Profile of the Mighty Barton Organ!

The original organ installed in the Al. Ringling Theatre was a Style 1, Opus 9202 Hope Jones unit. Manufactured by the Wurlitzer Co., the instrument was purchased from their San Francisco showrooms and shipped to Baraboo in September 1915. The six tons of wooden and metal organ pipes, as well as the full-size percussion and sound effects instruments, had to be hauled up by block and tackle to the pipe chamber located three stories above the stage. This unusual placement was Al. Ringling’s idea. Making use of the elliptical auditorium’s natural acoustics, it created the impression that the music was coming from the dome of the theatre in all directions. He also¬†had a roll-playing device attached to the instrument so the organ could be played mechanically if a suitable organist could not be found.

The “Mighty Barton” features 597 pipes, plus drums, bells, wood blocks, bird calls and thunder. It was used to accompany silent films, and for concerts and musical prologues for live performances. In 1928, the Wurlitzer was replaced with one manufactured by the Barton Co. of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Barton organs, famous for their tonal beauty, had been installed in many leading theatres across the country. Company founder Dan Barton was a musician who had toured with chautauquas, carnivals, and with the Ringling Brothers Circus, which may be why the console style used in the theatre is referred to as the “circus wagon.” Its lavish carvings and red and gold coloring are certainly reminiscent of the wagons that the Ringling Brothers Circus used! Shortly after it was installed, talking pictures debuted at the theatre, with permanent sound equipment added in 1929 making use of the organ much less frequent. Also at that time, the Great Depression made it almost impossible for most people to attend professional stage shows. The new Barton continued to give Sunday concerts and provide musical prologues to movie showings. The instrument was used even less frequently until the mid-1940s, when it was retired and used only for special occasions.

Dirk_Topham-WFE3-webThe organ gradually fell into disrepair, and by the late 1960s, was barely usable. In the early 70s, a group of dedicated volunteers began restoring the Barton to its original glory.