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Tunin' time at the state fair

Two from Skaneateles ready the 1925 organ for the year's biggest audiences

Organist Harvyn Tarkmeel, left, and organ tuner Dale Abrams, both from Skaneateles, spent the entire day on Friday, Aug. 17, tuning the 1925 Wurlitzer Unit Orchestra in the Empire Theatre at the state fairgrounds in preparation for this week's fair opening.

Organist Harvyn Tarkmeel, left, and organ tuner Dale Abrams, both from Skaneateles, spent the entire day on Friday, Aug. 17, tuning the 1925 Wurlitzer Unit Orchestra in the Empire Theatre at the state fairgrounds in preparation for this week's fair opening. Photo by Jason Emerson.

— 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.

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