In honor of the 30th birthday of Duck Soup Cinema — being celebrated this fall in Overture Center’s Capitol Theater — the Grand Barton Organ just got a present: A refurbished keyboard to make life easier for the masterful musicians who play it.
“There’s always been maintenance done on the organ,” said Glenn Tallar, who currently cares for and repairs the magnificent instrument that is a key part of Madison’s entertainment history. “This is taking things a step further, to go through it and try to preserve it for the next hundred years.”
This past summer, Tallar oversaw repairs to the keyboard’s broken ivories and worn bushings that came from decades of use. Last month he reinstalled the three tiers of keys – a painstaking job on such a complex, historic instrument — to get it ready for the theater’s next Duck Soup Cinema.
The silent-film series features classic black and white films accompanied by organ in the 1,089-seat theater. Often, the afternoon and evening showings are rounded out by plenty of Vaudeville fun on the Capitol stage.
The keyboard work on the organ is just the start of a total restoration Overture hopes to accomplish someday — at an estimated cost of $250,000, said Rudy Lienau, vice president of operations for Overture.
“There’s a lot of coal dust in the organ from the 1920s, for example,” Tallar said. “We don’t need that in the organ anymore.”
A one-person orchestra that has entertained crowds since the Capitol Theater opened in 1928, the Barton theater organ is a rare jewel indeed. The organ, built for Madison audiences by the Bartola Musical Instrument Company of Oshkosh, is one of few that remain in their original homes.
The ornate, red-and-gold console that audiences see is only part of the organ. Behind the walls of Capitol Theater are 1,034 organ pipes, ranging from the size of a soda straw to 16 feet tall, 18 inches wide, plus the organ’s electrical system and air pump.
Tallar is on duty through every Duck Soup Cinema show, he said, ready to rush backstage in the dark if a pipe malfunctions during a performance.
The Grand Barton can create not only music for chase scenes and love scenes, but the sounds of chirping birds, trolley car bells, honking Model T Fords and more.
“There’s only a handful of theater pipe organs” left, Tallar said.
“And only a handful of those that are still operating off their original mechanisms. A lot of them have been computerized, where a computer controls all the signals to everything. Here, we still have the original.”
Organists Jelani Eddington and Clark Wilson will perform on the Grand Barton Organ for this year’s Duck Soup Cinema films.
An organist himself, Tallar, 29, was “born into” the field, he said.
Not long after his father and older brother started collecting organ parts, the family ended up with a Barton pipe organ in its Homer Glen, Illinois, home. (“You can hear it a block away,” Tallar said.)
Tallar started tinkering – and today has built a career in church and theater organ tuning, maintenance, restoration and repair.
If the instrument is complex, so is the act of playing it, he said.
“There’s five different things going on when you’re an organist. You’re thinking about the music. You have to orchestrate the music — think about what sounds you need,” he said.
“If you’re a film organist, you’re trying to watch the film and keep up with that, or if you’re playing with a band, you have to keep time with the band. In addition, your hands and your feet are going. So you’ve got a lot to think about.”