Behind the Scenes with Don Phipps, 2017
Lisa Condit spoke with Don Phipps, The Hanover Theatre’s organ expert, resident organ curator and so much more. Don celebrates his 85th birthday this month with a special, free concert. Read on for highlights from his September 23 WCRN interview, or listen to the entire interview below!
Lisa Condit: It is so exciting to be here with one of my favorite people involved with the theatre, and he’s my one of my favorites for several reasons. Don Phipps, welcome to our program.
Don Phipps: It’s my pleasure to be here. Thank you.
Lisa: You have been with us many times before. For those who haven’t heard of you before, do you want to share how you got involved with the theatre?
Don: 65 years ago, became interested in theater pipe organs. Over that period of time, I collected a large number of parts, probably the equivalent of about two tractor trailer loads. Having bought my first theater organ at 17, I did assemble a couple instruments. Then, getting involved with marriage, family and kids, I put the hobby aside until I retired, fortunately, at the age of 56. At that point, I suddenly discovered I had nothing to do and I figured some way of avoiding depression was to either see a psychiatrist and give him a lot of money or restart my hobby of many years previous, namely building theater pipe organs. Well, that proved to be a good choice. After six and a half years of labor, about 10,000 hours total time and more money than I even want to admit, I managed to assemble, what was then, the largest theatre pipe organ ever in New England. But, like the person that has the 3,000-pound elephant, having the pet isn’t the problem, finding a place to put it is the problem. Fortunately, after several unsuccessful attempts of finding a home for the instrument, I was very lucky to meet up with Troy Siebels, who, at that point, was starting the real forward motion on The Hanover Theatre in Worcester. One thing led to another and Troy was wonderful. He had the vision. At this point, we are approaching the ninth year of the organ being installed in the theatre and having been used in many facets of the theatre’s production.
Lisa: It’s been an incredible journey for sure. Just listening to you talk about that reminds me of before we were even open when we were talking about the organ, when people thought that the founders were crazy and they really weren’t sure that The Hanover Theatre was going to happen. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, there was all that positive energy and collaboration. Think about it, New England’s largest theatre pipe organ. How did you end up coming into contact with Troy?
Don: I had been aware of the fact that this theatre was trying to become established. Friends sent me newspaper clippings from the Worcester area, and I was aware of the project, but for a number of years, it didn’t seem like it was moving in much of a positive direction. Then suddenly, I heard about Troy and the fact that he had infused a lot of new blood, new spirit and new energy into the project. One day, I made a cold call to Troy and I said, “I am Don Phipps and maybe we should get together. My understanding is that you have a theatre and I have a theater pipe organ.” Well, I thought the greatest possibility was that Troy would laugh at me, but that wasn’t the case. Two weeks later, I received a very thick envelope with the preliminary plans of the theatre and the rest was history. There was a lot of challenges along the way, but if it hadn’t been for Troy, I’m sure the project never would have come to completion.
Lisa: That is a wonderful thing about Troy, that he is a visionary and he is so good at being able to take an exciting concept like that, and being able to integrate it and be flexible right as things are being built. Do you remember what month or what year that was when you first came into contact with Troy about the possible location of the organ?
Don: I think it was about a year and a half before the theatre actually opened. We started working about six months before the doors opened. The work was so extensive and due to financial limitations, was basically done by a crew of four faithful full-time workers, and then about another half dozen assistants. All in all, we figured onsite inside the theater, we put in 1,500 man days of work.
Lisa: Absolutely, and that’s when I first met you, Don. That’s when I became aware of this thing called an organ lift. Now, it wasn’t in the original plans, so I remember the conversations in the office about how we needed to make these adjustments. There were some challenges, but the perseverance definitely helped that project come to fruition. But, we never in a million years would have been able to have this beautiful instrument in our theatre if it weren’t for you and your team. How did you collect this group of volunteers that, still to this day, is so dedicated to the organ? It’s an amazing instrument that requires a lot of tuning and maintenance, right?
Don: This is true. Everyone involved, particularly the people that consistently work on it, have been people that have been organ nuts probably most of their lives. People like Bruce Hager and Len Beyersdorfer are talented house organists, plus my brother John and myself, and other people that gave us that time when we required their talents or they had the time available to help things along.
Lisa: That was the spirit that was in the building before opening night, wasn’t it? Every single person that was bustling to make incredible mountains move before we opened. I’ll never forget that first year with A Christmas Carol, because I’m sure part of the attraction for housing this instrument must have been the vision of how the instrument could be incorporated into each performance and especially A Christmas Carol. Tell me a little bit about that.
Don: The first production of A Christmas Carol, we hadn’t completed enough of the organ to have it usable. So, the musical director accompanied it with a keyboard. The next year, we had about two-thirds of the organ playing and it was used for the production. Then, the following year was completed. To give you some idea, last year there were 20,744 paid admissions. So, just to expose that number of people, even though they might not be organ nuts or even know what a theater organ was, to expose that number of people to an instrument that is one of the two instruments which is indigenous to the American culture is a privilege that we really welcome.
Lisa: Absolutely. There is so much to talk about with the organ. It is such an interesting subject and the sounds that can come out are incredible.Once again, this is Lisa and I’m here with Don Phipps, who is our organ expert and our resident organ curator. Is that the right title, Don?
Don: Yes, but bear in mind, I do not play. I’m strictly a mechanical guy. I love to listen and I love to work on instruments that people with talent do play.
Lisa: Which is so incredible, because the precision that it takes for the music to come out is one thing, but to have that vision and to make it possible for other people to make that beautiful music and for it to be such an important part of so many of our productions. So, just going back to the history of the organ a little bit, the organ was a big part of American theatre before.
Don: Yes, this is true, the theater pipe organ was conceived, designed and evolved for one specific purpose, and that was for the accompaniment of silent motion pictures. For those of you who have looked into the history of this a little bit, silent motion pictures involved plot. So, this extended from the 1910s to 1927 with the advent of sound. Everybody then took advantage of this giant step in technology, so sound pictures became the thing. So, the theater pipe organ originally had a very short lifespan.
Lisa: What’s incredible is that we do have a silent film series that you’ve been a really big part of, as far as hooking us up with Clark Wilson and really helping us to understand the value of them. I have to say, they’re extraordinarily entertaining, especially for today’s audiences because it’s so different than what you would experience anywhere else. Check out our website at TheHanoverTheatre.org for a full listing of our shows, including the silent films. Then we have, of course, our annual production of A Christmas Carol.
Don: The theater organ music played by a truly great artist is an art form all by itself. Those of you who haven’t sampled this, either in live performance or on recordings, are going to find that this as a completely different type of music.
You’ll walk out of The Hanover Theatre at the end of an organ concert with a smile on your face and a song in your heart.Don Phipps
Lisa: Oh, you are such a generous person. Everybody, Don is merely asking people for a donation. Truly, Don and his team have been selflessly maintaining this organ, they donated this organ. It is an incredible instrument that adds a lot of value to a lot of different productions and it would be really great if we could raise some money for the theatre fund so that its maintenance was guaranteed into the future. About how much, if the theatre had to pay for this a year, would it cost us to maintain the organ the way that you and your team have maintained it?
Don: Well, that depends. Most times an organ like this, which was completely rebuilt before it was installed in the theatre, should be good for another 30 or 40 years without anything major. The yearly maintenance is probably a matter of a couple thousand dollars that mostly covers the tuning. What we’re trying to save for is 30 or 40 years down the line when something major needs to be done, and then it can be a lot of money. They’re very, very labor intensive. As I said, the installation took 1,500 man days of work and most of us are not young chickens anymore, but we still worked hard. So, translate that into $65 to $75 an hour, which is what professional organ builders get today. A rebuild can run into a great deal of money.
Lisa: Absolutely. The Hanover Theatre and Conservatory is a nonprofit organization, so we really appreciate any support that you can give. Please find more information online at TheHanoverTheatre.org. Come hear what the organ can do and you are going to leave, like Don said, with a smile on your face and joy in your heart.