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When This Island Organ Plays, It's A Step Back In Time

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In the historic casino on Santa Catalina Island, off the coast of Los Angeles, a grand old organ has been entertaining theater-goers for almost 85 years.


Off the coast of Southern California, on Santa Catalina Island, the vacation town of Avalon is celebrating its 100th birthday this summer. NPR's Kirk Siegler paid a visit and he met a man who keeps once piece of the town's history alive.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: On the hour, tourists in wide-brimmed hats pulling roller suitcases empty off the ferries and cruise ships and onto Avalon's waterfront Crescent Avenue. Walk past the kids playing on the crowded little beach, past the sailboats bobbing, past the lobster trap grill, and you can't miss the island's signature landmark, it's historic art deco casino building; circular in shape, shiny white with a red-tiled roof 12 stories high.

JOHN TUSAK: No security here.

SIEGLER: Inside the casino's perfectly preserved theater, John Tusak is opening up the grand organ for his once a day check of the pipes.

TUSAK: I can hear it starting to breathe now.

SIEGLER: The organ console is as big as a smart car. Four rows of keys and three more rows of stops and levers. Everything encased in intricately decorated bronze. When Tusak sits down to play, it's a step back in time.


TUSAK: It was originally intended for to replace a whole orchestra for the silent pictures. This is a self-contained orchestra. It has, like, drums, cymbal crashes, a really wild car horn.


SIEGLER: This organ was installed when the theater and casino were built in 1928. It was the vision of William Wrigley Jr., the Chicago chewing gum magnate, who developed the island.

MICHELLE BESTUDIK: He felt like much of the American public did, that talkies weren't going to last.

SIEGLER: Island historian Michelle Bestudik says Wrigley was obviously proven wrong, but the organ, it stayed, and it's been a crowd pleaser ever since.

BESTUDIK: It's kind of a dying art, so your younger people like John and others that are, you know, realize what an art it is and they've picked it back up and, you know, the audiences are still thrilled by it.

SIEGLER: Tusak used to play the organ in the historic Orpheum Theater in downtown L.A.

TUSAK: Yeah, well, I came over on a day trip. I was born just north of Long Beach and had never come to Catalina until 1998 on a day trip and I fell in love and been here ever since.

SIEGLER: Sort of how the lyrics go to the classic, "Avalon."


NAT KING COLE: (Singing) I found my love in Avalon beside the bay.

SIEGLER: Nat King Cole famously sang it. Now Tusak plays it during tours, summer nights on the weekend before the movies, mostly talkies. Kirk Siegler, NPR News.


MARTIN: This is NPR News.


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