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Piping Up at PCC : Theater May Get Grand Organ It Was Built For

July 12, 1987|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

When J. Ross Reed was a student at Pasadena City College in the early 1930s, he had a passion for pipe organs, especially the elaborate, theatrical kind that accompanied silent films.

It was a passion shared by the college, which was building Sexson Auditorium to house such an instrument.

But money ran out during the Depression, and construction of theater organs ended with the advent of movies with sound. PCC never got its organ, and the huge pipe chambers on either side of the stage in Sexson Auditorium were covered with ornamental panels.

Now, in what many people see as a remarkable chain of circumstances after more than 50 years, Sexson Auditorium may get the huge theater organ it was designed to have.

To make the circle complete, the organ, valued at $500,000 and called "the Rolls-Royce of theater organs," was acquired by Reed just before he died early in 1986.

But again, lack of money is a problem. So are the ornamental panels.

PCC agreed to house the organ in Sexson Auditorium a year ago, after a study showed that the instrument--with its multiple keyboards, pipes, blowers, bellows and 61 brass trumpets--could be installed at a cost to the college of $84,000. The amount includes a $10,000 gift from the PCC Foundation.

A contractor has been hired to build a trestle for the organ console, install the trumpets over the stage and change the auditorium's electrical system.

But another study last week showed that the organ's sound would be cut in half if the ornamental panels are not removed.

The Los Angeles Theater Organ Society, which was given the organ by the Reed family after he died, conducted last week's study to settle some members' concerns about the panels.

The society has agreed to provide $100,000, which is needed in addition to the money to be provided by the college to install the organ.

But society officials say the panels must go or the sound will be lost.

That's the second part of the problem.

The Pasadena Cultural Heritage Commission told the PCC Board of Trustees a year ago, when the installation was first proposed, that the ornamental panels should be saved as an integral part of Sexson Auditorium and as rare examples of 1930s Art Deco design. The auditorium is in its original condition in one of PCC's first buildings.

Since the panels are a fragile mixture of plaster of Paris and wire, college officials fear they will crumble if removed. The PCC Board of Directors worries that removing them will mean additional costs the school can't afford.

"This is a new development, and we don't know what to do about it," said board President Susanna Miele. A special board meeting has been called for this week to decide the panels' fate.

Stephen Ross of Glendale, president of the Theater Organ Society, and Ken Crome, a society member whose Crome Organ Co. of Los Angeles is refurbishing the organ and will direct its installation, attended Wednesday's board meeting to request removal of the panels.

Crome, who built the organ with Wurlitzer parts he accumulated during the 1970s, describes it as a 27-rank, three-manual instrument with 2,200 individual pipes ranging in size from 16 feet to smaller than a lead pencil.

Its console has several levels of keyboards and pedals, and it plays bells, a marimba, triangles, a glockenspiel, cymbals, drums--"everything you can imagine in an orchestra, and one organist has it all at his fingertips," Ross said.

After taking several years to build the organ, Crome sold it to a pizza parlor in Lansing, Mich., for $75,000 in 1979. When it was put up for auction a few years later, the Organ Society bought it for $45,000 in the hope of finding an auditorium where it could perform for public concerts.

Reed, a Pasadena resident and society member whose passions also included collecting and refurbishing railroad cars and traveling to remote corners of the earth, bought the Wurlitzer from the society in 1983. He spent two years installing it next to his La Mirada electrical company in a warehouse that he converted into an auditorium.

"The whole end of the warehouse was a spectacular visual thing," said Bonnie Armstrong, one of Reed's seven children, who all attended PCC.

But after only one concert, marking the organ's completion, on Dec. 15, 1985, Reed died of a heart attack two weeks later at age 71.

The Reed family returned the organ to the society and helped it find Sexson Auditorium as a possible home. The society will continue to own and maintain the organ and will give several concerts a year. PCC's music department will make it available to students, according to the joint agreement.

"This is practically made to order. It was just sitting here waiting," said Ross, explaining that the PCC auditorium is the only available space in Southern California that was built for a pipe organ.

The pipes would fit into the chambers, though Ross said it would be "a tight squeeze," and the organ console would be moved under the stage when not in use.

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