The tragedy of the old organ, or: My well-intentioned waltz into abject gooberdom

I’m not on the same level as some of the true nutcases, staked out in grayed huts up the far Rural Routes of Minnesota or another Jello salad state. They laze about the internet, their forum signatures sagging under the weight of the dusty Orpheus Leslies and melted Hammond L-102s and forgotten Ensoniq this-and-thats that have drifted across their transoms over the past several eons. These are the real goobers. The junkies, the aficionados. The men who drive the same supercharged Buick Park Avenues they bought new in 1995, who also have barns full of IH Travelalls, Wisconsin skid-steer engines and AM broadcast transmitters from before the War. The American Pickers-type folks. I have always wanted to be this type of person, even though space, finance and good sense conspire against it.

I’m on my way, though. When you spend enough time entrenched in the battlefield of old crap, you find things–or they find you. The universe finds that path of least resistance, and I’m as low-impedance as they come. This time around, I’m staring down the barrel of yet another Hammond. A cat with a studio up in San Fernando has a circa 1938 Model BC that he wants to wash his hands of. Free! It has a Leslie, but he intends on keeping that. The organ is a certifiable heap, I don’t really have the room, and I have two beautiful and fully-functioning organs already. But this is a BC. As in, B-style cabinet, with Chorus.

The BC is from the pre-war era, produced from late 1936 to 1942, before the famed scanner vibrato system. It created its chorus effect using a separate tone generator, with tonewheels detuned in precise amounts to the main generator. It was a complex, cumbersome design, and some BCs were later retrofitted in the field with the new scanner system, thereby turning them into BCVs–many even had their chorus generators removed. Nowadays, they’re relatively rare, and a real delight for organ mavens. This dual-generator chorus sounds completely unlike the later vibrato chorus. It’s thick, alluring, beautiful, and strange for those accustomed to the mainstream. The dreaded white-boy funk crowd would do well to steer clear.

But, like I said, the thing is a heap. It hasn’t been oiled in years and sounds like an MTA train with a seized brake when it’s starting up. The cabinet isn’t in great shape, the tremulant control is dead, the drawbars are more intermittent than solar eclipses, and I just found out the chorus generator has indeed been torn out for reasons unknown. Sourcing those is up there with sourcing Jimmy Hoffa. This is not what you’d call a smart investment.

The owner had called me in to get an assessment of what it would take to refurbish the BC, but he had told me it was a B-3. It’s not. And this is the tragedy of the situation. Because this once-grand instrument is an older organ without the features most organ players expect, and because its nameplate doesn’t have the hallowed “Model B-3” stamped on it, its market value does not and will never equal that of the -3 series. Despite the facts that it’s a true curio, and that scores of discerning enthusiasts prefer the rich and honeyed sound of the older organs, and that they’re built to a higher standard, you would be hard-pressed to get $1000 for even a mint example of a BC.

This organ, though, needs thousands of dollars’ worth of work. Even if he wanted to fully restore it and keep it, it doesn’t make much sense being his only studio organ due to the lack of the typical B-3 features. Cats come in and need percussion and vibrato. Adding those on would be prohibitively expensive and difficult, and it still wouldn’t be exactly like a B-3. With the money and effort expended, you’d be able to get a decent ‘3, or at least an easily upgraded ‘2. Now that this one is so far gone, it becomes almost an impossible sell. Many of these hapless rigs end up totaled without the benefit of an insurance payout. They get unceremoniously gutted for their desirable cabinets after sitting on Craigslist for months, or simply rot to dust in a shed. They don’t even have that many parts that can be used on the more popular organs. It’s a real bummer.

That’s where some altruistic moron with a soldering iron and not enough acreage like me comes in. I don’t care about making money on this. I’m not a flipper. This thing just deserves to live again. I don’t want to use its cabinet to turn an A-100 into a B-3. I don’t want to harvest its parts and huck them on eBay. I don’t want its veneer to curl and flake, its generator to rust, its manuals to become home for vermin. It’s beat, but it’s not yet dead. I want to hear that complex, precisely calculated mechanical chorus that you can’t replicate with an MXR pedal. I want someone to open its bench in another 80 years and find its original literature. I want its forgotten voice to be heard well into the flying car/irreversible climate change era. The missing chorus generator is normally a daunting prospect, but as of this writing, there’s a truly wrecked BC listed on the local Craigslist for peanuts, with a chorus generator. So you know what that means: parts donor. A martyr for the cause. All’s fair in love and organs. Jesus. I just need to find a place to put these God-forsaken things. Real estate in Ambrosia country, I hear, is cheap.

Author: Bunny Butler

I'm the last of the good old-fashioned steam-powered trains.