New Organ Console Glittering at Theatre Cedar Rapids

By Diana Nollen, Reporter

(from left) Dan Allen and Jim Arnold of Maher Bros. Transfer carry in the foot petals for the Barton pipe organ at Theatre Cedar Rapids on Monday, October 31, 2011. (Cliff Jette/SourceMedia Group)

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By Belinda Yeung

CEDAR RAPIDS , Iowa— The Rhinestone Barton is dazzling anew.

The historic organ’s black velvet coating had lost much of its luster long before flood waters swept through its home at Theatre Cedar Rapids on June 2008. While the pipes and percussion pieces were largely out of harm’s way in chambers high above the stage, the majestic console that rose out of the orchestra pit was nearly submerged and completely ruined.

Monday morning, a multifaceted recreation of that 1928 gem moved from Ajram Fabrics & Upholstery, 722 Sixth St. SW, to Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE. Rainbow shimmers of light began dancing from the organ’s rhinestone ribbons as the crew from Maher Brothers Transfer & Storage in Cedar Rapids rolled it onto the stage.

Over the winter, the console will be connected to the pipes, then everything will be tuned and toned for a gala debut next spring.

“The key to preserving this type of entertainment is to get it in front of people. Once you get it in front of people, Wow! If they never hear it, out of sight, out of mind,” said Ralph McDowell, 66, of Cedar Rapids, a member of Cedar Rapids Barton Inc., which owns and maintains the instrument.

The instrument’s odyssey began in the fall of 2009, when the damaged console was sent to Crome Organ Co. in Reno, Nev. Ken Crome re-created the piece that audience members see, complete with keyboards, bench and pedals. Pipes and pieces that sustained some moisture damage in the theater’s upper left chamber went to Jeff Weiler’s shop in Chicago for restoration.

The new console was painted black and shipped to the Ajram building in April, where Kalil Ajram, 73, of Cedar Rapids, began the painstaking task of coverging the instrument with its splendid new fabric, an exact duplicate of the original fabric covering. He gave a key to Barton Inc. volunteers so they could work on the console’s electrical components during that time, too.

Ajram found the fabric, sent it to a company that spent four months recreating the glass glitter design, then added his artistry cutting and gluing 22 yards of fabric to the shell.

“I cut it out in the pattern pieces (and) could match the design all the way through, both ways, up and down, sideways, the front, by the key, on the front, down the side. Places that should be painted, I put all the fabric back on, by the keys,” said Ajram, who did nearly all the work himself.

“I didn’t let anybody touch it. It’s not something easy, like that chair,” he said.

Longtime employee Marjorie Edmunds, 79, of Cedar Rapids, did help attach some rhinestone trim and sewed a cover to protect the console when it’s not in use.

Ajram was happy to be involved, paying forward all the kindness from the community after his business, several vehicles and two houses were damaged in the flood. He slashed his price tag from $20,000 to $2,000 for the project.

“They bought the fabric from here. I donated almost all my time, work, supply, everything. I got hurt in the flood and the people were nice and kind to come and help us. … We are living in the most blessed country on earth,” said Ajram, a native of Lebanon.

Total work on the console and pipe repair is estimated at $240,000, funded through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Ajram and his wife, Allea, hope to be in the audience when the pipe organ again fills the theater with sound. Kalil has never heard it in action, but in her youth, Allea, 64, attended concerts at the former Iowa Theater Building, now home to Theatre Cedar Rapids.

“It’s kind of neat just to be part of this,” she said. “It’s history.”

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