The Cost Of Playing At Radio City Music Hall

One man loves playing the pipe organ so much that he paid $120,000 to perform on a famous Wurlitzer organ. He cashed out savings to cover the cost of renting the hall and sold tickets for $50 a piece.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

You know the old joke, how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. But the way to get to Radio City Music Hall, at least for one retired Air Force colonel, turns out to be $118,182.44, all to realize his childhood dream of playing the famous hall's massive Wurlitzer pipe organ.

NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER: Colonel Jack Moelmann has played big organs all over the country. One of the second-largest Wurlitzers is in Saint Louis, where he currently lives, and he has played organs in England and Italy and all over the U.S. But playing this organ in Radio City Music Hall was different. And when he first sat down to play it last Thursday…

Colonel JACK MOELMANN (Retired Air Force Colonel, Organ Enthusiast): It was overwhelming. It's like somebody that owned a Cessna, a little airplane, and all of a sudden had to pilot a 747.

ADLER: Moelmann grew up in Oak Park, Illinois and started playing piano when he was eight. At 14, he experienced the theatre organ for the first time. The concert organ you hear in churches is different from theatre organs that were developed to accompany silent films and that allow you to create a whole orchestra. That's the kind in Radio City. That organ has 4,000 pipes, two consoles and four keyboards.

The president of the Theatre Organ Society International, Gus Franklin, and Nelson Page, also active in the group, wanted to figure out a way to play at Radio City, but it wasn't happening. The idea to use his own money from bonds and savings came to Moelmann, he says, while shaving.

Col. MOELMANN: I got up in the morning, looked in the mirror and I said, we're going to go for it. These other people I talked to said, you're nuts. But I said, let's go for it. We had to face it down a little bit.

ADLER: His original idea was to have more organs, drummers, even the Rockettes. The hall seats 6,000 people and only about a third of the orchestra section was full Saturday evening. Nelson Page, the master of ceremonies, said about 800 tickets were sold for $50 apiece.

(Soundbite of music)

ADLER: Rehearsing was difficult. Moelmann brought four other organists. There are two consoles, and communicating between the two sometimes meant talking by cell phone or shouting across the hall.

Col. MOELMANN: You missed it.

ADLER: The two consoles are about a block apart.

Col. MOELMANN: Hey, you missed it.

ADLER: As the performance neared, outside on the line were many of Moelmann's friends, including Joanne Gladfelter(ph), who flew in from Springfield, Illinois, and Don Near(ph), who flew in from Los Angeles.

Ms. JOANNE GLADFELTER (Moelmann's Friend): I was with him today. He sent the money to Radio City Music Hall to rent the hall. I went right home and ordered my plane fare.

Mr. DON NEAR (Moelmann's Friend): I think it's going to be fantastic.

ADLER: When Moelmann, who was 67, appeared in a white jacket, he had to maneuver himself with some difficulty up and down off a high chair to speak to the audience, cracking jokes with a dry sense of humor.

Col. MOELMANN: I'm glad you're all here. We're going to have a great time. I've got other friends of mine who are wonderful organists. They really play better than I do because they've told me.

ADLER: He introduced a program of Broadway show tunes, patriotic songs, and some unexpected surprises, like the "Rubber Duckie" song from "Sesame Street."

(Soundbite of song "Rubber Duckie")

ADLER: In the end, he got a standing ovation. And when asked what was next on his list to achieve, he had only this to say.

Col. MOELMANN: Go home and go to bed.

ADLER: Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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