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Enthusiasts restore world's largest theater organ at Carma Labs in Franklin

Posted at 11:09 AM, Mar 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-07 12:09:58-05

FRANKLIN, Wis. — In Franklin, Wisconsin, a giant piece of American history is being reclaimed.

A colossal composition lives inside the Carma Laboratories warehouse, the company that makes the lip balm Carmex.

"This is the largest theater organ in the world. It's been under construction for 13 years," says Paul Woelbing, President of Carmex Incorporated. "We have great acoustics. You're looking at a warehouse here that's roughly 40,000 square feet. That was the inspiration for building this organ."

It was Woelbing's idea to bring in the immense instrument. He says he's always loved organ music.

"The gateway drug for me back in the 1960s, my dad bought me a copy of 'Switched on Bach,'" he says.

Woelbing is not a musician — he's a music lover.

"I was an art teacher. I have an MFA in art. I taught art in high school, mainly painting, drawing, art sculpture etc," he says. "I also love mechanical stuff, old fashioned mechanics. This is the perfect thing."

And after more than a dozen years and 6,000 pipes, the mammoth makeover is almost complete.

"90 percent comes from dismantled organs over the past decade. Parts from 50 different instruments," Woelbing says.

And those parts are recycled from all over. The chimes are from a school in New Hampshire.

"It's magic!" Woelbing says, as the chimes ring. "The hair on my arms, not on my head, stands on end."

Woelbing is pulling out all the stops to save this art form.

"When people look at this, this large wooden box with the keys they think organ. This is actually the console," he says. "The organ is the 6,000 pipes you see around here. This is what allows the artist to access those."

Only a handful of American theater pipe organs have survived extinction. For those who know how to play them, the pipes and pedals provide unlimited range.

"We can do classical music, popular music, you name it. This instrument can do it," Woelbing says.

The organs were a mainstay in theaters in the early 1900s.

"These were specifically built for accompanying silent movies," says Woebling.

Restoring musical magic means millions of dollars. There's even a Steinway piano next to the organ that can become a player piano.

"It's a passion project of mine," Woelbing says. "It's actually something I pay for. I keep it here, it's not the company's. The acoustics are great. It's pricey, it costs several thousand dollars a year just to maintain and keep it going."

It may be a giant-scale investment, but it's not a moneymaker.

"You'll spend a couple of million dollars to build a major instrument. But that said, if I were to dismantle this and sell it, I'd probably get $10,000 for it."

But the American antique is invaluable. The repertoire of sound is a rhapsody of joy to organist Zach Frame.

"To have an instrument that has these kinds of capabilities, with this kind of tonal palate, there's only 5 or 6 instruments that are even close to this in the world," Frame says. "To have something like this in my backyard, I feel very lucky. It's not something you're going to see many other places!"

The public can even attend free concerts in the warehouse.

"This isn't something I do just for myself. To do it for yourself is meaningless," says Woelbling.

The American theater pipe organ is a throwback to yesterday. And Woebling says it gives us a resplendent refrain to remember our past.

"It's a real labor of love to build this thing," he says with a laugh. "We're nearing completion after 13 years."

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