By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma History Center has announced the second in a series of performances of the Kilgen theatre organ. The performance will take place in the Devon Great Hall on Monday July 31, at 7 p.m. and will feature award-winning organist Mark Herman.
The theme will be “Ice Cream Social,” with the song selection chosen from a variety of seasonal compositions. Herman will also play an accompaniment to a short silent comedy called “Neighbors” starring Buster Keaton.
In a recent Oklahoman article, Dusty Miller, from the American Organ Institute told reporter Michela Marx Wheatley, “The theatre-style organ was invented to replicate an orchestra. Pipes were made to sound like clarinets, saxophones, trumpets and tubas so the sound is rich and exciting. Think big band and Broadway, not Bach and Brahms. A theatre-style instrument even includes drums, cymbals and percussions–all the bells and whistles.
“The WKY Kilgen is an example of both musical and Oklahoma history. It is also very rare,” Miller added. “The George Kilgen and Sons company built many fine classical instruments but they only built about 250 theatre-style. We can find only four left that play. Oklahoma City has one of them.”
Wheatley reported that the Kilgen Opus 5281, a four-manual, 14-rank theatre-style pipe organ was purchased by E. K. Gaylord for live WKY radio broadcasts in 1936 for about $30,000.
“In the early days of radio – before the day of recording on tape – most programming was produced live and locally,” Miller said. “The organ was more or less in constant use throughout the day to bridge between shows, accompany commercials and productions and even as a solo instrument.
“The studio organist, Ken Wright, became a household name in Oklahoma City.”
Herman lives in Los Angeles, where he is president and tonal director of the Los Angeles Organ Company. In 2012 he was named the American Theatre Organ Society’s Organist of the Year and is the youngest person ever to receive the prestigious honor. Previously, he was overall winner of the Society’s Young Theatre Organist Competition in 2004.
The performance history of this Kilgen organ dates back to April 13, 1936, when it premiered to the radio audience of WKY, broadcasting from the Skirvin Tower in downtown Oklahoma City.
When WKY moved to their new location on East Britton Road, the Kilgen did not make the move to the new studio. Instead, the Kilgen was sold to the City of Oklahoma City and moved to the Municipal Auditorium (now the Civic Center Music Hall).
Over the next 47 years, the Kilgen made its home at the Civic Center and was used for a variety of programs and concerts.
In 1998, the Civic Center underwent major renovations and the Kilgen had to find a new home. The City of Oklahoma City was implored by Dr. Bob Blackburn, then deputy executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, to keep the organ in Oklahoma.
Blackburn hoped to make the Kilgen organ a featured part of the new Oklahoma History Center which was scheduled to open in November 2005.
The city council agreed to donate the organ to the Oklahoma Historical Society. After more than two years of repair and restoration by the American Organ Institute at the University of Oklahoma, one of Oklahoma’s most interesting and complex musical instruments is now preserved for years to come.
The Oklahoma History Center is a division of the Oklahoma Historical Society and is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, National Archives and is an accredited member of the American Alliance of Museums.
The mission of the Oklahoma Historical Society is to collect, preserve and share the history and culture of the state of Oklahoma. Founded in 1893 by members of the Territorial Press Association, the OHS maintains museums, historic sites and affiliates across the state.
Through its research archives, exhibits, educational programs and publications the OHS chronicles the rich history of Oklahoma.
Tickets for the Kilgen performance are $20 for the general public and $10 for members of the Oklahoma Historical Society. For reservations, call 405-522-0765, or for more information about the OHS, visit okhistory.org.