In 2009, an eighty-three-year-old pipe organ was sitting in an Illinois attic belonging to John Near’s parents—a bit of a miracle, given that the instrument’s thirteen-ton weight should have sent it crashing to the basement.
Near had owned the organ—called a Barton Theatre Pipe Organ, for its manufacturer—since 1964, when the then fourteen-year-old’s family scraped together $1,000 to save it from a nearby theater threatened with demolition. He loved the organ’s sound and persuaded his parents to fortify the attic so he could move the instrument there, piece by piece.
Now he was ready to donate it to the right person. Around the same time, the Grand Theatre in Fitzgerald, south of Macon, needed a pipe organ. Manager Jon Durkovic believed the Grand, an art deco movie theater and auditorium built in 1911, was the perfect match for Near’s Barton. There was just one problem: The Grand didn’t have the $225,000 to restore the organ.
Enter the Fox Theatre Institute, a program launched in 2008 to offer assistance and restoration grants to historic theaters around Georgia. (One of its recent projects helped restore fifty-eight original windows in Brunswick’s Ritz Theatre.) The Fitzgerald undertaking is the institute’s first organ restoration, involving a $30,000 grant. A local corporation has chipped in another $75,000, and other donations have raised the total to almost $150,000.
“Our program was launched to think outside the Fox,” says Adina Erwin, assistant general manager for the Fox Theatre. (The Fox’s own pipe organ, called “Mighty Mo,” is the second-largest in the world and was restored in 1963.) “Over the years, we’ve garnered a lot of knowledge and expertise, and we have a responsibility to share it.”
Since the Fitzgerald project began in December 2009, more than 150 people have been involved in the Barton’s restoration, from cleaning pipes and rebuilding keyboards to repairing chests, removing old glue, and fixing consoles. The instrument will debut in a concert on March 26.
Photograph by John Near