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'It's a Wurlitzer!'

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

Natural landmarks, I suppose, are forgotten after a lighthouse is put up. They still exist, of course, but not their importance. Before 1880 — before the Wind Point lighthouse was built — mariners navigating the west coast of Lake Michigan had a lone tree as the marker on Wind Point. Wind Point Lighthouse, rising 112 feet in bright-white splendor, continues to carry on where the tree left off. It’s the tallest and oldest lighthouse still operating on Lake Michigan.

For 44 years, its keeper hauled cans of kerosene up 140 iron steps to keep the lamp lit. Now the light is a 1,000-watt airport-style beacon. The lighthouse was a navigational aid for me on this day, as much as for those on the lake. Driving from downtown Racine, my instructions were that when I got to the lighthouse, I was to go north on North Point Road. I was headed for Heather Lane, and the home of Veryl and Fred Hermes. The Hermeses, I discovered, have Heather Lane to themselves. Their house appears to be in a shallow ravine cut from a Wisconsin-style rain forest. It’s hard to say where their closest neighbor is. I couldn’t see another house from theirs — tall trees on three sides and the lake on the other. But, when considering Fred’s avocation — without big sound, it’s nothing — it’s probably just as well.

Fred has been in the insurance and real-estate business in Racine since 1946. He is progressively retiring from that. Veryl taught school for 43 years. It was a warm day, and I was in my usual travel garb, shorts and a light shirt. Fred — he was expecting me — came out of the house wearing a heavy cardigan sweater. “It’s cool down there,” Fred explained as we walked in the house. “It’s a constant 55 degrees.” I followed Fred to some dimly lit stairs. We went down, and down some more. I thought of the lighthouse keeper in the old days hauling kerosene. A whiff of dank air told me that we were well below ground. Fred threw some light switches. All I was told was that in Fred’s basement is a pipe organ, said to be the largest of its kind still in existence.

But in no way did that prepare me for what I saw. I was in a theater — a magnificent old motion-picture palace, some 20-feet below ground. This was not a clone or some artist’s reproduction, but a full, bona-fide transplant from the 1920s. I walked down an aisle between rows of seats. Coming out from under the ornate, 47-seat balcony, the room opened up as if there were no ceiling. The subtle light from the elaborate wall lamps was directed downward. Surrounded by detailed ornamentation, the stage sparkled with tiny lights — like stars — against a flood of purple. Two double-deck chandeliers, suspended in darkness, lit the intricate columns that framed it. Like the proverbial boat in a bottle, how did he ever get it all in here? “I can’t believe this. But where’s the organ?” I said.

With a rustle of fabric, a sound that broke total stillness, a gold curtain opened. Then, like Poseidon rising from the sea, up came this elaborate console organ from below the stage — five keyboards surrounded by four decks of red and yellow pedal buttons. “It’s a Wurlitzer! Made in 1926. Same age as me. It’s the largest five-level manual organ that the company ever made,” Fred said. “We salvaged it from Detroit’s Michigan Theater in 1956. By we, I mean me and a bunch of other organ nuts. Fourteen-hour days and sleeping at the YMCA, we dismantled it piece by piece.

In the middle of a sleet storm, we moved it — took a week to get it all here using two big moving vans. Reconditioning it took two years; installing it all took two more. There are 4,000 tiny, intricate bellows in there. It was like working on a cuckoo clock.” Fred took me backstage into rooms that are two stories high. “It takes a lot of wind to play a pipe organ,” showing me a blower as big an old Volkswagen Bug. “Pipes range from 20 feet to just 1?2-inch tall, 2,500 of them, some straight, some flared, some looped in the center, some metal, some wood.” Four cement-walled organ lofts hold priceless equipment — including a percussion section: drums, bells, cymbals, a marimba, a glockenspiel — all controlled from the main keyboard console using 3,500 wires.”

“Why the basement?” I asked. “Since a theater has no windows anyway, it was cheaper to put it under the house that I already had, than to build another one — only need one roof that way.” Fred’s Basement Bijou is a collection of priceless castoffs: crystal chandeliers from Chicago’s Piccadilly Theater, wall fixtures from the Gateway in Kenosha, seats from
Racine’s Uptown Theater, leaded glass from the Chicago’s Pantheon Theater, tapestries from Milwaukee’s National Theater, lights from the Minnesota Theater in Minneapolis and the Warner in Milwaukee. This antique flotsam comes together in an elaborate 150-seat theater, where Fred plays concerts for visitors who collect here often: The lights dim, and old-time comics from the silent-movie days caper across the screen.

The organ plays and the magical Brenograph lighting machine erupts with flags, flowers, and volcanoes. Earlier that day I
had seen the results of progress: A tree as a landmark had been replaced by a lighthouse, a kerosene lamp had been replaced by an electric beacon. But here on shores of Lake Michigan, one’s man’s passion has resurrected the authentic sights and sounds of the 1920s. And no amount of progress will ever invade his sanctuary.

Bill’s e-mail address: [email protected]

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