Did You Know: There Is An Aeolian-Skinner Organ At Gammage

September 27, 2013

If you have ever been to the fall convocation at Gammage Auditorium in Tempe, you have been a witness to something unique. Not the event so much as the massive pipe organ that makes the ceremony come alive.

organ The Aeolian-Skinner organ. (Photo by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez-KJZZ)

Did You Know Arizona is among just a few places in the western United States that is home to an Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ?

The company that made this massive instrument was Boston-based Aeolian-Skinner. The organ in Tempe was installed in 1965, about a year after Gammage was completed. Did you know that organ is one of the largest portable Aeolian-Skinner organs in the country?

"It’s kind of a deep secret,” said Cliff Golden, one of Gammage’s two organ curators who has been caring for it since 1970.

“The university orchestra uses it usually once or twice a year. They use it for the Christmas concert, they use it with the orchestra, and sometimes they’ll do, like last year the faure requiem which has an organ score,” Golden added.

Golden walks me through the auditorium and unlocks a back door that leads to the stage. Before us the 3,000 seat theater looks huge. Behind us, Golden points to a pale orange drape stretching dozens of feet high. That is where the pipes are hidden.

“To our left as we’re facing the screen is the positive division which is more high pitch stuff, more for baroque music. The middle is the well division which is all the pipes in a box like a venetian blind so you can adjust the volume,” Golden explained. “And on the right is the pedal organ and the great organ which is the middle key board, the backbone of the organ pretty much.”

In all, this organ has 2,870 pipes. Organs are synonymous with cathedrals and churches, but this instrument was made for Gammage.  

Golden tells me underneath the stage is where another important part of it is stored. So, we walk toward another door and descend a spiral staircase.

“So where are we going down to?" I asked.

"We’re going down to the 'trap room,'" Golden replied.

"I feel like I’m going to a secret place," I said.

"We’re now walking underneath the stage. To the left you’ll see the hydraulic elevator for the orchestra pit. It’s also used for extra seats," Golden explained.

At the bottom of these stairs you can see the consul. That is the place where the organist sits to play the instrument. The counsel has three manual keyboards made of ivory and ebony, three foot pedals and 48 stops button that look like miniature doorknobs.

Back in the 1960s Golden said his organ may have cost about $100,000. Today, an exact duplicate could run as much as $2 million.

Today the instrument is rarely used, during the fall convocation, special recitals and unique events like Sen. Carl Hayden's state funeral in 1972.  

And one final word on its portability. Unlike most pipe organs, this one was built to move. About 20 years ago a hydraulic system was installed to roll the 10 ton instrument off the stage, making it one of the largest portable Aeolian-Skinner pipe organs in the country.

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