Theatre pipe organ a hit with professionals and students

One might think that a 92-year-old pipe organ would hold little interest for many of today’s teens.

At Stone Mountain’s Stephenson High School, which is home to a theatre pipe organ that dates back to 1927, band students are excited and thrilled for the opportunity to play along with the storied instrument. Their enthusiasm recently was heightened when a professional musician with national and international credentials was brought in to give a masterclass to students and a concert accompanied by student musicians.

4 Musicians
Gibson and drummer on stage

Tedde Gibson, a Washington, D.C., musician who is skilled in playing classical organ, theatre organ and Hammond organ, was brought to DeKalb in late February to share his love of the instrument and show just what the organ can do.

“This is the ultimate gadget,” said Gibson, who’s been playing piano since the age of 4. “It is one of the most complicated instruments in the world.”

In an Feb. 22 afternoon session in the school’s auditorium, Gibson played classical tunes as well as music popularized by Michael Jackson and Ariana Grande on the massive instrument. The following day he performed a concert during the first half as a soloist playing gospel, show tunes and classical pieces and after intermission accompanied by the 51-member Stephenson wind ensemble.

“This is an opportunity a lot of band students don’t have,” said Gibson of the organ. “You need to take advantage of it. You have a wonderful sounding instrument.”

Stephenson’s Grande Page Theatre Pipe Organ is one of only two “true” such organs in metro Atlanta. The other is at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta and is known as “mighty Mo.”

The organ, which doesn’t belong to the school but to the Atlanta chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society, has had several owners and once was housed at a Chicago radio station. When it came to Atlanta, Walt Winn had it installed in his recording studio. When Winn retired, he donated the organ to ATOS which found a home for it in the 1990s at the soon-to-be-opened Stephenson High School.

According to school officials, several years passed before the organ could be played. The school auditorium’s orchestra pit had to be remodeled so the organ could be hydraulically raised from the pit to the stage. After the instrument was moved to the school, it was put back together—piece by piece—by ATOS volunteers and a dedication was held in 2013. The society meets at the school periodically on Sundays and maintains the instrument.

“It’s just a treasure,” said Quentin R. Goins, Stephenson’s director of bands.
The Grand Page organ has four keyboards, more than 300 stop tabs, pistons and controls.

Gibson explained that theatre organs were created to accompany silent films and can create a vast array of sounds—piano, flute, chimes, piccolo, English horn, triangle, gong, cymbals and more. While it has an impressive physical presence with its gold and white woodwork and colorful keys and tabs and buttons, what one can’t observe is even more impressive.

In an upper room behind the back walls of the auditorium are where the true magic of the organ occurs. This is where 22 ranks of pipes imitate orchestral sounds such as string, trumpet, tuba, clarinet, etc. Acoustical instruments such as a drum, tom-tom, tambourine, castanets, xylophone and chimes are also located in the upper room and played via the organ console. There is a blower powered by a 15-horsepower motor that supplies the wind for the organ.

Shaunice Brantley, 18, a Stephenson senior had a lengthy discussion with Gibson in the school’s auditorium after he played the organ for students and talked about his career and love of the organ. She said she was fascinated by the instrument and the “many different things you can do with it.” Gibson spotlighted Brantley, who plans to attend Full Sail University in Florida after she graduates to study music production, at the concert. She performed on drums, accompanying Gibson in a medley of Michael Jackson tunes.

David Tuck, a member of ATOS who attended the concert, said he was “thrilled” to see a musician of Gibson’s caliber and young musicians bringing their talents together.

“This is what it’s made for, total entertainment,” said Tuck. “We hope to get more kids involved.”

“It was definitely a different experience,” said 17-year-old senior and trombonist Mya Francis of the ensemble partnering musically with Gibson and the organ. “We’re used to it just being us. Actually being on the stage, being a part of the performance was like amplifying, enhancing our sound.”

Jaidah Hodge, 16, a sophomore and trombonist at Stephenson, said the organ added a “new flavor” to the ensemble’s performance.

“I knew what the organ is capable of,” said Hodge, adding that it was “something new for me.”

Percussionist and junior Jalen Braithwaite, 16, said playing with Gibson and the organ was special.

“I feel this is totally an honor,” said Braithwaite, pointing out that few high schools have an instrument as grand as the theatre organ. “Not many high school bands can say that.”

“It brings a new taste to the concert,” he said.

Samuel Tolbert, 17, who plays the trumpet, talked about what makes accompanying the organ distinct.

“It really feels nice to be surrounded by a natural sound,” said Tolbert.

“You feel the music around you. You can feel it in you…,” he said as he tapped his chest describing the vibrations that can be felt in his body when the organ is played.

Hodge agrees.

“It adds new meaning to ‘surround sound,’” she said.

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