Aug 22, 2012 Jason Emerson Uncategorized
In the state fairgrounds that are just starting to bustle with life for next week’s opening, in an empty theater, in front of an empty stage, two men in casual working clothes tuned an organ — for about eight hours.
Dale Abrams and Harvyn Tarkmeel, both from Skaneateles, spent their entire day on Friday, Aug. 17, in the Empire Theater preparing “Wilma,” the 87-year-old electro-pneumatic organ, for her upcoming performances at the New York State Fair. This meant checking every single one of Wilma’s nearly 700 pipes and extensions to ensure they were all properly tuned.
“I call it the fairgrounds’ best-kept secret,” said Tarkmeel, who not only helps tune the organ, but also will spend 18 hours playing Wilma during the 12-day fair.
“A day or two before the fair starts every year we go through and see what notes are dead. Luckily, they all don’t go out. Maybe one-quarter of one row will drift a little.” Abrams said. “Some of these pipes though I pull my hair out because they won’t stay put.”
“Wilma” is the affectionate name given by Tarkmeel to the Wurlitzer Opus No. 1143 — a three manual, 11 rank Unit Orchestra, style 235, originally installed in the B.F. Keiths Theatre in downtown Syracuse in 1925. It was restored and reinstalled in the state fairgrounds in 1967.
“This plays just as well as any church organ, but a church organ can’t duplicate this,” Tarkmeel said.
In fact, the Wurlitzer was made as a movie theater organ to accompany silent movies back before sound was installed in film (by Arthur Case of Auburn). That’s why it is called a “unit orchestra,” because it not only plays organ notes, but can also sound like other musical instruments as well as offer numerous sound effects. “It was designed to replace an orchestra, so it was a lot cheaper,” Tarkmeel said.
The Wurlitzer can do tuba, clarinet, flute, cello, xylophone, tamborines, bells, drums and even glockenspiel sounds among its many musical notes; it can also make sounds of a gong, siren, horse hoofs, steamboat whistle, doorbell, bird whistle or a train.
In two back rooms behind the stage, all the wires, sound effects and pipes for the organ are kept. They are basic reed and flute pipes, and tune them means lengthening or shortening air columns or stoppers on the pipes, Abrams said.
The entire setup is powered by a 7.5 horsepower blower motor which supplies wind to the organ. The console, which Tarkmeel plays, is connected to note relays which are connected to switches which go back to the chambers to work the pipe valves.
When tuning Wilma, typically Tarkmeel will hold a note on the console while Abrams is in the back tuning the pipe. It is an interesting trade-off, however, because Tarkmeel also teaches Abrams how to play the organ, while Abrams teaches Tarkmeel how to tune the organ, Abrams said.
Both men, oddly enough from Skaneateles, met at the old Morris’s Pub through a mutual acquaintance, although their partnership on the fair organ came through their memberships in the Empire State Theater and Musical Instrument Museum, part of the CNY Theater Organ Society.
The actual museum is on the third floor of the Art & Home Center at the fair, inside which the Empire Theatre is on the second floor. During the fair, Abrams volunteers in the museum, which has antique organs and silent movie paraphernalia and items. Terkmeel, dressed in his signature white tuxedo, will spend the fair playing Wilma, either accompanying silent movies or playing in a piano-organ duo with Fritz Orzelek.
Abrams and Tarkmeel not only love Wilma, but they want to promote her notoriety. “It’s a rarity to have a machine 87 years-old that’s still working,” Tarkmeel said.
Tarkmeel, in fact, has a plan to help give Wilma some buzz. During the fair’s “Governor’s Day,” Thursday, Aug. 23, he will post lookouts outside the Art & Home Center for Gov. Andrew Cuomo. When Cuomo walks by, no matter what he is performing, Tarkmeel will break into the Frank Sinatra hit “New York, New York,” and hope to entice the governor and other state dignitaries into the theater.
For more information on the Empire State Theater and Musical Instrument Museum, visit jrjunction.com/estmim. For more information and schedules on the state fair, visit nysfair.org.
Jason Emerson is editor of the Skaneateles Press. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Jason Emerson is editor of the Cazenovia Republican and Eagle Bulletin newspapers.