DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS Forty years ago, Pete Patterson transported the massive Tamaqua Victoria Theatre organ to center city Allentown. The ducts visible overhead are not heating pipes, but actually part of the organ's blower system.
A special part of Tamaqua's past has been found in center city Allentown and there is talk about bringing it home where it belongs.
Everyone thought it had been destroyed. But they were mistaken.
Called a unit orchestra, it is an elaborate 1925 theater organ produced by legendary maker Mathias Peter Moller. It once graced the orchestra pit and stage area of Tamaqua's ornate Victoria Theatre, only the second organ to be installed there. Today, the organ is stored on the fourth floor of the Allentown Independent Order of Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F.) Building, 118 N. 9th Street, home of Vienna Lodge.
The rare piece of history includes ten ranks and 800 pipes, some standing eight feet high. The organ is made of tin, lead, zinc and wood, and features aged oak and clear pine components coated with bright orange shellac.
The organ is virtually an all-in-one orchestra. It features wind chests, bells, drums, tambourines, tom-toms, tuba ranks, sleigh bells, cymbals, castanets, and other instruments. It includes a 7.5-horsepower blower.
Moller organs are a work of art, renowned for their workmanship.
Moller was a prolific Danish organ builder who founded the M.P. Moller Pipe Organ Company in Greencastle, Pa. Shortly later, the nearby city of Hagerstown. Md., lured Moller to that town, resulting in the famous M.P. Moller, Inc., the world's largest organ maker. The firm stayed in business until a 1992 bankruptcy, producing over 11,000 instruments. Allen Organ Company of Macungie then purchased the Moller factory records and the Opus list of all organs manufactured. However, the great Moller name was history. Sadly, exactly one year ago - January 6, 2011 - a fire tore through the historic 1895 Moller plant.
Tamaqua's elaborate Victoria Theatre opened in 1914. Its original organ, now gone, was an earlier Moller, Opus 2716, installed in 1919. But in 1925, that organ was replaced by another Moller, Opus 4355. The one in Allentown is the Opus 4355.
The Opus identification number attests to the organ's origin. Most of the pieces of the Allentown organ are signed with the correct 4355 Opus number, identifying it without question as the Tamaqua Victoria Theatre organ.
In addition, there is irrefutable proof that the organ came from Tamaqua: the very person who hauled it to Allentown over 40 years ago is the one trying to arrange its return.
How the organ left Tamaqua
The picture is becoming clear as to how a two-ton Moller organ journeyed 40 miles south to Lehigh Valley from its home in the Land of Running Water.
According to current owner Pete Patterson of Allentown, the organ fell out of use in Tamaqua and at one point sustained substantial damage inside the theatre. In fact, the console section was destroyed in 1955 when Hurricane Diane flooded Tamaqua. The water rose high inside the lowest parts of the Victoria building and reached the organ, lifting it up.
"The console floated out of the orchestra pit and ended up on the stage," says Patterson. During clean up/cleanup, someone pushed the console from the stage, breaking it apart. However, all of the other components remained intact, including the pipes, toy counter, drums and other instruments. At some point after the flood, the organ was acquired by Charles R. Gilfert of Walker Township. It then was partially re-asssembled inside his home.
Local residents will remember Gilfert as the organ player at Heisler's Dairy Bar, where he serenaded visitors at a miniature golf course for twelve years. Gilfert passed away on February 26, 2006, at the age of 85.
"I bought it from Gilfert about 1970 or 71," says Patterson, who paid $600 for the piece. "And it cost me just as much to get it to Allentown."
It took another 18 months of work to reassemble the organ inside Allentown Odd Fellows Hall and get it working. Since the console had been destroyed, it was replaced with one obtained from Christ Lutheran Church, Allentown. However, that console is now in bad shape, and so a new one would be required before the organ can be played again.
In its new Allentown home, the organ saw use right off the bat because, at the time, the Salvation Army of Allentown was using the hall for their meetings and services.
But times have changed and the organ is no longer needed. The I.O.O.F. lodge hall is undergoing renovations and the space where the organ is housed is needed for storage. Patterson would like to see the organ returned to the town where it was cherished.
Patterson feels strongly about it, partly because he has coal region roots. His mother was from Centralia. "My uncle, Charles Fetterman, married Josephine Bonenberger from Barnesville." he says. "They're buried in Tamaqua Odd Fellows Cemetery."
Should the organ be returned?
The big question is: do the people of Tamaqua want the Victoria Theatre organ returned?
Members of Tamaqua Odd Fellows Lodge say yes. They've discussed the possibility of installing the organ at their lodge hall, located atop Odd Fellows Cemetery.
"We talked about getting it working again and putting on a concert for the townspeople," says Justin Bailey of the local lodge.
"I think it would be a good community project," says Brian Turner, vice grand, Tamaqua lodge.
But help would be needed to truck the unit back to town, and then additional expertise required to reconstruct the organ according to today's standards.
"It would be electronically controlled," says Patterson, noting that certain modifications would eliminate the need for the excessive amount of wiring and relays that were part of the original setup/set up. Ideally, it would require a room with a 16-foot ceiling. The organ also stands 14-feet wide.
There are many questions to be answered.
Would townspeople like to see the organ returned and made playable at Odd Fellows Lodge Hall? Or is there someplace else where the organ would be better suited? If so, where? Are any other groups interested?
In terms of value, the organ could be worth well over $100,000.
"One like it was valued at $45,000 and that was 30 years ago," says Patterson. There are parties who might be interested in purchasing it, but Patterson would rather see it donated back to Tamaqua, it's home.
"It's the place where it belongs," he says. Besides, Tamaqua's past is priceless and the organ is part of the town's past.
In the meantime, who is available to help bring it home? Who will help to reassemble it and help to make it playable?
Anyone willing to offer advice, help or guidance is asked to call Justin Bailey at (570) 449-5617.
The Victoria Theatre is gone. But there's a chance that part of it will return.