Traverse City Record-Eagle

Archive: Sunday

June 9, 2013

Museum's showcase organ gets makeover

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.”

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