As audiences arrive for the Miss America Competition preliminaries and finals next week, they will be greeted by a sound that has not been heard live in decades.
The partially restored Midmer-Losh organ, the largest pipe organ in the world, will be played during the 10-minute preshow by Steven Ball, the hall’s new official organist and a self-proclaimed “guardian and spokesman” for the massive instrument.
The first piece he performs will be appropriate: a march written in 1927 by John Philip Sousa titled “The Atlantic City Pageant March.”
“The march, the organ and the pageant are all being reunited this year in Atlantic City,” Ball said. “It’s just outstanding.”
Although it is only about 30 percent restored, Ball promises the organ’s sound will be impressive.
“It’s heart-stopping,” he said. “It is the most remarkable instrument.”
What may be most remarkable is that the organ still exists at all. Built between 1929 and 1932 by the Midmer-Losh Organ Co. of Long Island, the 150-ton instrument was literally built into Boardwalk Hall, concealed behind gilded grillwork to create the original version of surround-sound.
The organ was damaged by flooding during the 1944 hurricane and became a victim of benign neglect as the hall deteriorated. It was further damaged during the restoration of Boardwalk Hall in 2000 but has since been under the care of the nonprofit Historic Organs Restoration Committee.
Curator Carl Loeser has managed the restoration of the Midmer-Losh and the smaller Kimball pipe organ. With the first part of the restoration complete, the Restoration Committee is preparing for the next phase of fund-raising, a 10-year, $16 million campaign to fully restore both organs.
Ball, a Fulbright scholar and renowned organist, said he had to do his own transcription to convert the Sousa march from a piece for a full marching band to one for the organ, but he promises it was worth the effort.
“The organ has a strong personality,” he said. “We’ve been waking it up for the last month or so. It is a national treasure.”
The organ was used during Miss America pageants in the 1930s. Sharon Pearce, president of the Miss America Organization, said they are excited to have it be part of this year’s events.
“It is fitting that the return of Miss America to its original home in Atlantic City will correspond with the rebirth of another vital symbol of the destination,” she said.
For those who can’t make it to Miss America, free concerts and half-hour tours of the organ will be held at Boardwalk Hall at noon weekdays starting in May 2014.
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