by Janet I. Martineau
Way back in 1977, theatre organist Donna Parker performed her first concert in the Midwest in what has since evolved into an international career.
That was at Saginaw’s Temple Theatre, on its 1927-vintage Barton organ.
This Sunday, Nov. 20, she returns to officially inaugurate the organ following a $30,000 restoration effort focused on its console. The concert begins at 3 p.m., and tickets are $10 at the door, 201 N. Washington.
“I remember the beautiful theatre, the first Barton I had ever played, and the audience being very warm and welcoming,” says Parker, who lives in Oregon.
“Absolutely Saginaw is fortunate to have its very own theatre organ in its original theatre setting! So many of these beautiful instruments have been destroyed over the years, and it is only in the last 50 years that saving and treasuring them has come into vogue. But not fast enough. We have lost far too many.
“The theatre organ holds a unique place in American music history. It is only one of two musical instruments to have its origins here in the United States. The other instrument is the banjo.”
Parker says she will play a mixed bag of music, from classical to pops, “because the theatre organ is such a versatile instrument, and it is not limited as to the music styles it can effectively perform. I think it is the best kept musical secret, unfortunately, and more people should know about it.”
She tends toward playing “anything that has heart and feeling, whether it is upbeat or a ballad. I love to play pieces that people don't expect the theatre organ to perform.”
A native of Los Angeles, Parker began organ studies at at 7 and four years later was introduced to the theatre organ. She made her first recording at 15, and was appointed the first official organist for the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team.
While in high school, she appeared at Universal Studios in Southern California, providing holiday season entertainment, and combined her love of sports and music by serving as organist for the Los Angels Sports Arena, playing for professional ice hockey and tennis teams.
Now more than 40 years into her career, Parker also has played classical organ concerts with symphony orchestras in major recital halls and more popular fare in casinos, national parks and organ-equipped restaurants -- among them The Roaring 20s in Grand Rapids, Michigan; Paramount Music Palace in Indianapolis, Indiana; The Organ Grinder in Portland, Oregon; Uncle Milt’sin Vancouver, Washington; and Organ Stop Pizza in Phoenix and Mesa, Arizona (seating capacity 700).
“Gosh, where has the time gone,” she says when reminded of her long resume and asked to name a favorite performance or two. “There are many wonderful moments to recall, but I think making people happy and forgetting about their troubles for awhile is no small thing.
“I have had two instances where people (one a child and one an adult) who have not spoken in years have suddenly started telling me about how wonderful the music is. When I discovered the music had reached them in such a profound way, it made every bit of work and toil through the years worthwhile.”
What makes her choice of instrument a challenge, she says, is “with the magnitude of this instrument (we cannot carry it around in a music instrument case from place to place), we organists must go in and quickly learn what each unique instrument will do.
|The Temple Theatre Barton Organ|
“No two are alike, so a quick assessment must be made of sound resources, the condition of the console, and the room acoustics. It is a different challenge and experience each time.”
Parker is currently on the board of the American Theatre Organ Society -- she joined at age 10. And she also is a member of an unusual chamber concert group -- Trio con Brio.
“We’re three organists playing three organs, or a combination of organs/pianos/keyboards. There are not a lot of venues that can host this experience, so it is unique.”
As for the restoration work on the Barton console at the Temple, in January it was dismantled and sent to the Helderop Pipe Organ Company in Detroit.
During the next five months, says Temple Theatre Organ Club curator Ken Wuepper, the console was cleaned and refinished and old cotton insulated wiring was replaced with new fire retardant insulated wire. The leather parts were recovered with new leather and the keyboards were recovered in bone to replace the original imitation "ivories.”
In May it was returned to the Temple and additional work continued until its completion in October. Additional restoration of the mechanisms and electrical systems will continue under the supervision of Wuepper.