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Dickinson’s Pipe Organ Has Drawn Nearly Every Major Organist Since 1970

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What organ haters don’t understand is just how impressive this particular pipe organ is—both in appearance and performance.

In its 44th season at the Dickinson Theatre (parts of it lived a previous life at the now defunct Boyd Theatre in Philadelphia), the Dickinson Kimball has performed 260 formal concerts and countless other gigs. Over the years, the organ has hosted all of the genre’s top artists. Well, almost all of them.

“We have had every major theater organist that has lived since about 1970 with the exception of one,” Dilworth says. “He passed before we got around to him.”

This organ’s reputation is so great, top artists from around the world are honored when they are invited to play here.

Just ask Ken Double, a renowned organist in his own right, who also serves as president and chief executive of American Theatre Organ Society (the parent of the local society). Double has played a number of concerts and recorded two CDs on the Dickinson Kimball.

“For somebody like me coming in to play, it’s exciting,” Double says. “Don’t tell Bob, but I would do a concert there for free just to be able to play that organ.”

Along with the major artists, the organ has performed with the Newark Symphony and Delaware Symphony Orchestra, the Longwood Performing Arts Ballet and, most recently, the First State Ballet.

Dilworth, a retired math teacher whose appearance and energy belie his 81 years, is joined by Paul Harris, the society’s crew chief, who leads the team charged with maintaining the organ’s army of pipes. It’s a crew of retired electrical engineers and chemists who keep this organ vital. Five years ago, Harris retired from W.L. Gore on a Friday and went to work on the Dickinson Kimball the following Monday.

While both men share an obvious passion for this “internationally acclaimed instrument,” as a recent concert schedule would have you know, neither can actually play it. So when it came time to demonstrate its prowess for a curious journalist, they did the next best thing: They turned to the MIDI. Technically it’s called the musical instrument digital interface, but it’s really more like a fancy tape recorder.

During a typical concert, the organ console rises dramatically out of the stage with the organist aboard the bench like a jockey atop a thoroughbred. Think Prince at the Super Bowl, only not. “That’s quintessential theater organ,” Dilworth says of the theatrical opening. The first notes fill the spacious theater and a rumble pervades everything, including your innards. Harris calls this “the majesty.”

Well, there’s no artist, or even a formerly known artist, today, but there is MIDI. Harris places a disk into the MIDI—a little black box that resembles an answering machine. The disk isn’t a sleek CD-ROM, but rather a clunky hard plastic square like the ones you used with your PC back in the day. The black box is connected to the organ’s console by a wire.

“Here’s an example of a classically played tune,” Harris says as he pushes a button.

The organ begins to play like someone, a talented someone, is seated at the three keyboards. The theater begins to rumble. The sound is surprisingly rich. The rumble goes right through you. Dilworth, Harris and the journalist all smile.

“It plays exactly what the artist did,” Dilworth says. “Every key stroke.”

Harris explains that the machine digitally records everything that is done on the console. “The pedal work, the stops that are drawn, the keys, everything,” he says.

An organist would use this tool because, while seated at the console, he does not hear what the audience hears. So the organist records a piece of his concert and sits in the audience to listen to it. “That way they get a sense of what the balances are,” Harris says.

Dilworth notes that Tony Fenelon, a piano soloist from Australia who will perform for the Delaware Theatre Organ Society in June, will do a MIDI recording as he’s setting up his concert and play it back during the concert while performing a piano solo along with it. “So he’s accompanying himself,” Dilworth says. “Very unusual.”

Says Harris, “There’s enough stuff on this thing that we can satisfy anybody’s musical demand.”

Including that of Double, who becomes excited when explaining just how special this organ is. He likens going to the Dickinson Theatre to attending a concert by the Boston Pops, saying you might hear a Broadway medley from “Phantom of the Opera” or “Oklahoma,” or the Kimball could handle the complete live accompaniment of “The Nutcracker.” But this overachieving organ can just as easily play traditional jazz like Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

“It’s goosebump music, there’s no question,” Double says. “This great Kimball theater organ imitates an orchestra. There is this big, heavy vibrato, like an opera singer’s vibrato. But you can turn those off and execute Bach, Handel and any needs of a church organ, anything you could play on a great organ in a concert hall. But those organs don’t have the tremulants that the theater organ can do. It’s a uniquely American invention.”

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