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Rialto Theatre - 4/30 American Master
Butte, Montana
Organ installation timeframe: 1917 - 1964
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1917 - 1964

By Ron McDonald
As posted to the PIPORG-L Internet mailing list April 12, 1998
A story about the American Master Organ Co. and their largest organ was published in the Theatre Organ journal, July-August 1998.
My story picks up where that story ends. The following account will be more cohesive if the July-August story is read first.
In the early 1960's I had saved 2 smaller theatre organs from ruin, but in 1964 I found myself confronted with a more difficult challenge.
I discovered the Butte Montana Rialto Theatre organ just days prior to the scheduled demolition of the entire building. The electricity had already been disconnected from the building. Exlploring a large building with a flash light is somewhat difficult.
I was amazed to find the organ almost complete. 16 of the 30 ranks of pipes were missing. The 4 manual console was in storage.
I was able to acquire the organ from the owner, who also gave me the name of the person who had the missing pipes. My dream was to save the entire organ.
The race against time began. With the help of a partner, I began removing the most choice items first. We built crates, and packed pipes individually in news paper. We eventually filled a large van and took it to Salt Lake City. This was load #1.
I recruted two more friends and returned to Butte. We worked long days, and late into the nights, disassembling, packing and loading by the light of flashlights. We pushed ourselves to the limit, but time was running out.
The demolition contractor wanted us out of there, because he was liable in case we caused a fire. Local citizens were protesting the removal of the organ. The police objected when we began lowering large pipes from the second story window to the busy street below. We seemed to be overwhelmed by obstacles. We were young working class guys with limited resources.
We also encountered the same thing Mr. Paragallo dealt with 47 years earlier. The union. We were not members of the proper union. We certainly had no money to hire union labor. Some cash in the right hands bought us a little time.
We finished our second load, but the ugly truth was now evident. We were not going to save the entire organ. The time for demolition had arrived, and we were far from done.
We filled a large U-Haul truck to the ceiling, and even shared cab space with organ parts. But the trip to Salt Lake City was with heavy hearts. This was load #2, but we knew there would not be a load #3. Our time was spent and our welcome was worn out. Our resources were depleted.
I had bad dreams of the big ball crushing those 32 foot pipes, chests, grand piano etc. It still haunts me.
It was heart breaking to look at the receipt for this magnificent 4/30 organ, and know it was mine, but I couldn't have it. Now, 34 years later I am looking at the same receipt. Life has it's adversity.
Here are a few facts I observed about this instrument.
The chests, magnets, shutters, tremolo units, reservoirs and relay, looked like Wurlitzer, but the Wurlitzer name was not seen anywhere. I was puzzled to see the Hope Jones signature in two places on this organ. I knew he had died 3 years prior to this 1917 installation.
There was a grand piano on stage right. It had been built for the organ, and never did have a keyboard. It appeared to be in good condition. Still wired to the relay.
The tuned percussion section had it's own private chamber. The trap section was impressive and had it's own chamber also. The Brass kettle drums were not in a chamber.
There were 5 exposed ranks of diapason pipes, some large scale, some small scale. Their chest was mounted on a brick wall.
The 32 ft. Diaphone pipes were very large scale, I walked inside the low C pipe with my flashlight for a distance before I realized I was inside an organ pipe. The wood they were made of was absolutely beautiful. I can believe the story that these pipes had to be toned down to prevent damage to the building.
The echo organ was located at the rear of the theatre, and was ducted a short distance by a properly curved duct the size of the shutter opening, to a grill in the rear wall of the balcony. The echo organ was not buried.
The whole organ was NOT buried.
In my opinion, this organ was an attempt to out do Wurlitzer. Nothing was small or economy, and the installation was magnificent. Perhaps it was this massive effort that brought about the demise of the company. See July-August 98 story).
Considering how live the building was, the size of the organ, relative to the size of the theatre, it is my opinion that this instument had to be very impressive. It appeared that the building had been built for the organ instead of the other way around.
The vacuum problems reported by the installer were evidently remedied by a second blower dedicated to vacuum.
I met several old timers who told stories of famous musicians who had played there. Several people actually shed a few tears of sadness as they watched us dismantle the organ. One gentleman became very emotional and began trying to prevent us from taking it.
Even though the instrument had been silent for 34 years, the local people were very sensitive about it's removal. This instrument had definitely captured the hearts of the local people between 1917 and 1930.
It was probably not only the largest theatre organ in Montana, but also the largest theatre organ for an area much larger than Montana.
It hurt me deeply that I was unable to save the entire instrument. I nearly broke myself trying, but it was just not possible. I shared ownership of the salvage with my helpers, and so the various parts went several different directions.
I donated the 16' Bourdon and 16' Ophicleide to the Organ Loft in Salt Lake city, where they are still in use today. Other parts have been used in several organ projects. The console is in storage in Fresno California. The theatre is gone. I wish I had pictures.
It was a magnificent organ, an outstanding installation, a real credit to the American Master Organ Co. and to Mr. John Paragallo. I also commend Mr. Dave Schutt for his accurate and in depth account in the July-August 98 Journal.

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