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.

Local pianist wants to restore old theater organ for public display

Published 12:01am Tuesday, March 19, 2013

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.

  • Anonymous

    I would think the committee working on the tricentennial would help Burnley financially on this project. It IS a wonderful piece of Natchez’ history.

  • Anonymous

    I think the committee for the tricentennial should help Burnley financially with this project.

  • Anonymous

    We have a big debt to Robert Shumway for saving the organ from destruction. And even before he had the opportunity to remove it, local kids had-for years- been removing the smaller metal pipes and using them for swords that could double as whistles! So, a lot of the smaller violin rank is gone/badly damaged.

    It is quite remarkable that the organ is in as good a shape as it is! Generally, when sound came along and the organs fell silent, well, they no longer earned their keep, and many were destroyed. Natchez is one of the fortunate ones. Robert Morton only produced about 900 such instruments, themselves, and so many met the wrecking ball.
    The biggest problem will be a venue in which the organ can be housed. But, I truly feel that it need to serve its purpose of entertaining locals and visitors,alike.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joe-Stutzman/100000914851900 Joe Stutzman

    good luck burnley. i LOVED the baker grand.it was much more than your average movie house

  • Anonymous

    I sincerely hope no taxpayer dollars goes to fixing this organ. TEA partiers would not be pleased!

  • mmshumway

    The salvage company that purchased salvage rights to the Baker Grand contacted my father to ask him what he thought they could get for the organ. Dad told them that in its then-present condition, the organ was basically worthless. The contractor insisted that they could get a few thousand dollars for it. That was the last we heard until two days before the wrecking crew was scheduled to arrive. The salvager called that morning and told my father that he was unable to find any interest, so for a minimal price Dad could have it if he’d take it out himself. Dad spent all that day making fast and furious arrangements. We showed up at the theater at 9am the next day and began disassembly and removal. We left the theater at about 2am the following morning, just five hours ahead of the wrecking crew.

    Dad always planned on rebuilding the organ, but time and illness caught up to him first. I know he’s standing at Burnley’s elbow every step of the way.

  • Anonymous

    Wow, that really WAS last minute. If I am correct, the company that had the contract for demolition of the building was The Spencer Company. In fact, I do recall one time Louis Spencer telling me that he was standing down on the stage area and one of his workers was on the roof, and began to shout information down to Mr. Spencer through a hole in the roof that they had opened up. Mr. Spencer told his workman “You don’t have to shout or raise your voice at all; with the acoustics in here you can hear a whisper from where you are”.

  • http://www.natchezdemocrat.com khakirat

    I was told that John Wilkes Booth was in plays at the Baker Grand Building and people would come from NOLA and other distant places to see the plays. I was really surprised the histerical people of all places destroyed this building just didn’t make sense to my parents at the time!! The last movie the wife and myself saw at the Baker Grand was Gone with the Wind and it was a great theater that the floor would go down in elevation as you walked toward the screen as most older churches and the sound was so good!!