Heart of Louisiana: Pipe Organ at the Strand

Updated: Oct. 11, 2016 at 7:45 PM CDT
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SHREVEPORT, LA (WVUE) - - As organist at the First United Methodist Church in Shreveport, Ray Peebles is the master of the largest pipe organ in Louisiana.

"It has over 6,000 pipes," Peebles said. "From the smallest pipe, the size of a pencil, to the lowest the 32, shakes the whole place.

On this church organ, Peebles plays religious and classical music. But he has also performed on the aging theater organ at the impressive Strand Theater a few blocks away.

There are a few recordings of musicians playing the Strand's organ. When the theater opened about the same time that many of the nation's grand theaters were being built, silent movies were the new rage and the theaters had an organist who added music to the movie experience. One of those movie palaces is the Strand in Shreveport.

"So if you had a train coming you might hear or a car even, you might have that going on or you might hear a scary part going on you may go," Peebles said.

The Strand's original Robert Morton pipe organ also has percussion instruments – drums and cymbals – all activated through the organ's keyboard. The 2,500 seat Strand, nicknamed the "million-dollar theater," was once the flagship for the Saenger brothers, who operated a chain of 320 theaters across the South.

"Two years after she was built, they moved their operations to New Orleans," Elaine Bradley said.

Bradley helps manage the Strand, which was restored to its original glory in the 1980s.

Our chandelier, the main chandelier is huge," Bradley said. "It's 8 feet wide and 14 feet tall."

But below the stage, in the corner of the basement, the theater organ gathers dust. Its pipes are silent. It was sometime in the 1990s when the organ in this theater stopped working. And it will take a lot of repair before that organ can be played again.

By the 1930s, talking movies were abundant and so they were no longer needed," Bradley said. "So she was used probably for only about five years or so and then kind of left to the side because the movies were providing their own sound.

There are currently no plans to restore the organ. The non-profit that runs the Strand uses all of its resources to maintain this aging palace of the arts.

"We believe here at the Strand that the arts add something to life that we just don't want to lose," Bradley said.

But listening to this church organ, you can imagine how grand it must have been to watch your first motion picture and hear it come to life through the organ pipes at the Strand.

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