Bob Markworth’s Amazing Theatre Organ

“You have to see this to believe it,” my friend told me. “It’s a restored theatre organ in someone’s home, but it looks like something out of science fiction.”

We walked around the landscaped back of the tidy Northwest Omaha home and through sliding glass doors into the patio level to attend the September 18th meeting of the River City Theatre Organ Society.  I saw rows of folding chairs arranged for a concert. At the center gleamed the big, white and gold Kimball console, with its rows of shiny, multicolor keys and stops. Impressive, I thought, but not unbelievable. I had seen home organs before.

Then I got the behind-the-scenes tour. Technical descriptions of things like regulators, traps, diapasons, or MIDI capabilities fail to convey the impressiveness of the organ chambers, or how much they look like the inside of a strange, alien space craft. This amazing feat of engineering connects rank upon rank, from towering wood and metal stacks to tiny pipes and rows of bells, to the organ console and computer, and all is powered by a giant blower, through massive snakes of PVC piping.

Anyone who is interested in history, engineering, or music–especially organ music–should check out the River City Organ Society and the Markworth Organ. Bob Markworth was kind enough to visit with me about his journey restoring organs and why he was inspired to pursue this dream.

Bob is a Registered Civil Engineer who retired from Union Pacific Rail Road after 35 years of professional service.  He is also one of the founding members of the River City Theatre Organ Society, a chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society, which brings nationally and internationally-known organists to Omaha.

Eve: I remember reading that your father owned a repair shop, and that you started out by tinkering with different projects. That explains the engineering background, but why theatre organ?

Bob: My dad’s love of the theater pipe organ is what got me into theatre organs. After having ten years of piano lessons, he purchased an electronic organ and soon upgraded to a larger one. My brother and I began taking lessons.

After a year or so we had the largest electronic Baldwin organ made. Then we were introduced to a person in the Portland area who had a Kimball theatre pipe organ he had removed from a theater and installed in his home. Wow, it was really cool!  My brother and I convinced dad we needed one and that we would help install it in our home… all this with our Mom’s “ok.”

Eve: (laughs) Nice Mom.

Bob: (laughs) We located a small Kimball theatre pipe organ in a theatre in the Brown Theatre in Snohomish, Washington.  The installation in my folk’s home was completed by the time I was a sophomore in high school.

At that time, the Portland area had a number of theater pipe organs, at least ten, that were removed from area theatres and reinstalled in homes, ranging from small to very large. Most all of these were installed by regular folks interested in the theatre organ.   My Dad, and my brother, and I became a part of this group.

Eve: So are you an organist?

Bob: (laughs) I took organ lessons. Five years – maybe got only a year’s worth out of it. 

As a kid, I’d tag along with some of the great organists while they were practicing and playing in the Portland theatres that still had organs in them.   The sound was chilling. A big sound … sometimes I’d think I heard God smiling!  It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up!  

The ability to play all types of music… particularly popular toe-tapping, and even jazz music. I also enjoyed the fixing, rebuilding that old instruments usually required; and I marveled at the complexity and yet at the same time how well it all worked and the beautiful music that could be made.

I’m by no means an organist. But I always thought even if I can’t play one of these things, I’ll bet I can have one and make it one of the best around, and even have some of the best organists ever to play it. 

Eve: So you passed your dad’s legacy on to your kids?

Bob: I wanted my kids to have a musical background, and recalling how much I enjoyed the pipe organ as a kid, I decided to give my kids the same experience.  In 1975 I located a Kimball theatre pipe organ in the Leona Theatre, a 2000 seat house located in Homestead, PA.  This organ was originally installed in 1927. The organ was removed in late 1975 and installed in my first home. It was played for the first time in 1979 and for about the next 20 years.  

Eve: But I understand that was just the beginning.

Bob: Later, in the process of designing my current home, I decided to make the organ much larger and create a studio setting for the organ. 

The organ was playing in my new house in 2001.   It is pretty much as it is today with a new console with a new modern relay/switching system. Due to the added wind needed for the additional ranks, an additional 5 HP blower was required.

The original nine rank electro-pneumatic relay was replaced with a Uniflex computer relay system. The original Kimball piano (pressure action), along with the new (2008) grand piano are located in the listening room as is a second set of 25 note chimes and 30 note Rodgers orchestra bells…

Eve: (interrupting) Is this organ ever finished?

Bob: (laughs) Essentially the organ has been “finished” (major rank additions and stop tab changes) five years ago.  There will always be some minor tweaking, like adding a special roll cymbal, adding a grand piano… so I guess it is never completely finished. 

Eve: Wow! So besides enjoying the organ, organ music, and maintaining organs, what else do you do for fun?

Bob: (laughs) I enjoy maintaining the yard, 50s and 60s music, Nebraska football, woodworking, projects, travel and family. 

My “day” job was working for UPRR as a Civil Engineer.  Moving to Omaha in 1967, I was placed in UP’s mechanical engineering department and worked there for ten years. Then I went on to manage the railroads tie treating plants in Oregon and Wyoming. I spent my last 15 years in the environmental department.

Eve: When did you start the River City Theatre Organ Society?

Bob: RCTOS was formed in the early 1980’s by myself and friend of mine, Jack Moelmann.  RCTOS is a chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society (ATOS) and promotes interest in theatre organs. You know, these grand, old theatre organs are a piece of history, the bygone era of the dawn of the age of the moving picture.

Eve: I read that over 7,000  theater organs were installed in America from 1915 to 1933, but fewer than 40 instruments remain in their original venues. Only a few hundred have been rescued and installed in public venues or private residences, like yours. It’s really great that you’re preserving a part of history.

Besides restoring organs and bringing in organists to play them, does RCTOS promote theatre organ in any other ways?

Bob: Our Chapter previously hosted the ATOS summer youth camp, and we also helped financially and with hands on in the rebuilding of the Wurlitzer theater organ in the Rose Theatre here in Omaha. We also host an annual public concert at the Rose, most recently featuring world-renowned organist, Donnie Rankin.

Eve: Are RCTOS meetings usually held here in your home?

Bob: The meetings are held monthly at different venues, including private residences. I’d always wanted to have a Theatre Organ in the house and share it with others who would appreciate it.  When I installed the Theatre Organ in my previous home (considerably smaller than now), I seemed to frequently have folks in to listen (and or play) the instrument.  Currently the Chapter holds three meetings a year at my house.

Eve: I know you bring in some of the very best organists to play for the group, like most recently Martin Ellis and Nathan Avakian. Do you have a favorite organist?

Bob: Actually, I like all the organists I’ve had at the house.  Each one seems to bring out different sounds, arrangements, capabilities of the organ.  

Eve: What would be your advice to someone who wants to do something like what you are doing?

Bob:  Have a passion, join ATOS, and talk to people like me. Have a real job to support your theatre organ passion, and be willing to work hard to achieve your dream.   A very supportive spouse is also key.

Eve: Have you encountered any setbacks or sacrifice or something that made you consider giving up theatre organs?

No setbacks. Sacrifice… possibly may have spent too much time in the early years rebuilding the organ, ie. downstairs away from the family. And I suppose at some time I may consider selling the house/organ simply because of the effort needed to maintain it, along with the issue of “downsizing.”

I’m pleased that over the last number of years I’ve been able to put a smile on thousands of people’s faces, most of whom had no idea of what a theatre organ was or the music it could produce.  It’s been a large part of my wellbeing, purpose, and happiness, and allowed me to meet many wonderful people. 


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