As a boy, Don Near used to go to his local roller rink in Southgate, not so much to skate, but to listen to the pipe organ.
He loved the sound of the instrument and was fascinated by its mechanics. So began a lifelong desire to do more than just listen; Don Near wanted a pipe organ of his very own.
Forty years later, he got what he wanted. All 900 pipes of it.
The object of his desire now sits in a specially built room in his North Tustin home. Not yet finished after two years of work, the project has taken up much of Near's garage and more than a little of his wife's patience.
"I think she wishes I'd never learned how to skate," he laughs. "Then, I wouldn't have gotten hooked on pipe organs in the first place."
Near is one of only a handful of Orange County residents bold enough, enthusiastic enough and perhaps wacky enough to welcome a full-sized pipe organ into their homes. A few have gone to extraordinary lengths--and expense--to install the massive instruments.
A passion for pipes was the driving force behind John and Gail Pawson's decision to buy their Huntington Beach home. The two-story structure fit their vintage 500-pipe, Wurlitzer-Morton theater organ.
"We were looking for a house that had a three-car garage attached to a two-story living room area," Pawson recalls. "I needed the extra garage space so I could build a mixing chamber for the pipes."
The high school science teacher also needed a common wall he could tear out so that the organ could speak into a large concert area--the two-story living room.
Pawson says their real estate agent had a tough time finding a house to fit their needs. His wife agrees.
"We used to drive our agent crazy. The first thing we'd do when she showed us a house was start measuring the garage to see if it was big enough to hold two cars and a pipe organ."
Bob Trusdale never worried about trying to fit a jungle of pipes and apparatus inside his garage. Instead, he built a separate, 1,000-square-foot concert hall in the back yard of his Santa Ana home for the instrument destined to be the largest privately owned pipe organ in Orange County.
Begun with an investment of $2,000 in 1971 (not counting construction costs), Trusdale now values the 2,000-pipe instrument in excess of $75,000. After nearly 20 years, he is still adding pipes. Most have come from "tear-downs" of old theater organs, but, as Trusdale dryly notes while touring the crowded mixing chamber, "there are two brand new ranks of pipes in here--you just can't find them."
Old movie theater pipe organs are popular in-home instruments because they are relatively inexpensive to buy. Instruments of 500 or more pipes can sometimes be found for as little as $1,000. It is the extras that run up the sticker price.
The cost of transporting the instrument, installing it, fixing the multitude of things that often do not work on it, and tuning it can run many thousands of dollars or more, not to mention taking roughly the same number of man-hours to complete the task as were needed to dig a foot-and-a-half of the Panama Canal.
Theater pipe organs are notoriously nomadic instruments.
As the movie palaces that they graced were converted to sound motion pictures, or were torn down, pipe organs were often sold to churches and private enthusiasts. With the passing years, the huge instruments often changed owners--and locations--many times.
Don Near's pipe organ is no exception. Built in New York by the Marr & Colton Co., it was originally installed in the Palace Theater in Indiana, Pa., in 1924. A restless instrument even then, it packed its pipes and skipped across town to another local movie house a few years later, staying long enough to be put out of work by Al Jolson and the talkies.
Evicted and without a theater, the instrument spent a decade or so in a storage attic before finding its way to a private home in Buffalo. Because Buffalo is a good place to be from but not in, it returned to Pennsylvania some years later, this time to the miniscule metropolis of Coudersport, where it uncharacteristically stayed put until Near purchased it from a private party in 1987 for $3,000.
Near's quest for pipes did not stop there. He has embarked on a continuing musical scavenger hunt, buying bits and pieces of other pipe organs as he comes across them.
"I've added some surplus pipes which were once part of the pipe organ at the Fox Fullerton Theater," he says. "And a couple months ago, I came across some tuned sleigh bells which I had to have."
Because they provided not only music but also sound effects for the silent movies they accompanied, theater pipe organs like Near's packed a bag full of audio tricks. Joining Near's sleigh bells are bass and snare drums, symbols, chimes, a xylophone, glockenspiel, marimba, various bird whistles, even a car horn. The instrument can also cue a ringing telephone or the sound of a galloping horse.