PUBLISHED: 4:47 PM on Wednesday, July 9, 2008
80 years of music
JUNEAU - Step into the State Office Building during the noon hour on a Friday and you'll hear strains of music from pipes older than the state itself. This year marks the 80th birthday of the Kimball pipe organ, the last intact theatre organ in Alaska.

The organ was first installed at the Coliseum theatre, W.D. Gross' original movie theater in Juneau, in 1928.

When W.D. Gross placed an order for a theatre organ in 1927, he also placed an order for an organist. He was concerned that the organist would stick to the silent movie cues and not improvise. He also was concerned about the organist staying sober.

Katie Spielberger photo
  J. Allan MacKinnon plays the Kimball theatre organ during one of his noon concerts. He has played the very same organ for nearly 50 years. The organ is now housed at the State Office Building in downtown Juneau, its home since the mid-1970s. MacKinnon was a student of Carol Beery Davis, the original organist who started playing the Kimball organ in 1928.
"For God's sake don't send me a drunk," W.D. Gross wrote to a Kimball representative in Seattle.

The Kimball's first organist, Carol Beery Davis, must have far exceeded W.D. Gross's expectations. She played at the Coliseum Theatre for six years and trained a new generation of organists, including J. Allan MacKinnon.

MacKinnon has now been playing the Kimball organ for nearly fifty years. In the early 60's he worked as a "doorman" for Gross' 20th Century Theatre downtown. He'd been taking piano lessons since age seven and started studying the organ with Carol Beery Davis.

"I got interested in the (Kimball) organ," he said. "(I'd) play before or in between movies ... just for the heck of it."

In 1970, Miles and Letha Remley purchased the organ and in 1975 they donated it to the Sate of Alaska as a museum piece to be installed in a public place. A "Save the Organ" campaign raised the $30,000 needed to restore and install the Kimball in the State Office Building.

In the late 70's and the 80's, there were quite a few organists who would regularly play the Kimball.

"There were almost enough to play five days a week," MacKinnon said.

Now, 80 years after Carol Beery Davis first arrived to be the Kimball's sole organist, one of her students has become as closely associated with the organ as she once was.

MacKinnon is the Kimball's last regular organist.

"Everyone (who used to play regularly) has either died, retired or left town," MacKinnon said.

MacKinnon can name a number of talented local organists, but most of them do not regularly play the Kimball. Aside from MacKinnon, Alice Branton is the organist Kimball aficionados might see most often these days.

During his own Friday noon concerts, MacKinnon plays pieces ranging from Bach to show tunes and movie themes. A few years ago he started playing a medley of service songs from the various branches of the U.S. military. Audience members stand when he breaks into the national anthem.

"I think people like to have a variety," he said.

As he plays, MacKinnon glances away from the sheet music to see who walks by. He usually sees a number of regulars, and the Friday concerts have been listed in enough visitor publications over the years to attract a steady stream of out-of-towners.

McKinnon noted that the audience at a recent concert included visitors from Australia, California, Michigan and Oregon, as well as a couple from British Columbia sailing Alaskan waters for two-months in their 33-ft sailboat.

There are usually children at MacKinnon's concerts. He often plays Disney pieces like the "Mickey Mouse Club" theme. He enjoys talking to children about music.

"When people bring their young people up ... they tell me what instrument they play. 'I play the violin.' 'I play the piano,'" MacKinnon said.

The children press their faces up to the glass case the houses the organ's 538 pipes. They watch MacKinnon's hands and feet maneuver the organ's keyboards, pedals and stops.

Perhaps one of them might become the organist that helps keep the Friday concerts going for another 80 years.