Triumphs & Trials of an Organ Builder
Getting to First Base
I had managed to make contact with the ball, so to speak, by devising and patenting a stable oscillator, enabling me to build experimental models of the electronic organ. In actual ball playing, the base running occurs in a matter of seconds. However, in the game of business, running the bases can take months, even years. This is where I "was" back in the late 1930s in Allentown; trying to find and get to first base after my initial success.
After my parents moved to Allentown, in 1937, I took over their basement where I set up a workshop to work on my organ venture. I was filled with excitement and all kinds of ideas. Periodically, I made trips to the Masonic Temple in Allentown to rent time on their pipe organ. As I recall, they charged a rather modest fee. This service was set up in order for organists to be able to get their hands on an organ for practice. It was ideal for my purposes, also. I was able to learn much about how organs are supposed to work and how they are supposed to sound through this hands-on experience.
Because of the great complexity of most organs, my projects came to require more work than I could do by myself in a reasonable time. I was able to get help from George Ehrig, a fellow ham radio enthusiast from Allentown. At that time, getting help was relatively easy because the country was still in the grip of the Depression, and people were quite happy to help out for whatever I could afford to pay them.
Actually, the Depression influenced my progress in several ways. As I just mentioned, I needed assistance to capitalize on my ideas; luckily for me, good people were available. I also needed parts and materials. I knew that some of the items I needed were probably lying unused somewhere because of the economic conditions. With this in mind, I became rather adept at sniffing out sources of supply. For example, I remember obtaining an unfinished organ console from a pipe organ builder in New Jersey. He was happy to unload it for a few dollars; I was happy to latch on to it to keep the venture rolling.
On the electronics end, I needed large, air-core coils for the oscillators. Today, it could take months to fulfill an order for these special coils. There would have to be specifications written, quotations sought, purchase orders issued, lead times to consider, invoices to process, etc. However, back in the late 1930s, things were different. To get my coils, I drove to New York City to a shop where these large coils could be wound. The owners, two brothers, had few orders. Therefore, on the drive to New York I merely made some intelligent guesses as to the number of turns and, when I got to the shop, simply described what I wanted. They wound my coils as I waited and took what I was able to pay after which I left for Allentown with the coils in hand.
The Depression also had negative influences on my getting around the bases. In the early phases of this inventive effort, the idea of becoming a manufacturer of organs could not be seriously considered. I didn't have the resources to manufacture consoles, to obtain mechanical and electronic parts, or to obtain all the assembly required. I thought of myself primarily as an inventor experimenting in a basement workshop with a lot of surplus radio parts. In fact, an article about me appeared in the Allentown Evening Chronicle of July 10, 1939. One of the reporters for the newspaper was an amateur organist. He heard about my work through the organists' "grapevine" and thought it would produce an interesting article. I was glowingly referred to as a "22-year-old Alexander Graham Bell". This was all enormously gratifying to me. However, deep down I realized that such accolades would be short-lived; any lasting success in following through on my electronic organ idea had to rest on a firmer foundation in the commercial world, Depression or not.
Because of my lack of resources, I tried to get some established organ manufacturers interested in producing an organ based on my ideas. I remember visiting people from the following companies: M.P. Moeller, Aeolian Skinner, and Kilgen Organ Company. The reception I received was generally cool except for Kilgen, where representatives were initially enthusiastic. I even had fairly serious discussions with the President, Eugene Kilgen. Ultimately, nothing ever came out of them. Perhaps the long Depression had drained the spirit of adventure from these established companies. I also tried to get something going with several piano companies, but I soon realized that although pianos and organs are both keyboard instruments, their manufacturers are worlds apart. The piano people could not help me either. It became clear that I would have to continue driving this venture on my own.
Prior to producing a full-size organ, I built two abbreviated instruments; one with an accordion keyboard and a larger unit including forty-nine, piano-type keys. I moved the larger unit to the Hotel New Yorker in New York City and invited various people from companies that were established in that area to view the instrument. However, nothing tangible resulted from these demonstrations.
At some point during this time frame, the possibility of using an empty section of my father's textile factory arose. Meanwhile, he had become accustomed to my "tinkering". Because the basement of our home was becoming crowded, I opted for the factory; this turned out to be a good move. The factory maintenance man, Norman Koons, proved to have innumerable mechanical skills. Together, we designed an organ console on paper; Norman was convinced he could build the console. I knew that I needed to somehow assemble a serious organ; one that could be played like a pipe organ, one that would sound like a pipe organ, one that I might even sell! Well, I gave Norman the go-ahead to build the console, and he did an amazingly professional job. Allen Organ No. 1 was underway. His sixteen-year-old son, Norman Koons, Jr., joined the team as an after-school helper and proved to be quite adept at following the circuit diagrams and doing the wiring and other electronic construction tasks. Within six months, we had the first, complete, demonstration organ using electronic oscillators. I decided to call it the "Allen Organ" after Allentown.
In anticipation of completing the demo organ, I had prepared a brochure. So, as soon as the organ was finished, I put on my salesman's hat, prepared myself for some selling, and took to the street. One prospect was the St. Catharine of Siena Roman Catholic Church in Allentown. They had a "pump" organ, and I thought I might have a chance at convincing the Rev. Hugh McMullan to give up this old reed organ in favor of the revolutionary, new, electronic organ. My sales pitch must have struck the right chord because the pastor of St. Catharine of Siena bought that first Allen in early 1940. In retrospect, I am amazed that Rev. McMullan took a chance on replacing the venerable reed organ with a radically different, unproven piece of equipment. He might have viewed the instrument as just another newfangled contraption and summarily dismissed it. Happily, he liked what he saw and heard; the organ was installed shortly thereafter. I am gratified to know that this first Allen reliably served that congregation for many years until 1953 when St. Catharine's moved to a newly built cathedral next door. Moreover, our relationship with this Church did not end there; but more on that later.
Shortly after the first Allen was installed at St. Catharine's I received an expression of interest from Ray Trainer, the proprietor of Trainer's Restaurant in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. Trainer's was a large and very popular place located a few miles south of Allentown. Part of their formula for success hinged on the broad appeal of their organ entertainment. They had an Everett Orgatron at the time. The Orgatron was an instrument, based on a vibrating reed principle, which sounded somewhat like a melodion. After some hard bargaining, a deal was struck; the second Allen organ went to Trainer's. The organist, Bill Andrews, seemed delighted.
By late 1941, I had taken a third order, from Temple Keneseth Israel in Allentown, for an electronic organ to replace a twenty-five-year-old pipe organ which had seen better days. But before the delivery of this instrument could be accomplished in early 1942, a cataclysmic event occurred. The news of it came to me over my car radio. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. A tiny country half way around the world had managed to shake the very foundations of our mighty nation, not to mention my fledgling operation. The Keneseth Israel organ would be completed, but it was quite clear that my electronic organ venture would have to be mothballed. By spring, 1942, World War II was upon us, and I became employed by the military as a civilian electronics engineer.
I had gotten to first base all right, but the game was postponed because of forces way beyond my control. Fortunately, the story does not end here. Our country survived; I survived. The project would resume.