Traverse City Record-Eagle

June 9, 2013

Museum's showcase organ gets makeover

BY MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS mdrahos@record-eagle, mdrahos@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — ACME — The Music House Museum’s showpiece Mortier Dance Hall Organ is getting a makeover, but it’s one visitors to the Acme museum will hear rather than see.

The 1922 Belgium-built organ has been undergoing repairs by experts Johnny Verbeeck and his son, Jeffrey, whose century-old family business near Antwerp, Belgium, builds and services organs.

The pair arrived on May 16 for a three-week restoration that turned into four. They spent the first two weeks taking apart, cleaning and repairing the 18-feet by 30-feet organ, including putting new leather on the valves. The remaining weeks have been devoted to putting the instrument back together, including the tedious two-day job of voicing the pipes.

“We have 700 pipes and they all have to give a perfect sound,” said Johnny, 62, who expected their work to be complete by Tuesday.

The 5,000-pound organ, named “Amaryllis” by its maker, is the pride of the museum, which offers year-round daily tours of its collection of rare antique musical instruments and music- making machines.

“It’s our showcase piece,” said Kelly Curtis, director of marketing and development for the museum, which drew about 8,000 visitors last year. “It’s the last one on the tour because it’s grand and unique.”

Dance organs like the Amaryllis were developed to replicate a small dance orchestra of the kind that were popular until the mid-1900s. They were primarily used in mainland Europe, where they played for dancers when the orchestras went on break.

After WWI, their use dwindled except in Belgium and the Netherlands, where they became a mainstream form of music at public venues. By the 1960s, they were all but junk, said Johnny.

“People didn’t want them anymore because the Americans came with jukeboxes,” he said. “In the ‘60s they were burned. An organ like this you could buy in the ‘60s for $50. My dad used to pick them up for free.”

As a result, only about 200 of the large Mortier dance organs are left in the world, he said. The Amaryllis is the best example in the country and one of the only original instrument from the inside to the ornate façade.

Curtis said the organ is one of only a handful on public display and one of only two in the world that is played regularly for public tours.

The museum has been fundraising since 2012 to raise the approximately $80,000 needed for the repairs, the first large-scale restoration since shortly after the organ was installed in 1982. She said the restoration should bring the organ back to they way it sounded when it was new.

“It was still playing, but it’s a 91-year-old organ. The leather gets old, you get cracks in the soundbox. Sometimes the air would slide over into the next note and you’d get two notes or you wouldn’t have a note at all,” she said.

The Verbeecks have been working on the organ from about 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, stopping only for lunch and dinner. The schedule leaves them little time to explore the area beyond the walls of the museum and their hotel.

“The only thing we see when we travel is from the plane to the hotel to work,” said Jeffrey, 35, who joined the family business after trying out several jobs including driving a public bus.

The pair have traveled all over the world for their work, including to Sydney and France. Last year they were on the road for four months in the U.S. alone, Johnny said.

They travel with a small suitcase of tools, spare parts and perforated books – the newest is “Ghost Riders in Sky” -- from which the organs play. They make everything else they need.

Before coming to Traverse City, they and their five employees completed and delivered a new organ built from scratch to a private home in Holland. When they return, father and son will spend a few weeks restoring an instrument in the factory before heading to Moscow for another restoration.

The family company was started in 1884 by Jeffrey’s great-grandfather, Jan Verbeeck. Curtis said it’s very likely that Jan helped build the Amaryllis, though there are no labels or markings to suggest that.

Neither father nor son play the organ, preferring to let the instruments play themselves. They say their reward is in helping to preserve an important piece of the past.

“We like to bring this kind of organ back to life” Johnny said. “It’s a rebirth, in a way.”

To learn more or to donate to the restoration project, visit www.musichouse.org.