Cedar Rapids Municipal Organist Marshall Bidwell at the console of the city's then-new E.M. Skinner concert organ. In 1931, when this photograph was taken, the organ had just been installed in the Veteran's Memorial Coliseum. It is currently installed in theSinclair Auditorium on the campus of Coe College." (Courtesy The Diapason.)
During these early years of the century, organ music of all kinds was vastly more popular than it is today, and Cedar Rapids was only one of dozens of American cities, including San Francisco, Minneapolis, Cleveland, and Boston, which had or were to purchase pipe organs for public buildings. Cedar Rapids planners apparently received very good advice, for they selected the firm generally acknowledged to be the finest builder of concert instruments of the time--Ernest M. Skinner--to build their city's concert organ. (Skinner also built instruments for First Presbyterian Church and Brucemore, a large estate belonging to the wealthy Sinclair family. The latter instrument is also extant, original, and playable, although in need of restoration.)
Presumably, that good advice came from Marshall Bidwell, organ professor at Coe College, and a strong proponent of the cause of organ music in Cedar Rapids for the previous ten years. Bidwell was widely respected as a teacher and concert artist throughout the country. His opening night recital on this instrument was played before four thousand people (several hundred others were turned away at the doors), on the night of April 2, 1930. Subsequently, Bidwell was placed in charge of this instrument, and appointed to the position of Municipal Organist for the City of Cedar Rapids.
The Skinner organ was a typical example of the "orchestral" style of instrument so favored at the time, and brought to perfection in the work of E.M. Skinner. While smaller than some of the Skinner organs in larger cities, it was fairly complete in specification and possessed of many of the special "color" stops for which Skinner was justly famous. Unfortunately, it was installed virtually at the end of the "golden age" of organ music in the first quarter of the 20th century. While Bidwell initially performed before packed houses in the Coliseum, within two years the audiences had dwindled to just a few dozen per recital. Bidwell gave up his regular recitals in the Coliseum, and resumed weekly recitals at First Presbyterian Church, which he also served as organist. Then, in 1932, Bidwell left Cedar Rapids, accepting a new position with Pittsburgh's Carnegie Institute of Music, and beginning his long association with the Carnegie family. The big Skinner was now played no more than three or four times per year.
At the same time, a young woman returned to her home in Cedar Rapids, after attending the New England Conservatory of Music. That woman--Eleanor Taylor--would become the respected "matriarch" of the Cedar Rapids organ world, and would be associated with the Cedar Rapids Skinner organ for the next five decades. Initially Taylor, who had been a promising student of Marshall Bidwell while in high school, assumed his job as organist of the First Presbyterian Church. Within a few years, she has also assumed his old teaching job at Coe College. Before long, she was making overtures about moving the Skinner organ to Coe, where it would be used and heard far more frequently than it was in the Coliseum. (At the time, Coe had a 3-manual Estey described by Taylor as a "hootin' box of whistles.") However, arrangements for such a move were difficult, due primarily to the complicated ownership of the organ--it was owned partly by the Veterans of Foreign Wars and partly by the City. Fortunately, her efforts were unsuccessful, as the Coe College chapel, along with its Estey organ, was completely destroyed by a fire in 1947.
Eleanor Taylor's dream to bring the Skinner organ to Coe College was finally realized in 1952, and the organ was installed in the new Sinclair Auditorium. Some minor changes were made to the instrument at this time, including the addition of a Plein Jeu to the swell. Now, Taylor had a fine teaching and performance instrument at her disposal, even though it was of a style which was quickly becoming unfashionable. She continued to attract talented students, and served as a role model for many young organists in the community, this writer included. One talented young theatre organist whose life was touched by this organ, who has played it on many occasions (and who continues to champion its cause) is Jeff Weiler, who attended and graduated from Coe College.
In 1971, more changes were made to the organ, including the addition of several ranks from the old E.M. Skinner organ from First Presbyterian Church, which had recently acquired a new Reuter organ. Unfortunately, some of these changes--while considered improvements at the time--deviated from the original Skinner tonal ideals. A few original ranks were removed, including the Great First Diapason (the Second Diapason remains). Some "upperwork" was added, including 4-rank mixtures on the Great and Pedal. However, the great Skinner "color" still shines forth, and the instrument remains one of the least altered moderately large E.M. Skinner organs still in superb playing condition. The beauty and durability of Skinner's work is nowhere more evident than in this beautiful four-manual drawknob console, controlling some 60 ranks, and still fully functional after over 7 decades.
Here is the current specification of the Ernest M. Skinner organ, Op. 771 (1929), originally installed in Veteran's Memorial Coliseum, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, currently installed in Sinclair Auditorium, Coe College, Cedar Rapids, Iowa:
|Bourdon (ped)||16'||Orchestral flute||8'|
|Harmonic flute||4'||Nazard||2 2/3'|
|Mixture||IV||Corno di Bassetto||8'|
|Rohrflute||8'||Open Diapason (gt)||16'|
|Flute Celeste||8'||Quintaton (ch)||16'|
|Viox Celeste||8'||Lieblich Ged. (sw)||16'|
|Plein Jeu||III||Super Octave||4'|
|Vox Humana||8'||Waldhorn (sw)||16'|
|TOE STUD COUPLERS||SOLO/GT||16-8-4|
(This is a revised version of the article originally published in Theatre Organ, the Journal of the AmericanTheatre Organ Society, July/August 1998, and used here with permission. The author wishes to thank the following for invaluable assistance in the preparation of this article: Darren Ferreter, Joy Weiler, Paul Montague, Larry Chace, Ted Paulson, and Dennis Ungs.)
About the author: David C. Kelzenberg (b. 1951) has studied music performance and music theory at Quincy University and at The University of Iowa. He has an interest in all keyboard instruments, including the organ, harpsichord, clavichord, and piano, and has made a special study of the history of early keyboard performance in the 20th (and 21st) century. He is co-owner of the international Internet mailing list PIPORG-L, and founder and co-owner of HPSCHD-L (devoted to stringed early keyboard instruments such as the harpsichord and clavichord). David Kelzenberg lives in Iowa City, Iowa, with his children Michael and Jennifer, and feline companions Wanda Landowska Kelzenberg and Marcel Dupré Kelzenberg. He is a computer specialist employed by the University of Iowa.