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Widow Must Sell or Store Pipe Organ : Curtain to Drop on Legendary Concerts

April 13, 1989|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

The seats at Spud Koons' motorcycle shop were packed once again last Saturday night.

With BMW and Suzuki motorcycles shoved off to the sides, the audience sat on folding chairs, enraptured by a dizzying array of performers in the grease-stained garage.

The performers were taking turns at one of the few--and one of the largest--theater pipe organs in Southern California. And the resulting sound filled the smelly garage with such gigantic musical vibrations that the audience was swooning.

"We have great talent here," said Hazel Lamoreux, a piano teacher and a regular at the Long Beach cycle shop. "More talent than anywhere else I've known."

Said Bonnie Park, a visitor from Utah: The music "just goes right through you."

Concerts Are Free

For 20 years, Koons has been opening up her garage to as many as 100 music lovers and assorted musicians every Saturday night. The free concerts--at which anyone can perform--have become almost legendary, drawing people from all over Southern California and as far away as Africa and Europe.

Now the concerts are about to end.

Faced with failing health, declining business profits and a local ordinance that would require her to make expensive modifications to bring her building up to earthquake standards by next year, the 71-year-old widow is selling the place to a group of investors who want to turn it into a retail mini-mall. And unless she can sell the organ within the next month, she says, the elaborate instrument will have to be stored.

"I feel badly that it has to go," Koons said. "Getting rid of the organ is a bigger problem than I thought."

The pipe organ has a colorful history, stemming from the early tinkerings of Koons' late husband, Joe, who opened the motorcycle shop in 1949. In 1956, she recalls, he traded in the family's tiny spinet Hammond organ for a full-sized instrument and began a lifelong obsession. Over the next few years, he added chimes, a rhythm box, red and green lights under the keyboards, and finally a large cymbal controlled by a mechanism he built from the parts of an old motorcycle.

Added to Home System

Eventually he got interested in pipes, abandoning the Hammond altogether in favor of a 10-rank Welte organ that once resided in the lounge of the swank Del Mar Club in Santa Monica. Over time, the musical tinkerer added to his home system with parts salvaged from abandoned organs in Barnsville, Ohio, and Sherrard, Ill., as well as at the New Hope Baptist Church and historic Pacific Coast Club, both in Long Beach.

In 1967, Joe Koons moved his musical contraption to the motorcycle shop so he could work on it full time. Today the organ's innards--consisting of more than 2,000 pipes and relays that can simulate the sounds of clarinets, violins, drums, French horns, sirens, sleigh bells, xylophones, fire gongs and boat whistles, among others--are housed in three large chambers covering the entire back wall of the shop's 120-foot-long service garage. The three-tiered console is on a raised platform across the concrete floor.

Spud Koons, who does not play the organ herself, began managing the weekly concerts after her husband died of a stroke in 1978. In the past few weeks, she has made serious attempts to find a buyer with the facilities and resources to maintain the instrument.

Price Has Come Down

Initially, she said, she was asking $200,000 for the organ. She later reduced the price to $100,000 and now, she said, she would accept $75,000. One obstacle to the sale, she said, is the fact that whoever buys the organ will have to spend an estimated $100,000 more just to relocate it.

Although she has discussed the instrument through an intermediary with the new owners of the Breakers Hotel and heard some expressions of interest from area universities, Koons said, no firm offers have been made.

She has scheduled the last concert May 14. A 96-year-old organist who has played the instrument for 20 years will perform its swan song. In the meantime, she said, the Saturday night concerts will continue, featuring music ranging from such traditional skating-rink fare as "I'm in the Mood for Love" to frantic full-bodied French toccatas reminiscent of old Boris Karloff movies.

Local organ enthusiasts say putting the instrument in storage would constitute a grave cultural loss. Once common in silent movie houses and live theaters, they say, pipe organs of this size and quality are rare, with only a handful still operating in Southern California.

The loss "would be unbelievably sad," said Fernand Martel, a retired opera singer and organist who has been performing regularly at the shop since 1969. "Where else can people go to hear this?"

'Part of History'

Said Walter Blanchard, a union representative for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees in North Hollywood and an occasional Saturday night performer: "This is part of U.S. history that will be sorely missed. There are too few of these instruments left."

Amid the passion of the music, most sorrows are temporarily drowned.

Not Spud Koons'. "I feel like I'm letting them all down," she said on a recent Saturday night. Standing alone behind the front-office counter with her back to the door of the garage concert hall where the great organ played, the slight soft-spoken woman struggled visibly to control her emotions.

"I just wonder if I did the right thing," she said. "I'm going to have to find something else to do on Saturday nights. Maybe I'll stay home and sew."

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