Organist rents Radio City for concert

July 31, 2008 7:52:44 AM PDT
Jack Moelmann is a retired Air Force colonel with a passion for playing the pipe organ. His passion runs so deep that he recently plunked down nearly $120,000 to fulfill a lifelong dream - to perform on the famed Wurlitzer organ at Radio City Music Hall. On Aug. 9, the 67-year-old Moelmann will sit at the ebony horseshoe-shaped keyboard console at the magnificent Art Deco concert hall for a single evening performance entitled "A Musical Showcase featuring Col. Jack Moelmann and Friends at the Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Pipe Organ."

Moelmann said that Radio City for him has always constituted "the mecca of places to play."

"One day back in February, I looked in the mirror and said, 'Jack, you have a dream, go for it!"' he said. "Not to argue with myself, I have personally rented Radio City Music Hall for an organ program the likes of which has not been done in years, if ever."

The organ at Radio City is the largest theater pipe organ ever built by the Wurlitzer Company. Installed in 1932, the year Radio City opened, it features four keyboards, 58 sets of pipes and twin consoles that can be independently operated.

Moelmann has no illusions of making money or attracting a huge audience. He spent $118,182 to rent out the 6,000-seat hall, and concedes that he had to cash out his savings accounts and savings bonds to cover the cost.

He also contemplated renting Radio City's Rockettes for the show, but quickly realized they were way out of his league.

Moelmann said they would have cost $90,000 for a five-minute performance.

"I'll be happy with 1,000 people," he said of the show, where tickets cost $50. "I'm going there to gratify myself by playing...and to show off what the music hall has in the way of an organ."

He hopes proceeds from the show will cover his costs, and he may donate some money to the Theatre Organ Society International, where Moelmann serves as secretary.

Moelmann said he will decide on the program at the last minute.

"I really don't decide what I'm going to play until I get there and see what's going to work," Moelmann said. "Depending on the mood I'm in, I've changed songs in the middle of the program."

He explained that this is typical of theater organ programs.

"We don't print exactly what's being played. We announce it, we talk in between (the numbers), make little jokes, otherwise it gets kind of boring watching the back of somebody."

He is reasonably certain he will play the Trolley Song from the musical "Meet Me in St. Louis," the novelty tune "Rubber Duckie" from Sesame Street, and the title song from the musical "Mame," in a duet with fellow organ player Russell Holmes. Holmes is flying in from England for the show, and Moelmann has invited three other organists to perform.

Moelmann has also included an audience sing-along and a "Tribute to America" finale, featuring a medley of patriotic songs beginning with the "Battle Hymn to the Republic." Military scenes, including the Air Force's elite Thunderbirds, will be projected on a large movie screen.

Moelmann said the independently working consoles are what makes the Radio City Wurlitzer unique. Sitting literally "a city block apart" across the 144-foot-wide stage, they are rarely played simultaneously.

Radio City's Christmas Spectacular has used both consoles at the same time, but Moelmann's concert would be the only time both are played at a public concert exclusively showcasing the organ, said venue spokeswoman Mikyl Cordova.

The origin of the theater organ was as a one-man orchestra accompaniment for silent films. It therefore has a variety of percussion tones and sound effects such as drums, cymbals and whistles ideal for popular tunes. The concert and church organs, on the other hand, are designed for the more somber tones of a classical and liturgical repertoire.

Moelmann is a bachelor who lives with his beloved Australian Shepherd in O'Fallon, Ill., outside St. Louis. He retired in 1991 after 26 years in the Air Force, assigned to the communications and electronics field.

His love affair with the organ began early on while observing the organist at his church in Oak Park, Ill., where he grew up.

"I was intrigued by it because I was also interested in electricity and electronics, and the organ had a lot of buttons on it so I just went from there and have been doing it ever since as a hobby," Moelmann said.

Moelmann has played pipe organs at most of the famous movie palaces and auditoriums around the country, including the War Memorial Auditorium in Trenton, N.J.; the old Carnegie Hall Cinema Theatre in New York City; and a Wurlitzer at a museum in Sacramento, Calif. During his Air Force days, he played organ clubs wherever he was stationed.

He also installed a pipe organ in his home near the Scott Air Force Base. First, he purchased the white and gold console and various speakers and then, applying his electrical engineering skills, hooked them up with percussion instruments he already owned to create a combination electronic-pipe three-manual, 22-rank organ inside his family room.

He's not worried about disturbing the neighbors.

"You really can't hear it outside," he said. "There are military people in the neighborhood, and I outrank them."

Moelmann doesn't know what he'll do for an encore after his lifelong dream is behind him.

"I'll need to recover from this," he said with a laugh. "And then I will be able to say I've played in all the good places in the country."

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