Imagine having something as incredible as Mount Rushmore or the Grand Canyon in your backyard. Well you do. The world's largest pipe organ stands in the heart of Atlantic City in Boardwalk Hall – the Midmer-Losh.
Steven Ball, director of the Historic Organ Restoration Committee at Boardwalk Hall, is excited to share the restoration progress of this grand organ.
“It’s a sonic Mount Rushmore,” says Ball, an internationally renowned organist. “It’s the most powerful musical instrument ever created by human beings.”
Ball, whose expertise in organ history goes beyond Boardwalk Hall, has developed a love for the organ’s restoration. With a doctorate in organ performance from the University of Michigan, a part of his job during bi-weekly tours he leads on every first and third Tuesday is to inform visitors why organs are significant and, more importantly, why they should care.
The state of New Jersey established the restoration committee in 2004 to oversee funds and work performed on Boardwalk Hall’s main organ, the Midmer-Losh, which has eight chambers of pipes positioned around the arena.
Since its launch 11 years ago, the committee has restored one of the organ’s eight chambers to full function, which only makes it 10 to 15 percent fully functional.
“You can’t describe what it sounds like,” says Ball, who plays the organ daily. “There are letters and documents around the world stating this is one of the greatest achievements in music.”
The console, or what Ball says is the “remote control” of the organ, is located to the right of the main stage in the auditorium. Its seven manuals (or keyboards) from bottom to top are called: Choir, Great, Swell, Solo, Fanfare, Echo and Bombard, and there are 1,235 keys.
“As soon as I got involved in organs, I knew about this organ,” he says of its notoriety. “In the organ community, everybody knows that this is here.”
Rewinding back to its roots, construction of the organ began in 1929 and was completed in 1932. Designed by New Jersey state Senator Emerson L. Richards, the organ includes more than 33,000 pipes and thousands of square feet of wood, which outline the walls of Boardwalk Hall from basement to roof. Richards was not only an Atlantic City native, but also a designer of pipe organs and the brains, as well as the money, behind its construction.
“The organ was built within the walls to be hidden so you can’t separate it from the building,” Project Curator Brent Duddy explains. “It has the power to literally shake the walls.”
Organs were built for and provided as standard stage equipment for any entertainment facility during the 1920s. The creation of the Midmer-Losh was to accompany silent films, once a vital part of the Hall's daily operations. The difference between this instrument and any other organ in the U.S. was the scale of the building. At that time, the average theater could seat up to 3,000 people, but Boardwalk Hall’s original seating capacity was 42,000 for hosting performing arts, rodeos and sporting events. As a result, this grand hall made Atlantic City home of the world’s largest organ still to this day.
The organ was damaged when part of the hall was flooded in the Great Atlantic hurricane that hit South Jersey in September 1944. Then the instruments, which are comprised of three key materials: leather, metal and wood, fell into disrepair decades later. Ball said it’s primarily the leather that has deteriorated more than 90 percent, mainly because it only has an 80-year lifespan.
Members of HORC rely heavily on volunteers and technicians from all over the world to work on the pipes in order to bring it back to its full capability. Two dedicated men, Chuck Gibson of Monroeville, and Norman Lepping of Harleysville, Pa., are on site every Monday and Tuesday, working to re-leather the entire organ.
“We’re basically recovering the inside surface of every single pipe with new leather, and believe it or not, it’s a lot of labor,” says Gibson, who has been dedicated to the project since the beginning. “Think of it this way. A car runs on an 8-cyclinder engine but we’re making it run just enough on about two cylinders. It’s handicapped.”
“Atlantic City created something so far ahead of its time. It amazes me that something so phenomenal has been ignored for so long,” Ball says. “The actual physics is something beyond our understanding.”
Ball said the group raised about $1 million in 2012 through private donations. Another large chunk of their donations came from the 2013 Miss America Pageant, when he played the organ during the national anthem. So far the renovation process has been steady and HORC has raised $16 million through tours and private donations. But within the next decade, Ball says they still need about $14 million more to complete the project.
Since being appointed director in 2013, Ball has focused all his energy toward reviving the classic instrument. He and his team of organ experts hope this extensive project of restoration will be completed in 2023.
“The first time I heard this organ, it hadn't been tuned in decades,” Ball says. “It sounded like a train had wrecked into the building.”
The sounds of the organs are equivalent to a dozen orchestras – maybe more – and Midmer-Losh can play as soft as a whisper or as loud as thunder in the main arena.
The Kimball, a smaller, second organ located in the ballroom, is just as incredible and was built for a similar purpose. This organ, which has two separate chambers for its pipes, was also designed to accompany motion pictures and it could create the sounds of a full symphony orchestra or quieter sound effects such as birds, trains and sirens.
Last year, Ball brought the Kimball back to life at the hall at special showings of the classic silent films “The Black Pirate” with Douglas Fairbanks, the Academy Award-winning film “Wings” with Clara Bow and the original “Phantom of the Opera” with Lon Chaney. The open-to-the-public silent film showings also served as additional fundraisers for the restoration project.
More than 7,000 organs were built into theaters around the U.S. between 1915 and 1930, but only about 40 of those still remain says Duddy. Until Ball arrived and dusted off the organ to play regularly, the building did not have a full-time staff organist since the early 1970s.
“Think of it as the first surround-sound system ever invented,” Ball laughs. “Part of our goal is to really make the instrument relevant in pop culture.”
HORC has seen major milestones and the organization has decided to hold daily, 30-minute concerts at noon from May to October, featuring classical, orchestral and pop selections, performed by Ball and other special guests. The setlist will vary each day.
During this long restoration period, the public will have various opportunities during tours to experience the pipe organs’ new beginnings at Boardwalk Hall, by walking through restricted areas and seeing the four levels of the Midmer-Losh. These exclusive two-hour tours, held on the first and third Tuesdays of each month, give a quick look into the organ itself and the workshop where most of the repairs are taking place. He will also show the Kimball in the ballroom.
Even at a fraction of its full capability, the Midmer-Losh displays great power and Ball’s playing will leave the audiences enchanted.
“You can visit Mt. Rushmore, take a picture and capture the beauty of it,” Ball says. “But you can’t record the sounds from the organ with your phone and show the world its true potential.”