Roller skaters in Oregon have got something no one else has — the only rink in the world where you can roller skate to the music of an old-fashioned pipe organ.
The mighty Wurlitzers of the ‘20s and ‘30s used to be standard in theaters all over the United States. But now, one of the last pipe organs in Oregon survives to inspire skaters, and a musician who’s performing Tuesday night. April Baer has our story.
Ethan Rose always had a thing for automated antiques. He’s composed with music boxes, player pianos, church bells.
But the Oaks Park Wurlitzer takes his obsession to a whole different level.
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Ethan Rose: “I first came here about 2 years ago, and it was for a friend’s birthday party, and that was when I first saw the organ.”
There’s a lot to love about the Oaks organ — an impossible-looking hulk the size of a semi truck, hanging about twenty feet above the rink floor. It was built for the old Broadway Theater, and moved to the rink in the 50s.
Rose says he’s interested in changing that history, listening to it in a new way.
To get his project started, he made friends with Keith Fortune, the rink’s longtime organist, and unofficial curator.
“Keith was always really supportive of me doing this project. I think he was excited about somebody else being excited about the organ.”
Fortune used to just skate here, but fell under the organ’s spell.
April Baer: "What do you love about the sound of this organ?"
Keith Fortune: "Everything. It’s a full orchestra, at command with two hands and one foot. Everything — trumpet, saxophone. Some organs have trombone, others have bassoon. Flutes, strings, all that stuff. It’s just awesome."
His repertoire includes hits of the 30s and 40s. He’s also become a self-taught pipe-organ repairman.
And he’s passing those skills along to Ethan Rose, now. The two of them have been spending late mornings and early afternoons, whenever they can spare the time.
Just to reach the elderly organ, they must climb up a dizzying scaffolding.
They test it, and make repairs when necessary. Fortune shows me a rectangular gadget about the size of a matchbox car.
Keith Fortune “These are called secondary pneumatics. These sit right below the pipe, glued to the chest. When you play a key, a magnet will force the valve to open, which then sucks the air out of those, makes the pipe open.”
The wiring on the organ is almost 100 years old. Eache pneumatic is covered with a special kind of sheep’s leather that Fortune has to make by hand. And remake. And remake again.
Keith Fortune “There are roughly 1500 pipes, three of these associated with every pipe. There’s a primary, plus a secondary plus the relay, and all the ones on the console, so yeah, there’s probably about five thousand.”
It’s not hard to see why Fortune was glad to find someone willing to help out in exchange for using the organ sounds for his new composition — someone like Ethan Rose.
Ethan Rose: “I came out here and started recording the organ after skating was done. I would do improvisational playing, just kind of searching different sounds out on the organ. And then I would return back to the studio and re-process and change and electronically manipulate those sounds.”
What began as organ music, eventually morphed into this.
Ethan Rose “I ended up using a lot of tuned percussion sounds. There’s some tuned sleigh bells on there that I thought were really great. The tibia flute—rounder sounds that come out of the organ. I ultimately grabbed what I liked, and if I didn’t’ like it, I’d try to turn it into something that would sound nice.”
Rose says he’s creating something with a ghost of the organ’s music at its heart.
Of course, listening to his CD doesn’t deliver the full effect of tonight’s performance.
Ethan Rose “What I’m kind of interested in how people are going to react skating to as opposed to the usual dated music that’s played in a roller rink—music we associate with growing up.”