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La Canada Organ May Get Encore in Glendale

November 08, 1990|MARTHA L. WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Glendale is in the bidding for the historic and rare Fox Lanterman Wurlitzer theater organ offered for sale by La Canada Flintridge, it was revealed this week.

Glendale's bid of $50,000 for the giant instrument was one of four disclosed by La Canada officials Monday. Two other cities and an Illinois collector also have made offers.

Action on the bidding was postponed two weeks, but La Canada officials said they are most likely to accept the bid from Glendale or the Northern California city of Walnut Creek, which proposes to buy the organ for $45,000 and install it in its new Regional Center for the Arts.

Glendale promises to use the pipe organ as a centerpiece for a performing arts center either at the historic Alex Theater downtown or at the city's Civic Auditorium, which is undergoing extensive renovation.

The bid for the organ is Glendale's first public move to commit money toward establishing an arts center, which has been the subject of considerable controversy for more than a decade.

In a letter to La Canada, Glendale Mayor Larry Zarian said the city is willing to spend up to $500,000 to acquire, move and renovate the historic organ. The Glendale City Council would have to vote to approve the spending if the city's bid were accepted, Zarian said.

Glendale City Manager David Ramsay told La Canada officials Monday, "We want to keep this treasure in this area." The organ was owned by the late Assemblyman Frank Lanterman, who played an organ professionally at the Alex Theater when it opened in 1925.

The organ, capable of carrying the sound of a 90-piece orchestra to 5,000 listeners, is one of only four of its kind remaining in the world. It was bequeathed in 1987 by the last of the Lanterman family to La Canada, which has been stymied ever since by what to do with it.

Lanterman rescued the giant instrument from a defunct San Francisco movie theater 26 years ago. To house the instrument, he had a stark, concrete-sided recital hall built onto the front of his 1915 Craftsman-style home.

Maintained by volunteers, the elaborate Wurlitzer Crawford Special--one of the largest and best-built--and its extensive appendages of pipes, horns, whistles and bells have grown dull and seedy. Like the worn carpets and tattered drapes in the hall that houses it, the organ is badly in need of restoration, experts say.

Residents near the estate at 4420 Encinas Drive complain that the organ is too loud for their quiet, stately neighborhood. Some have described the strange sounds that occasionally emerge from the aging machine as "monster music."

Although the state provided a $500,000 grant to La Canada to restore the Lanterman house, there are no other funds for the equally expensive task of soundproofing the recital hall and restoring the organ.

The City Council in September voted to sell the organ despite protests from some in the community who argue that it is a vital part of the Lanterman estate and too precious to lose. Only Councilman Christopher Valente, who said the organ is historically more important than the Lanterman House, voted against the proposal.

This week, Valente said, "If the organ is going anywhere, it couldn't be in better hands than Glendale's."

Protesters on Monday continued their pleas before the City Council, urging leaders to reject all bids and keep the organ. One commented: "The separation of the house and the organ from each other would be like splitting a mother and child."

But Councilwoman Joan C. Feehan agreed with other council members in saying that the city has no choice. "I would like to keep it. But I can't see, frankly, how we can," she said. She called the organ in its strange habitat "a bizarre piece of Americana."

An Illinois collector has offered to pay the highest price for the organ--$125,000. Jasper Sanfilippo of Elk Grove Village this week increased his previous offers for the instrument, which he says he wants to place in a museum he plans to build in Illinois, called the Great Victorian Steam Carousel & Mechanical Music Museum.

But members of the Lanterman Historical Museum Foundation have recommended against selling the organ to an out-of-state buyer or a private collector. "We want to keep it in California and, hopefully, near at hand," foundation President Sue Schechter said. "If we can't do right by it, let's find someone who can."

Schechter said she is concerned about what will happen to the organ if it is sold to Glendale and put in storage until the city develops an arts center. She said the offer from Walnut Creek may be more advantageous because that city has completed an arts center, which opened in October, and has a 2,000-seat theater where the organ could be immediately relocated.

Glendale officials said they expect within two weeks to determine if the organ would fit into the Alex Theater, which originally was built to accommodate 2,200 seats. Supporters of the Alex in September raised $50,000 to help start renovation of the theater as an arts center.

The Fox Lanterman organ was built in 1926 for the 4,651-seat Fox Theater in San Francisco. It was purchased for $15,000 by Lanterman after the theater closed in 1963.

Cultural organizations in Oakland also are seeking the organ, saying that it should be returned to the San Francisco Bay area. However, they have offered no money for the instrument and plans to restore the Fox Oakland Theater, where it would be housed, are still in limbo.

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