Local man works to put together historical puzzle

Published 12:03 am Sunday, January 17, 2016

Burnley Cook of Natchez is currently restoring a theater organ that was once in the Baker Grand Theatre, formerly located between First Presbyterian Church and the federal courthouse.

TIM GIVENS/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Burnley Cook of Natchez is currently restoring a theater organ that was once in the Baker Grand Theatre, formerly located between First Presbyterian Church and the federal courthouse.

Inside pianist Burnley Cook’s house and workshop, pieces of a 1920s organ lay scattered on workbenches and counters, a jigsaw of the instrument it used to be.

Almost every day for the past few years, Cook has been working to complete the puzzle.

“It’s such an immense project that I’m afraid to really stop and start on something else because I’m afraid I’ll lose the momentum,” Cook said.

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The organ came to Natchez in 1922, Cook said, for use at The Baker Grand Theatre. Since then, the instrument has gone through many ups and downs.

During the heyday of silent films, the organ provided all of the music and sound effects for the films. It was only able to fulfill its purpose for approximately eight years before the first “talkie” picture arrived, rendering it obsolete.

“So many of the instruments were destroyed when their usefulness came to an end, but we still have ours,” Cook said.

Instead of being destroyed, the organ was used intermittently, but Cook said the motor wasn’t oiled properly, and it seized up one day.

It was left, unplayable, and the theater continued on. Cook even remembers seeing the organ as a child, but never hearing it play.

When the theater was demolished in the early 1970s, it couldn’t even be seen anymore. Approximately three years ago, Cook saw a social media advertisement from Ruth Powers, whose father had salvaged the organ. Cook took the project on and had the organ moved to his workshop.

Damage was apparent everywhere, from the wooden and metal pipes to the tuned percussion section, where instruments like the xylophone were kept.

“Really simply put, there was nothing that was ready to go,” Cook said.

The task was made even more difficult as Cook wanted to use replacement parts from the original maker, the Robert Morton Organ Co., making parts harder to find.

“I want to keep the organ original,” Cook said. “I don’t want to distort it and make it into something that it wasn’t.”

That includes keeping some of the original pieces, even if they aren’t in mint-condition. For instance, part of the original organ bench will be used even though it has water rings on it from where people set their drinks.

“It shows the originality of it,” Baker said.

But, with time, effort, and help from friends at the Magnolia Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society, Cook was able to find parts and begin work.

It’s been a long, and often complicated process, but Cook said he’s approximately 75 percent done and hopes to finish the organ in a year or less.

A dream of his is to have it be a part of a tricentennial movie festival at Margaret Martin Performing Arts Center. But, beyond 2016, he hopes it can be part of special events or other movie festivals.

Cook doesn’t have a venue lined up to take the instrument when the restoration is complete. So, for now, Cook plans to keep it in his workshop, after making renovations like adding heating and cooling units for the organ’s benefit.

But, while he isn’t quite sure where the organ will find a permanent home, Cook does know one thing.

“As long as it’s in my hands, it’s not going anywhere,” Cook said. “It’s not leaving Natchez.”

Cook said he sees himself more as a caretaker for the instrument, and wants the rest of Natchez to be able to enjoy the little piece of history being put together in his workshop.

“I’m going to enjoy playing it, and I can’t hardly wait to hear other people playing it and enjoying it,” Cook said.

If anyone wishes to help, Cook can be reached at 601-807-0578.