Barton Organ Company

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Console of the 3/13 Barton Theater Pipe Organ at Ann Arbor's Michigan Theatre
Spectacular console of the original installation 3 manual, 14 rank "Rhinestone Barton" theatre organ, installed in Theatre Cedar Rapids (the former RKO Iowa Theatre), Cedar Rapids, Iowa

The Barton Organ Company was an American theatre organ manufacturer during the age of silent movies. The company was founded by Dan Barton, who was from Amherst, Wisconsin. The fifth largest builder of theater instruments in the nation,[citation needed] Barton focused almost exclusively on the Midwest market. The small factory seldom sent instruments further away than the distance a Pullman sleeper car could travel in one night. For this reason, the instruments are almost unknown outside of this relatively small area. The company built about 250 theater organs from 1918 to 1931.[1]

Barton's first experiments in producing equipment to accompany silent films was a set of electrically operated bells that formed a musical scale. Mounted around the interior of the theater, these were operated by the pit drummer who was performing foley and various other sound effects for the picture. After seeing the highly enthusiastic reception of his invention, Barton began toying with the idea of a more elaborate mechanism.

In 1918, the Bartola Musical Instrument Company was formed in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Barton began with the development and manufacture of Bartola pit organs. He was assisted by Butch Littlefield and Walter Gollnick and was financed in the early days by a partner, W. G. Maxcy. Later, during the boom years of theater organ building, the company was called simply the "Barton Organ Company". It ceased business about 1931, soon after the advent of "talking pictures" lessened the demand for theater organs.

The first organ produced was the Bartola, a small pipe organ in a case that sat in a theater’s orchestra pit. It was played from a keyboard on a stand that swung around above the keys of a piano. There were four models. The larger ones had several cases–one for orchestral pipe ranks and the other for percussions and sound effects. A footboard placed around the piano pedals was used to play the effects. Bartolas were mainly for small theaters. Most of the traps and other percussions were powered directly by electric solenoids and not pneumatics as with most other contemporary pit organs and photoplayers.

As large theaters were built, Barton began to build theater organs. Increased demand and production scale necessitated outsourcing some components, and materials from Dennison, Gottfried, Meyer, Wangerin, and Geneva have been identified with extant instruments. In its heyday, Barton had over 150 employees.

The largest Barton was installed in the Chicago Stadium sports arena. The organ was installed in the center ceiling, and had 52 ranks of pipes of massive scale as well as the usual percussion, traps, and effects. The gaudy red and gold console (perhaps the largest organ console ever built) was on prominent display on the arena's balcony, and boasted six manuals as well as over 800 stop tabs. The organ was powered by an immense 100 HP Spencer blower, and the sound of the organ (in the words of the reviewer of Marcel Dupre's 1929 dedicatory recital) was immense: "...It was as if even the most ardent lover of chocolate soda were hurled into a swimming pool filled with it..." In a probably apocryphal story, long-time stadium organist Al Melgard was reputed to have broken windows and light bulbs while executing a fortississimo rendition of the national anthem, to quell a riot that had erupted at a boxing match. The organ was removed from the stadium and placed in storage before the building was torn down. Unfortunately much of the organ was destroyed in storage by fire in October 1996, although the huge, one-of-a-kind console, which had been stored elsewhere, was saved, and is now in a private collection in Nevada.

Another notable example is the "Rhinestone Barton", so named due to its spectacular rhinestone-decorated console. This 3-manual, 14-rank organ was actually sub-contracted to, and built by, the Wangerin Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It is located at Theatre Cedar Rapids (the former RKO Iowa Theatre) in downtown Cedar Rapids, and as far as is known, has the only organ console to have been decorated in this fashion.

Barton also manufactured a lift that raised a console to stage level for performances. Recognizable because of its distinctive four posts, the mechanism was concealed inside and was of great interest to small to mid-sized theater builders because it did not require the drilling of a central screw shaft into the floor of the orchestra pit for its operation. A specific example of this lift unit for the Barton organ is at the 1927-era historic Temple Theatre in Saginaw, Michigan. On January 7, 2011, the organ was removed from the theatre by the Helderop Pipe Organ Company of Detroit, Michigan for a complete restoration. The work is expected to cost $35,000 and last until April 2011, before the organ is returned to its original 1937 glory.

Some church organs were also built by Barton and were known as Maxcy–Barton organs. These were produced by a later incarnation of the firm after the advent of talking pictures in 1927. One noted organ is a three manual instrument still in use at St. Mary Parish of Oshkosh, Wisconsin.


Barton organs
2/7 Barton, Ironwood Theatre, Opus 145 
3/9 Barton, Al. Ringling Theatre 
3/13 Barton, Michigan Theater 
Percussions in the Solo Chamber at Ann Arbor's Michigan Theatre. 
Marimba in the Solo Chamber at Ann Arbor's Michigan Theatre. 


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