PITTSBURG -- The console is just about ready, and the next step is to restore the pipes of a theater organ that once accompanied silent movies shown at the 1920-era California Theatre.

The labor of love, which is being financed by private donations collected by a Pittsburg nonprofit, began in January.

Much work remains to restore the Robert Morton organ, and more money needs to be raised before the sounds of the spectacular instrument can again fill the recently restored theater, said Tom LaFleur, of Pacific Community Services Inc., which is leading the effort to bring the organ back home.

While the better-known Wurlitzer organ may get all the glory, Robert Morton organs are no second fiddles.

Dave Moreno, of Sacramento, technician and organist, works on the console of a 1928 pipe organ in Pittsburg on Oct. 30, 2013. The organ, which was
Dave Moreno, of Sacramento, technician and organist, works on the console of a 1928 pipe organ in Pittsburg on Oct. 30, 2013. The organ, which was originally in the Pittsburg California Theatre, is being refurbished and returned to the theater on Railroad Avenue. (Susan Tripp Pollard/Staff)

"This is a very powerful professional theater organ. ... They are not as well-known or as glamorous as the Wurlitzers, but they were more powerful and more sophisticated in orchestration," LaFleur said in the nonprofit's offices, where the backroom has been turned into an organ-restoration workshop and the console is on display in the front window.

"Wurlitzers are wonderful organs. They are very beautiful and a lot prettier. ... The Morton is a workhorse," he said. Kind of like the Golden Gate and Oakland Bay Bridge.

The organ made its debut at the California Theatre in 1928 (it was brought in as an upgrade to another theater organ), the year before those talkies came along and killed the silent movies. It stayed in the theater until 1948, when it was sold to an Oakland church. Three years ago, the city purchased it for $15,000, with the understanding that private funds would have to be raised to restore it.

The restoration work is being done by Dave Moreno, of Sacramento.

"It is rare that a theater organ that comes out of a theater goes back in the (same) theater," said Moreno, who also plays the theater organ at the Bob Hope Theatre in Stockton.

"Theater organs are almost nonexistent. The only ones we have in our area (are) the Paramount in Oakland and the Grand Lake, the Castro in San Francisco and the Berkeley Community Center," he said.

Not only does a theater organ make orchestral sounds through its pipes, it can make percussion sounds and imitate the sounds of a galloping horse, a train, a Model T car horn, sleigh bells, castanets and other sound effects all controlled by an organist using keys on the console and working the foot pedals.

"They were designed to play like an orchestra. Theater management was very cheap and thought, 'Why should I pay an orchestra when I can have one (organ player) do all the work?'" Moreno said.

To date, about $25,000 has been raised for the restoration effort, which LaFleur figures will run around $100,000. About $21,000 has been spent so far, mostly on electrical and interior work inside the California Theatre so that the organ and its components can be reinstalled.

Once everything is in place, including a blower in the basement and pipes behind decorative grills on each side near the front of the stage, the console will rise from below the stage, just as it did decades ago when silent films were shown.

But before that can happen, additional interior work in the theater needs to be done, including restoring the estimated 1,000 pipes that are currently in storage at the Enean Theatre also in Pittsburg, which, unlike the California Theatre, did not get restored.

If fundraising and restoration work stay on track, it's possible the organ could be ready for a long-awaited encore by the end of next year. "A theater organ like this is an incredible instrument," LaFleur said.

Contact Eve Mitchell at 925-779-7189. Follow her on Twitter.com/EastCounty_Girl.

TO HELP
To make a donation, call Tom LaFleur at Pacific Community Services Inc. at 925-439-1056.
Make checks to PCSI with a notation for the Organ Project:
Pacific Community Services Inc., 329 Railroad Ave., Pittsburg, CA 94565. For more information, go to www.californiatheatreorgan.org.