Donated Organ

This is the story of an incredible journey -- not the Disney story about two dogs and a cat, but the history of a 72-year-old theater organ. (Yes, theater organ, but don't stop reading.) This isn't the kind of organ used by churches or for classical music. It was designed to add live sound to silent movies. It's a self-contained orchestra, bursting with myriad sounds -- from trumpets and flutes to galloping horses and crashing thunder. Sounds boom forth from the organ's 600 pipes, which range in size from less than an inch to more than 16 feet in length.

This particular one, The Robert-Morton Theatre Organ, was built in 1927, the year the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer, premiered -- and forever doomed the organ, rendering it and 10,000 others just like it obsolete in the time it took Al Jolson to complete one verse of "My Mammy." A year later, The Robert-Morton moved into The Old Mill Theatre at 1525 Elm Street. It was used for 10 years, until the building was renovated and renamed The Rialto, when it was stored beneath the stage. As the theater was about to be demolished in the 1950s, the organ was bought and placed in storage, before being sold again to an Austin funeral parlor. It changed hands yet again in the 1960s and returned to Dallas, where it was stored in Earl McDonald's three garages for 20 years.

When McDonald, a member of the American Theatre Organ Society, heard that the Lakewood Theatre was being renovated, he offered to donate the organ. It was installed in 1985, taking up the entire width of the stage -- from the movie screen to the wall 16 feet behind it. There, it has provided music for concerts, television, and radio specials -- and, appropriately enough, the occasional silent-movie screening.

Now that everything old is cool again, the theater organ is being used more often. Earlier this month, it accompanied the Turtle Creek Chorale during its 20-hour record-setting marathon. The organ has become a featured attraction at the Lakewood: It's a tradition to hear it played during annual Halloween screenings of Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera, incorporating the film's original 1925 score. Still, that's not nearly as cool as the time Tripping Daisy used the organ during one of its concerts at the Lakewood -- something Don Peterson, president of the North Texas branch of the ATOS, still brags about. The organ drove kids wild. But doesn't it always?

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Shannon Sutlief