend it to 32'. Another improvement to the organ was the installation of a Trousdale solid state combination action. There are a hundred pistons on the organ which previously had to be programmed on a setter board for each artist. The new system features a cassette tape system which allows each artist to record his settings and reload them for individual performances. In 1980 Dave Junchen and Steve Adams completed the move of the much traveled Moller with the installation of the organ in the Pasadena Civic Center. The organ had a reputation going back as far as Jubilee Chapel as being "muddy' sounding and rather lack luster.. When the organ was dedicated in Pasadena it was a very different case and those who were expecting to be critical of the organ were very surprised by how well the organ sounded in the Civic Auditorium. The organ contained the same pipework that had come out of Hagerstown when Moller revamped the organ for "Organ Power". Junchen said that they did not do extensive revoicing, but rather terraced the ranks to the hall and to each other. Some pressures were also raised on the Solo Tibia, Post Horn and Bombarde to make them loud enough for the auditorium. As Steven Adams, who Junchen credited for much of the revoicing chores, said, "We recaptured the original voicing by regulating to the room and all the ranks to one another. We just corrected things that needed to be done. The potential was there, Dave just brought back what had been 'lost' ." It must have worked as Reggie Foort, on the evening of the dedication, said that the Civic installers had recaptured the original sound of the organ .(1)

Many consider this Moller to be one of the finest examples of Theatre Organ currently existing.
 

(1) Theatre Organ Magazine Vol. 29 Number 2

Pasadena Civic Center Auditorium
5/28 Moller in the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, Pasadena, California 

photo by Preston Kaufman

Lew Williams record jacket
This organ is one that you either love or hate. You will have to judge for yourself by listening to the Lew Williams CD from the 1987 concert for the ATOS convention. This recording and a recording made by Dutch organist when the organ was in the BBC studio are currently available.
These comments from Lawrence Whitfield

"As has already been reported, Radio Hilversum finally sold the organ to Sandy Fleet for installation in the Organ Power Pizza in San Diego -about 1970, I think?? - and there Reginald Foort was reunited with his beloved Moller when he opened it. He also made an LP record on it there. The restaurant eventually failed, the Moller was bought by J.B. Nethercutt and donated to the City of Pasadena for installation in the Civic Centre. The late Dave Junchen undertook the work and made a masterly job of it. My one personal regret is that it has lost its original and individual sound which I liked, and now sounds just like any other big American theatre organ. Oh well, to each his own..."

In 1986 the Smithsonian produced a TV documentary on America's Movie Palaces. The Moller was used for this production with Gaylord Carter as organist. 

 

Here is the Chamber Analysis for the 5 manual, 28 rank Moller as it is installed in the Pasadena Civic Auditorium
Main Chamber Solo Chamber
Unenclosed Unenclosed 
Pedal Tibia
Glockenspiel
Vibraphone
Toy Counter
Bombarde
Xylophone
Chimes
Enclosed  Enclosed 
Diaphonic Diapason
Chorus Trumpet
Cello
Cello Celeste
Tibia Clausa II
Vox Humana II 
Open Diapason
Concert Flute
Viol D'Orchestre
Viol Celeste
Orchestral Strings
Spitz Viols II
Marimba
English Post Horn
Bombarde/
Tuba Mirabilis
Tibia Clausa I
Tibia Clausa III
Brass Saxophone
Musette
Vox Humana I
Solo Trumpet
Tuba Horn
French Horn
Orchestra Oboe
Clarinet
Krumet
We wish to acknowledge the assistance of those quoted above and many others who responded with comments and information. Without their input it would not have been possible to assemble this material. In particular we thank Aida van de Brake for her help with the Foort material and Grant Meyer for material on the organ after it went to California. Additional information of this interesting organ is available in Reginald Foort's own book "The Cinema Organ" which unfortunately is currently out of print but is still available in used book outlets and the Public Libraries. The Moller chapter of Dave Junchen's "Encyclopedia of the American Theatre Organ (VOL 1) also contains information on the organ. Another resource is the archives of the Theatre Organ Magazine (ATOS) which has published articles on the organ.

Background graphic is courtesy of Kurt Schlieter

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Theatreorgans.com was contacted on 5/15/05 by Simon Gledhill and he offered the following comments:

I have been reading the coverage of the Foort Moller on your excellent website, and would like to add the following comments after those written by Lawrence Whitfield:

As someone who is very familiar with the sound of this organ, from Foort 78s, recordings of BBC broadcasts and the personal experience of playing it in its current home (both privately and in concert), I disagree with Lawrence Whitfield's comment that it sounds "like any other big American theatre organ". To my ears, the sound of this instrument is completely distinctive, and not at all like - for example - a Wurlitzer organ of similar size.

Furthermore, while the overall effect of the organ in its current home is more theatrical than in the BBC days (thank goodness, most would say), it still sounds like the Foort Moller. During my concert at Pasadena Civic for the 1996 ATOS Annual Convention, I took the console down playing Foort's arrangement of his signature tune, "Keep Smiling", and we then ran a 1937 newsreel of Foort himself playing the organ. The film began with "Keep Smiling", and the sound was uncannily similar - it was unmistakably the same organ playing.

So, it is still quite possible to make this organ sound as it did in the early days, if you want to. However, it is now capable of doing much more besides.

Much has been written in various quarters about the Foort Moller being conceived originally as a "concert organ". Nonsense! It had three Tibias, two Voxes, all the usual theatrical colour reeds and a fully unified theatrical stop list. The reason it didn't sound much like a theatre organ was that the tremulants didn't work properly, due to the way they were winded. At Pasadena Civic, David Junchen re-winded the tremulants and regulated the organ to the room - that's all. Reginald Foort heard the resulting sound at the re-opening concert by Tom Hazleton, and loved it.

Simon Gledhill

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