PUBLISHED: 10:46 AM on Wednesday, January 18, 2006
MacKinnon now in 29th year of Kimball concerts

Photo by Amanda Gragert
  J. Allan MacKinnon plays the pipe organ Friday, Jan. 13 at the State Office Building.
Back in the late 1920s, a night on the town might mean going to the Coliseum Theatre on Franklin Street and watching a moving picture. Though talking pictures didn't yet exist, the audience was still surrounded by sound as the music of a massive Kimball pipe organ set the stage for the drama unfolding on screen.

That same organ is still delighting audiences today as music pours from its 548 pipes through the grand lobby of the State Office Building. Almost every Friday since 1977, J. Allan MacKinnon has played a lunchtime concert for anyone who wants to attend, from school groups to cruise ship passengers, to organ club aficionados who travel all the way to Juneau just to hear its dulcet tones.

"I'm kind of carrying on a tradition," said MacKinnon of his almost 30-year volunteer career playing the organ. "I began playing here at the May 1977 dedication of the instrument, and now I'm the only person who still regularly plays it, though we do occasionally have traveling artists come through and perform."

MacKinnon has a long history with the instrument, which he first became acquainted with in 1961 when he began working as a doorman at the 20th Century Theatre.

"I messed around with it then," he said, "when I wasn't working for $1 an hour tearing tickets."

Built in 1928 for W.D. Gross, the organ had originally been designed to accompany silent pictures in the Coliseum Theater. It was moved to Gross's 20th Century Theatre in 1939, where it remained for 38 years.

"It was fortunate that the organ was moved when it was, because the Coliseum Theatre was completely lost during a whale of a fire in the early 1940s," MacKinnon said.

Unfortunately, the organ fell into disuse until the early 1950s, when Franklin Butte, a radio engineer stationed with the Army Signal Corps in Juneau, repaired the instrument's wiring so that it could be used by community groups and also to herald the theater's evening show.

"In the 1950s and 60s, we played the organ before movies in the evenings and on Saturday afternoons," MacKinnon said. "But due to changes in management, it was decided to sell the organ in 1970, and Myles and Letha Remley bought it and later donated it to the Alaska State Museum."

When the museum decided that they needed more space and the organ needed to find a new home, the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council took on the project.

"They started a local movement to restore the instrument and to get it installed somewhere where it could be used," MacKinnon said. "I don't remember who had the idea to install it in the grand lobby of the SOB, but it was the perfect space."

In 1977, the dedication ceremony took place and the public, as well as numerous dignitaries including Governor Jay Hammond, packed the space.

"Carol Berry Davis played some silent movie music, and Franklin Butte played most of the rest of the program," MacKinnon said. "I even played a tune or two."

These days, MacKinnon attracts a wide fan base to his Friday afternoon concerts, which can feature anything from Broadway show tunes to classical concertos to a Bob Dylan tribute.

"I don't play any 50 Cent or rap," he laughed. "There are certain types of music that work fine on a theater organ, and other types that don't."

When the Juneau-Douglas Class of 1944 was in town for a reunion, MacKinnon put together a 15-minute medley of tunes popular in those times.

"That seemed to mean a lot to those folks," he said. He also tailors his programs to school groups, including Disney songs and sing-alongs for the younger crowd.

When he's not playing the Kimball organ, MacKinnon serves as the director of music at Northern Lights Church, and also occasionally plays the carillon bells at the Sealaska Building. Born and raised in Juneau, MacKinnon started playing piano at age seven and the organ at age 14. After receiving his arts degree at Sheldon Jackson College, he earned a bachelor of music degree from Westminster Choir College of Ryder University.

"I think it's nice to interest the younger folks in playing, especially since across the country, there's been a downturn in the number of organists, and in people entering the music field in general," MacKinnon said. "There are also fewer and fewer theater organs available to play in public buildings-to the best of my knowledge, this is the only state office building that has an operational pipe organ that was built for a theater in place."

MacKinnon is happy to play special requests, which often include the National Anthem and the Alaska Flag Song, as well as tributes to those in the service.

"When I was asked to put together a tribute to Bob Dylan, I said, 'okay, but I ain't singing,'" he laughed.

Fortunately for the people of Juneau and the guests who come to our city, for the past 29 years, MacKinnon has continued to play.

"Sometimes you volunteer to do something, and after awhile, it becomes like a job, even though you're not getting paid," he said. "But it's still fun. If it stopped being fun, I wouldn't do it."