There’s a faint sound of air rushing through the theater organ before it bursts out in song.
This sound is a whole network of pipes taking a singular breath. At the drop of a hand, The Mighty Wurlitzer lights up with a symphonic complexity unmatched by any single instrument.
Inside the Fargo Theatre, music lovers defrost over their lunch break while getting in the holiday spirit with some classics.
The Holiday Pipes series of free concerts at the downtown Fargo venue kicked off for 2019 last week and will continue this week with noon performances from Red River Theatre Organ Society (RRATOS) members on Wednesday, Dec. 18, through Friday, Dec. 20, to benefit the Emergency Food Pantry by asking attendees to donate a canned food item.
The concerts first started in the late 1970s as a platform for chapter members to take their seats at the tufted bench and rise up from the stage pit. Since then, these concerts have been an entry point for many musicians young and old.
A storied musician and house organist, Lance Johnson is in his element behind the four sets of keyboards, activating 32 sets of pipes tucked behind the art deco walls of the theater.
“I had a piano background and the thing you have to do is learn the pedals. It took quite a while before I got proficient at it,” Johnson says about his first experience with the organ at age 15, joking, “I have a disadvantage because I have big feet.”
Inside the historic venue, it’s not hard to imagine the legacy of the pipe organ. With the future of organ pipes in jeopardy across the nation, Johnson almost single-handedly repaired the incredibly complex instrument consisting of more than 2,000 pipes and uplifted the local culture.
As a founding member of the local chapter, Johnson grew up in Fergus Falls, Minn. He studied organ at Concordia College in Moorhead and graduated in 1964. The next year, RRATOS chartered with 10 people, and the group has worked to make organ music a staple of the arts ever since. This includes over 40 years of partnership with the Emergency Food Pantry.
“There’s so many homeless that need it so bad and we’re just glad we could help,” Johnson says about the organization’s philanthropic efforts.
Especially at this time of year, many families turn to the community.
“We see families struggling with day-to-day food, so it feels neat that the arts are filling that need,” says Stacie Loegering, executive director of the Emergency Food Pantry, who coincidentally dabbled in the pipe organ when she was young. Her professional experience includes over 20 years of working for nonprofit organizations connecting resources to families.
“Most people think of shelter and food as necessities, but we also think about those traditions and work to enhance overall quality of life,” she says. “Many families still yearn to be able to get gifts or enjoy that special meal, those things can become almost unreachable.”
A growing group of young members are taking the pipes into their own hands and extending the legacy of the Mighty Wurlitzer into the foreseeable future thanks to Michael Olson. He’s the minister of music at First Lutheran Church in downtown Fargo and currently teaches organ to nine other students.
Other RRATOS members performing during the Holiday Pipes series include Dillon Swanson, Alex Swanson and Ryan Hardy. Elected in 2015, Hardy serves as the president of the organization. He studies music education at North Dakota State University and oversees the organization’s operations.
He is a four-time finalist in the International Young Theatre Organist Competition and has competed in Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Tampa and Los Angeles. His 10 years of experience with the pipe organ all started at church in the sixth grade.
“The most rewarding part [of being president] is seeing an event go from the idea stage to actually happening and having an audience to enjoy it,” says Hardy. “Like with these concerts, we watched it grow from the planning stage in November to now with newspeople showing up, and it’s really fun to see people get excited about the theater organ.”
Like many other local organ enthusiasts, their passion for the endearing instrument all was sparked within the walls of the Fargo Theatre. New member Dillon Swanson explains he first got involved after attending one of the theater’s Silent Movie Nights, and he’s been active since.
“They have to come and tell us they like the organ and we go from there,” Johnson says about how young members can get involved.
It also starts with a bit of behind-the-scenes magic, getting to see the inner workings of the living, breathing pipe organ.
“We start by taking them on a tour of the organ in the chambers and go from there,” Johnson says.
What: Holiday Pipes concert series
When: Noon Dec. 18-20
Where: Fargo Theatre, 314 Broadway N.
Info: Open to all ages, and admission is free with a recommended canned food donation; rratos.org
This article is part of a content partnership with the Fargo Forum and appeared in print on Monday December 16, 2019.