Vintage Organ Gets New Home

Published in 4-15-09 Press and 4-18-09 Reporter Newspapers
by Brian Nadig

A pipe organ which debuted in the former Paulina Theater at Milwaukee and Paulina avenues in 1927 and which later landed in the Gateway Theater in Jefferson Park has found a new home at the Portage Theater, 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave.

The Kimball 3 Manual Grande Theater pipe organ has been at the Copernicus Cultural and Civic Center, 5216 W. Lawrence Ave., which was created when the Copernicus Foundation remodeled the Gateway Theater beginning in 1979. The foundation kept the theater intact within the center, and it used for films, concerts and a variety of cultural programs.

Portage Theater managing director Dennis Wolkowicz, who purchased the organ from a church in the early 1980s, said that he reached an agreement with Copernicus Foundation officials to have the organ installed in the Gateway Theater. The organ was in use at the Gateway for years, but it had not been used for several years.

Wolkowicz recently donated the organ to the Silent Film Society of Chicago, an organization that he founded in 1998 to promote the preservation of silent films and that is based at the Portage Theater. Late last year the organ was moved from the Gateway to the 89 year old Portage, where the previous pipe organ was removed in 1962.

The move, which involved the removal of 1,241 Wurlitzer pipes from the organ pipe chambers, took several weeks to complete. The Portage Theater, which is smaller than the Gateway, can accommodate only about 500 of the pipes.

"Being a good Polish kid growing up on the Northwest Side, I played the accordion but later became interested in the organ and piano," said Wolkowicz, who plays theater organs professionally un the stage name Jay Warren. "I always wondered what happened to those old theater organs. I just assumed that many landed in the older, inner-city churches and then I saw in an ad that a South Side church was selling one."

the society hopes to have the console, the portion of the organ that contains the controls, in place on an elevator lift in the Portage Theater's auditorium in time for its annual summer film festival. The use of the organ, which is on display in the theater lobby, initially will be limited to its percussion elements and, thanks to modern technology, its digital samplings, which replicate the sounds from the pipes.

It is expected that the installation of the pipes will not be completed until next year at the earliest. the pip chambers are inside the proscenium archway which frames the screen.

The society is raising funds to pay for the installation, which is estimated to cost more than $30,000.

For more information, call the society at 773-205-7372.