The Golden Age of theater organs is long past, but Reno’s Crome Organ Co. finds a steady business in keeping musical history alive.
The century-old family owned business is one of a small handful of companies that service, repair, restore and install theater organs, which most people call pipe organs.
“My grandfather Edward Crome learned the trade in San Francisco then worked for a firm in Chicago, ,” said owner Ken Crome. “He moved to Los Angeles and started the company in 1895. My father Carl took over the business when he was 14 years old after my grandfather died.”
The company once serviced concert, church and theater organs, but Ken Crome sharpened its focus on theater organs after he took the reins in 1973.
By some estimates, about 7,000 pipe organs once entertained crowds in auditoriums, churches and movie houses. Now only about 40 are in their original venues. although private collectors have some.
“The golden age of theater organs was before the talking movies were created. After that many theatres took their organs out. Still there were halls, auditoriums, as well as churches, that continued to use these organs,” Crome said.
In his younger days Crome used to help his father keep watch over the theatre organ at the MGM Studios. Now he’s restoring that same organ for a new home at a private residence.
Since the 1980s the company has been restoring organs owned by collectors and installing others back into theatres.
Crome moved the company from Southern California to Nevada about 23 years ago. Working with him are assistants, Jay Bradley and Brett Fehlman.
All pipe organs are wind-driven instruments. And theater organs have the widest range of musical sounds including drums, horns, marimbas, xylophones, and cymbals as well as sound effects such as alarm bells, whistles and sirens.
“We have regulators that help control the pressure of the organ and below that is a box that has static pressure,” Fehlman said. “So it’s really low pressure but high volume.”
Pipes, or trumpets, are arranged in dozens of racks according to their tone. Special effects are mounted on what’s called a “toy rack.”
A relay panel sets how things will be combined and the organ is played from a console with multiple keyboards. Stop tabs around the keyboards select the tones each will play, combining them if needed.
“The tabs gives you control over what you’re locked into when you’re playing,” Fehlman said.
The bass notes, volume and duration are controlled from a pedal board that the organist plays with his feet.
Fehlman added the company wasn’t hurt by the economic meltdown as it had a three and a half year backlog of work at that time.
“It’s enough to keep us alive and make us very happy we’re still working. We’re really lucky in the fact that this company is considered probably one of the best in the country and a lot of people use us as a benchmark.”
Last fall, Crome Organ finished a two-year project restoring a theater organ damaged in a flood at Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Reinstalling the organ took well over a month as the chest, racks and effects had to be lowered through a door to their proper places. Then more time was required to tune the trumpets and connect all the lines.
Crome said doesn’t expect the business ever will boom.
“It’s steady but I don’t see theater organs becoming really popular as the average age of the crowds is rising,” he says. “And I don’t see young people getting involved.”