By George Andersen
Originally printed in the Nov 2022 edition of Pedals and Pipes Newsletter
There is an unusual connection that ties GSTOS and NYTOS together with the Broadway show Phantom of the Opera. The Andrew Lloyd Weber musical opened on January 26, 1988. This, the longest running show on Broadway is scheduled to close on Feb. 18, 2023 after 35 years and over 13,500 performances. The producers wanted an opening night party befitting the lavish production. They desired an elegant place that matched the theme of the show and was large enough to hold the nearly one thousand invited guests. They chose the Beacon Theatre, located on Broadway between West 74th and West 75th Streets. After all, the Beacon Theatre had both a 4/19 Wurlitzer theatre organ and a huge chandelier. There have been a number of film adaptations based on the book by Gaston Leroux, including the Carl Laemmle production in 1925 which was been a silent film staple for many theatre organ fans. In one scene, the Phantom hides in his lair beneath the Paris Opera House despairing over his unrequited infatuation with the opera company’s ingenue, Christine Daae. In the films, the Phantom plays an organ as he plots his revenge on Christine’s suitor.
The Broadway production continued that theme using heavy electronic organ chords to convey his turgid emotions as he sits at the console of a very stylized console. When the organizers heard that there was a pipe organ in the Beacon, they decided they wanted to feature it at the opening night party. Crew members Joe and Jinny Vanore, Michael Cipolletti, Denise and George Andersen, and their advisor, organ builder Mel Robinson, had been working on the Beacon’s Wurlitzer getting it ready for a silent film series featuring Lee Erwin. The crew was invited to the party to supervise the operation of the instrument and police any problems that might occur during its use. In preparation, the theatre had been transformed into something almost unrecognizable. The event included a full catered meal that required tables and chairs. All the theatre seating had been removed and a false floor was built that was level from the lobby to the stage. The huge number of guests wouldn’t fit in just the orchestra of the theatre alone, so they used the balconies as well. Both balconies, though steeply raked, had also been fitted with level floors to accommodate dozens of round tables, each surrounded by chairs. The food was served buffet style and it was obvious that no expense had been spared. The elegant serving tables held mountains of hors d’oeuvre and every gourmet dish imaginable including ship roasts and servers in abundance. In addition to Andrew Lloyd Weber, the guests of honor included the stars, the actors, the director, and the producers of the show.
Other guests included everyone of note in the Broadway scene and city and state politicians. Everyone was dressed up their finest designer threads. The console of the Wurlitzer at the Beacon is on a lift that rises through an opening in the orchestra lift. To use the instrument, the cover over that opening must be removed manually, leaving an eight foot square hole in the floor. That presented a problem. Because the floor was now level with the stage where the head table was located, the organizers decided at the last minute that leaving the opening in the floor open so the organ console could rise would be too dangerous. That was especially true with all the wine and champagne that was being consumed. They couldn’t use the Wurlitzer. The organ crew was allowed to enjoy the party but was disappointed that the instrument they had so lovingly slaved over for years would not be heard.