A kindness remembered

When I was a high schooler in the mid-1950s, the St. Louis Fox Theater on Grand Avenue was a favorite dating venue.  It was one of several twenties-era movie palaces clustered within a few blocks of each other in the area.  Many had long since been shuttered, but the Fox soldiered on.

A young Stan Kann (1924-2008) at the keyboard(s)

Its big drawing card was the theater’s Wurlitzer pipe organ, with Stan Kann in command.  He played before every performance.  What a treat! 

The Fox instrument and Stan Kann had a long history together. Starting in the late 1940s, Stan spearheaded the painstaking resurrection of the Wurlitzer. It was his baby. The organ is really big, more than 5,000 pipes, in seven chambers, with all the bells and whistles (literally)  typical of the type. It had an actual 32-foot diapason (that is a big pipe, my friend) which was more felt than heard. It had the mandatory Tibia, a shmaltzy stopped wooden pipe which, with tremolo, gives theatre organs their most recognizable sound. It also had the bee-in-a-bottle Kinura, a nasal reed, sort of a musical cayenne pepper, for comic relief. It is truly a grand instrument.

Stan was a local celebrity. His work at the Fox (and also at Rugierri’s Italian restaurant, on The Hill, where he had installed yet another pipe organ from one of the old theaters downtown) gave him wide exposure.  Everybody knew him. In addition to his musical skills, he was blessed with a winsome personality, quick wit, and show-biz polish. He even gained national recognition as a collector of vacuum cleaners.  No, really.

My interest in pipe organs started in the early 1950s when my dad was a field service technician, first for Kilgen Organs, of St. Louis, and later for Wicks Organs, of Highland, Illinois. I once traveled with him for a week in the summer.  I’d run errands, keep him company, and hold down keys while he tuned pipes.

Sometime in 1958 I picked up an album of theatre organ music, which I enjoyed.  It got me to thinking about the Fox Wurlitzer, and wouldn’t it be neat to see inside that thing?  So, I wrote a letter to the owners of the Fox (Arthur Enterprises, as I recall) asking if such a thing would be possible.  I would be home on leave in St. Louis in February 1959.

I got a prompt reply from Stan Kann himself! He graciously offered to give me a personal tour of the instrument some evening after hours.  We settled on February 9, 1959, at midnight.

What a delight.  I had never been back stage at the Fox (that is a huge building!), much less inside a pipe organ of that size.  Stan seemed to have as much fun as I did as he enthusiastically guided me through (most) of the nooks and crannies of those seven chambers, plus the basement room that housed the huge blowers that power the Wurlitzer. There are two of them, about 12 feet long and six feet in diameter.  They produce air pressure of about 20 inches of mercury.  Stan joked that the organ is constantly trying to blow itself apart. 

The visit lasted at least an hour, maybe more.  It is a  treasured memory. I still marvel that someone of Stan Kann’s stature would take the time after a long day to satisfy a 20-year old’s curiosity.  That he would do so reveals what a gracious and generous man he was. It is a kindness that deserves to be remembered.

The Fox theater still operates, stage productions, not movies, which is just wonderful.  It is as gorgeous as it was when it was built in 1929. The Wurlitzer still enchants, though Stan is gone. I last heard them together in 2002. (By the way, an organist friend of mine reminded me a few years back that the Fox has two pipe organs: the big Wurlitzer and another smaller instrument in the lobby.  I did not know that.)

There is a coda to this story

That night, at 2:07 a.m. on February 10, 1959 (I’d just returned from the Fox  to Mother’s place in north St. Louis),  a devastating tornado ripped through St. Louis. It destroyed over 1,700 buildings, killed 21 people, and did about $53 million in damage.  It struck within blocks of the theater district, and did extensive damage to the Gaslight Square area near Olive and Boyle. 

Later that year, after my discharge from the Army, I would take up residence briefly in a 1920s era apartment building in Gaslight Square–across the street from the Crystal Palace, a half block from the Golden Eagle.  But that’s another story.

Stephen E. Richie

December 15, 2020

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