Triumphs & Trials of an Organ Builder
As Allen Organ continued to build upon its innovation, growth, and reputation during the 1960s and 1970s, we occasionally crossed paths with one of the world's top organists-Virgil Fox.
Mr. Fox played recitals on Allen Organs during this period. Subsequently, he made periodic visits to our factory. I remember how vibrant and "bigger than life" he was-filled with ideas and dreams. During this time, he dropped enough hints that I'm quite sure he wanted us to "loan" him an Allen Organ. He was dreaming about going on tour with a "portable" organ. He wanted to bring the organ to the people in a non-conventional, dramatic way. I just couldn't give in to his wish to have a permanent Allen "loaner" organ. I was concerned that such a special arrangement would be perceived as being contrived-as though we were trying to "buy" Fox's endorsement. So, during the 1960s and early 1970s, we had to be satisfied with occasional keep-in-touch visits. It wasn't until 1976, that we became more closely associated with this outstanding performer.
Virgil Fox did, of course, become a "touring" organist. During the late 1960s and into the 1970s, he toured using an electronic organ from another company which, I believe, he rented or borrowed. He popularized much of the organ literature as he appeared at colleges, theaters, churches, music halls, and "rock palaces" occasionally. He was especially interested in appealing to young people; therefore, he developed his "act" with this in mind. His young audience wanted light shows and smoke bombs, and that's exactly what he gave them in addition to his superb organ playing. To say he was unique is an understatement. For his efforts, he was rewarded with an army of loyal, vocally-appreciative supporters.
In 1976, Virgil Fox decided to buy his own touring organ and chose a new digital computer instrument from Allen. The organ was to include an imposing, four-manual console which was hardly portable. Yet, virtuoso Fox felt he needed this weighty console to achieve the proper effect at his concerts. He was very much a part of the design team from the beginning. I recall many a late-evening telephone call from Virgil Fox during the construction of the organ. We chatted about his most recent ideas for enhancing the success of the instrument. These conversations were always stimulating because of the boundless excitement and enthusiasm in his voice. This enthusiasm rubbed off on all of us working on the project. Someone came up with the idea of designing a special stop just for him. We secretly installed this special stop on the organ and revealed it to him at the appropriate time. It was called the "Fox Humana." He was delighted.
As Virgil Fox's organ neared completion, we realized that the instrument would be of interest to the dealers who would be attending the upcoming 1977 sales seminar. I asked Mr. Fox how he felt about our showing the new instrument to our dealers. He was not only enthusiastic about it but he wanted to participate. So, we set up the organ in a remote place in the factory. We wanted to surprise everybody. We didn't tell anyone that Virgil Fox was personally going to demonstrate the organ at the Seminar. At the appointed hour during the Seminar, we ushered the dealers into the factory in front of the draped console. Shortly thereafter we unveiled the Virgil Fox touring organ to the approving applause from our audience. As we pretended to begin the demonstration, Virgil Fox came stomping in shouting, "Don't touch that organ! it's mine!" There was an instant eruption of cheers at the sight of Fox himself racing down the aisle to claim the keys and stops of his very own touring organ. It was a moment few organ enthusiasts could ever forget.
With his new Allen Organ, Virgil Fox gave his first public concert on October 1, 1977, at Hackensack High School in New Jersey. In the next few years, until his untimely death on October 25, 1980, he gave at least sixty performances on his travelling Allen. He played wherever people wanted to hear him-Macomb, Illinois; Saranac Lake, New York; Wolf Trap; Academy of Music in Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; Brooklyn College; Saratoga, New York; and Victoria, Texas, to name a few.
Fox used a special truck to transport the organ to his many concert sites. On one of these trips, the truck was involved in a bad accident in New Mexico. Let's let Virgil tell us about it himself by referring to the following replication of a letter I received from him about the incident.
9 LAGOMAR ROAD
PALM BEACH, FLORIDA 334BO
May 28, 1980
Mr. Jerome Markowitz
Allen Organ Company
Macungie, Pa. 18062
Although it has been our policy, because of my position as a concert organist playing all makes of instruments, to never endorse an organ (even though I own one), I feel that I must write to you now and share our feelings about the incredible experience we endured several weeks ago.
As I related to you on the telephone, our touring organ that you so beautifully custom made for me was enroute to a performance in San Antonio. A driver pulled onto the road in front of our truck in Lordsburg, New Mexico, sending it down and into the ditch.
We were shocked and frightened to learn that the truck had rolled over and we anticipated the worst when we heard that the technician had been pinned inside for nearly an hour with gasoline pouring in on him as the vehicle lay upside down on its roof. The windshield was removed by a passerby and in due course he was rescued, shaken but otherwise unhurt.
The truck was completely destroyed and we expected that that would be the same story with the organ.
The organ was ultimately loaded into a U-Haul truck and brought to San Antonio where we waited for it on stage. After taking stock of the damage that was visible, we hesitatingly connected everything up and were delighted beyond all possible imagination when the instrument actually played without any trouble.
Jerome, this is nothing short of a near miracle when one considers that the console and computer sections came to rest in the wreck in an upside down position with the keyboards hanging free and the stop jams knocked out of alignment, I thought computers were delicate!
While we would like to take a portion of the credit for the fact that the instrument survived the crash inasmuch as we requested from the Allen Organ Company that they take certain steps in the building of this instrument to make it more durable for touring, we must, however, say that the end result of surviving this crash comes to bear upon the fact that it was designed and built superbly.
I would also like to tell you that I am pleased as I travel about the country and have exposure to other Allen products, as I have seen the same care and attention going into these instruments that has been incorporated into mine. Although I would like to believe I was given preferred treatment at the Allen Organ Company with regards to workmanship, I have come to appreciate the fact that the same quality seems to go into every instrument although I would not recommend every owner of an Allen Organ run it through a truck wreck to bear this fact out.
You are to be congratulated, Jerome, as well as all the technicians who worked on my instrument and I must say that the organ has truly passed the "touring organ" test in respect to both tone quality and dependability. The computer tone generation system of the instrument has been an enormous asset to the successful production of our concerts.
We never cease to be approached at all concerts by people who are delighted with my choice of organs, specifically the Allen, for our touring instrument. It is a joy to play. The state-of-the-art reverberation systems, digital delay and the voicing techniques that you have employed provide us with a continued spirit of adventure as we move from one auditorium to another.
Nevertheless without meaning to get off the track, I wish to again tell you that I am still in a state of amazement and joy realizing that this great instrument, which has been seen by so many people and enjoyed by so many could, after three years on the road come right through such a calamity, although dusty and bruised, working perfectly suitable for a concert.
I want to tell you [and] all those who worked on this organ because most certainly your company deserves the credit for building such a wonderful organ for me.
Warmest regards as always,
P. S. Feel free to use this letter.
cc: Virgil Fox Society
I got to know Virgil Fox on a first-name basis during his visits. On one occasion he even came to my home to practice. He was scheduled to give a concert in our area and needed an organ for practice in the late evening hours. He called me asking to use the organ in my home, which was amenable to me. I remember that after he finished practicing, we had the most marvelous discussion covering many diverse topics. What a walking bundle of enthusiasm!
As far back as 1976 when Virgil and I were discussing the possibility of our building his touring organ, I sensed that he was afflicted with some kind of ailment. However, I did not know what it was or how serious it might be. Nevertheless, he seemed to be performing quite admirably. However, watching him over the following few years gave me the feeling that his illness was getting progressively worse. We later learned that he had cancer. He phoned me at home one evening in early 1980. As I was away at the time, he spoke to my wife, Martha. Virgil asked her whether she knew of anyone or anything that might give him some hope in battling this terrible disease. This was a very difficult, sobering conversation, indeed.
Our staff and I derived much satisfaction from our experiences and meetings with Virgil Fox. We were all profoundly saddened when this colorful artist died in the Fall, 1980.