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Local pianist wants to restore old theater organ for public display

Jay Sowers / The Natchez Democrat — Natchez resident Burnley Cook looks over a theater organ xylophone in his garage on Saturday morning. The xylophone is part of the theater organ that was once used in the Baker Grand Theatre in Natchez.
Jay Sowers / The Natchez Democrat — Natchez resident Burnley Cook looks over a theater organ xylophone in his garage on Saturday morning. The xylophone is part of the theater organ that was once used in the Baker Grand Theatre in Natchez.

NATCHEZ — Even though he hasn’t seen it since he was a boy, local pianist Burnley Cook can reach back into his memory and see the old Baker Grand Theatre’s organ in all its original grandeur.

“When I was going to the Baker Grand when I was 8, 9, 10 years old, I remember the organ was right in front of the stage, in the middle of the orchestra pit,” Cook said. “I always thought I would love to hear it played.”

Submitted photo — A picture of the Baker Grand Theater on Pearl Street
Submitted photo — A picture of the Baker Grand Theater on Pearl Street

Cook never heard it, though, because he wasn’t around when silent films dominated movie theatres and organists played theatre organs that imitated orchestras to accompany Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and the other greats of the silent film era.

The Baker Grand’s organ is now sitting in various pieces in Cook’s garage after being moved from a storage unit in Vidalia, where it sat for the past 40 years.

Cook said he first learned of the organ’s location last week when Ruth Powers posted on the social networking site Facebook that she was cleaning out her father’s storage unit and found the organ.

Powers’ father, Robert Shumway, salvaged the organ from the Baker Grand before the theatre met the wrecking ball in the early 1970s. Shumway worked for Baldwin Piano & Organ and Deagan Organ Chimes companies as an organ technician, Cook said.

“He was a genius really,” he said.

Submitted photo — An old picture as it looked when it was an opera house.
Submitted photo — An old picture as it looked when it was an opera house.

Cook has moved the dozens of metal and wooden pipes, the xylophone and other parts of the organ out of the storage unit in hopes of restoring the organ.

According to the Organ Historical Society, the 1907 Robert Morton organ is a historic instrument, Cook said.

“It’s not extremely rare, but it is historic,” he said.

Cook said he has reached out to other musicians and organ experts in the state and in Baton Rouge about discovering the organ.

“They’re all just tickled that this organ has been saved,” he said. “Most people thought it had met the wrecking ball, too.”

The restoration process will not be quick, Cook said.

“(It will take) at least a couple of years of my life,” he said. “But, if nothing else happens with it, it will be saved because I will hear it played.”

But Cook is hopeful the organ garners enough interest so that it can be restored and placed in a public venue in time for Natchez’s tricentennial celebration in 2016.

“I guess I’m a pipe dreamer myself, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone restored the Ritz and you could have the organ there played along to old black-and-white films?” he asked. “Or wouldn’t it be wonderful if you had the organ in the City Auditorium being played before the pageant?”

The organ will require a great deal of time and effort to restore, as well as tracking down some parts that are missing, but Cook said it will be worth it to preserve a piece of Natchez’s history.

“It’ not a picture; it’s not a painting; it’s not some thing behind glass,” Cook said. “It’s an actual piece of our history that we can hear, that we see and that we can touch.”

Anyone interested in assisting with the restoration process can contact Cook at 601-445-9994.

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