Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

August 25, 2013

Group hopes to bring Granada Theater pipe organ back to Bluefield

BLUEFIELD — Volunteers with the Bluefield Preservation Society appeared to be fueling their dreams with elbow grease Saturday morning as they worked to return the sheen to the old Granada Theater on Commerce Street in Bluefield. With just six more days until the curtain rises on a new era for the old theater, the volunteers have their work cut out for them. But if sweat equity counts for anything, the Granada will open eyes for some and bring a flood of memories for others when Blue Highway takes the stage at 7 p.m., on Saturday, Aug. 31.

“I hope these staples that I’m pulling out won’t cause the wall to fall down,” Gail Satterfield said as she used a pair of pliers to pull staples from a wall above the inner entrance to the theater. More than a dozen volunteers worked to clean, paint, sweep and otherwise spruce the venerable theater that opened for silent movies in early 1928, and was most recently used as a night club.

Bob Edmunds, president of the Huntington Theater Organ Project, stopped in Bluefield on Saturday to take some measurements in the stage right and stage left chambers that housed the seven banks of pipes that were used to provide the sound track for silent movies of the late 1920s and early 1930s that played in the theater that was originally known as the Cohen Theater.

Edmunds was born in Welch, grew up in Bramwell and graduated from Bramwell High School in 1962. As a young man growing up in the legendary bedroom community of the millionaire coal barons, Edmunds gained an appreciation for pipe organ music in church at the Kee Street United Methodist Church. “I counted the pipes when I was in church,” he said.

After high school, Edmunds earned his undergraduate degree from Marshall University, completed a tour of duty in the military and finished graduate school at Ohio University. He taught speech and theater at MU and Georgetown College in Kentucky, but at every stop along the way, nothing interrupted his passion for pipe organs in general and theater pipe organs in particular.

Edmunds was in Bluefield taking measurements in hopes of being able to reunite the Granada’s theater pipe organ with the theater it was built to house. Unlike a typical church organ, the Style E, Wurlitzer theater organ that was manufactured for the Cohen Theater in late 1927 has the rich sound of a church organ as well as all the bells, whistles, train sounds, automobile horns, door bells, glass breaking and other gadgets that a silent film sound track needs to hold the interest of the audience.

Edmunds had retired to Huntington, and was volunteering as an usher at the Keith Albee Theatre when he learned that the foundation was considering bringing an old theater pipe organ to the Albee. He saw an advertisement in “Theater Organ Magazine,” offering the Granada Theater Organ for sale, and made the call.

Dorothy Wolford, the widow of the owner said her husband bought the Granada organ in 1970 and took it to his home in Evanville, Ind. After he passed away, she decided to sell the old organ. “I decided that I couldn’t let it go,” he said. Edmunds acquired the organ, brought it back to Huntington, and restored it in the Keith Albee Theatre. He started restoring the organ in November of 2000 and completed the effort in the fall of 2002.

In 2006, the Greater Huntington Theater Co., gave the Granada organ to the Marshall University Foundation, and from there, it went to the Keith Albee Performing Arts Center. In the fall of 2006, theatre pipe organ virtuoso Jelani Eddington, performed a concert on the Granada Theater Pipe Organ, and on Feb. 6, 2007, the West Virginia Legislature passed House Concurrent Resolution No. 21, naming the Granada Theater Wurlitzer theater pipe organ “the official theater pipe organ of West Virginia.

As the resolution pointed out, at the time of the resolution, the Granada theater pipe organ was “the sole remaining theater pipe organ originally installed in a theater in the state of West Virginia.” However, that changed when Edmunds learned that the Wurlitzer theater pipe organ that had originally been made for the Keith Albee was available.

“We bought it,” Edmunds said. “I didn’t know what to do with the Granada theater pipe organ. I had no idea that they were working to restore the Granada Theater.”

Gary Rakestraw, a friend with roots in the Brushfork area, told Edmunds that a mutual friend, Skip Crane, was part of the group working to restore the theater. “I know Skip and I got in touch with him. I’m a member of the American Theater Organ Society, and our group is championing the re-installation of theater pipe organs in their original homes. This would be a perfect fit. I came down and looked at the theater. They’ve made a lot of progress since they started, but they have a long way to go. We just recently got a new roof on the Albee. Everything worth working on takes time.”

Crane said that the Bluefield Preservation Society is working to raise funds to bring the pipe organ back to its original home. Crane didn’t say how much it would take to acquire the organ, transport it to Bluefield, and replace it in the theater, but neither did Edmunds.

“I want to see it come back to the Granada,” Edmunds said. “I want to see it happen. I remember fondly coming to the Granada Theater to see movies when I was young. I saw the movie ‘M*A*S*H’ here after I got out of the service. At that point, the organ was still in the orchestra pit, but I didn’t hear it being played.”

The need for theater pipe organs vanished almost as soon as the Granada Wurlitzer was installed. Al Jolson’s “The Jazz Singer,” was released with a sound track in 1927, heralding the birth of talking movies. The late Dr. P.R. Higginbotham once recalled that the great jazz pianist, Thomas W. “Fats” Waller had promoted a local concert by performing a half-hour set on WHIS-AM radio. After the show was over, he visited the Granada and played the old pipe organ just for fun. The Bluefield Preservation Society is working to restore the city’s history.

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com

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