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History of Oaks Skating Music

From the many stories of Robert Bollinger comes one of the first live music for roller skating. When the skating rink opened, skaters had live music. Members of the O'Urbano band (mainly brass instruments) would walk to the center of the floor, climb a ladder to the band loft (centered above the skating surface), pull the ladder up and play. When Intermission came, the ladder would be lowered and the musicians to descended. In the loft they would chew tobacco, smoke and drink.

As time went on, the live band which played 2 nights per week was replaced with a large WurliTzer Band Organ (used for carousel music). This band organ was positioned close to where the present organ console is currently located.

About 1922, a two-manual William Wood console with five sets of pipes was installed. Its pipes glued along the North wall. Eventually, the Band Organ was moved to a museum in Seaside, Oregon.

Over a 30 year period, the William Wood was upgraded to a four-manual console with 13 sets of pipes. Mr. Wood, a Portland man, did all of the upgrading. In later years, Alex Gunther joined Mr. Wood in providing maintenance of the instrument. Around 1937, the organ pipes were moved to the platform above the center of the huge skating floor.

Helen Heppner at the Wm Wood 1934

Mr. Wood was a very good businessman. he went to the Mr. Brown (owner for the former Imperial Skating Rink), told him that The Oaks had a two-manual organ and asked if he wanted The Oaks to be one step ahead of the Imperial. Of course, the answer was "no" thus Mr. Wood sold a bigger organ to the Imperial. A short time after the Imperial installation was completed, Mr. Wood paid a visit to Edward Bollinger at The Oaks telling him of the bigger better organ that the Imperial had installed. Per Mr. Wood's plan, The Oaks upgraded their organ. Thus went the upgrades between the two rinks. The Wood organ was eventually sold to a couple who met at Oaks. They had it installed in their home on the Oregon coast.

In 1955, Robert Bollinger purchased 4-manual WurliTzer pipe organ from the Broadway Theater (where it was originally installed in July 1926). The sale price was between $5,000 and $6,000. Included in the sale was the stipulation that The Oaks would be responsible for removal of the instrument from the theater and installation at The Oaks. Thus the removal of 18 sets of pipes that consisted of 1,242 pipes 2,525 magnets, 4,700 pouches and over 500,000 feet of wire began.

During the moving process, the WurliTzer was set up and tested in the Dance Pavilion. At the same time, the raised platform in the skating rink was being enlarged and reinforced to support the added weight. An electronic Hammond Organ was used for skating music until these upgrades were completed.

Once the platform was ready, the WurliTzer was dismantled and reassembled in the skating rink. Alex Gunther and Walker LeRoy (Oaks ride superintendent) were instrumental in completing this move.

The pipes and other components were mounted, un-shuttered over the center of the skating surface. Although, this organ has been through 3 major floods it suffered minimal damage.

Over the years there have been many organists at The Oaks. Don Simmons was lead organist over 20 years. He was the last who carried on the tradition of talking and joking with the patrons while he played. There were times he was so into the conversation, he would forget what song he was playing. The skaters really never knew as he would bridge (what you hear between songs in medleys), ask the person he was talking with what he was playing then continue with the first song that came to mind.

Playing the pipe organ takes a special talent (i.e., The Oaks' WurliTzer has 2 notes per key so the musician has to know which key and how much pressure to apply). All notes can be reached from each level of keyboards. It takes a working knowledge of the instrument as well as ability to make repairs. In the case of the Oaks' WurliTzer, some parts are custom made by the musician who does the repairs. To play the WurliTzer is an act of love.

Rink organists are a special breed. In addition to playing, repairing and tuning the instrument, they have additional training to enable them to re-write songs to conform to the specific tempos for skate dancing (i.e., waltz, blues, boogie, cha cha, foxtrot, march, schottische, tango).

Over the years there were many people who played, cared for and tuned this instrument. Here are a few of those who kept pipes playing throughout the years.
Don Simmons circa 1960

Don loved this WurliTzer. For some reason, he thought someone was messing with the organ during the night. In effort to put an end to the "tampering", he spread some baby powder then sat all night with a baseball bat guarding the organ. That night marked the end of Don's concerns of tampering.

During the Old Timers' Nite, April 27, 1992, the WurliTzer was rededicated to Don Simmons.

It is only fitting that the following "happenings" be told. Shortly after Don passed away in 1985, his "presence" was so strong at least 3 organists mentioned the experience. Late one night, on one particular night the organist said "Goodnight, Don" as if he was standing right there.

1955 Dedication

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Updated 07.03.2015 |