Making his pipe dream come true

By Charlotte Huntley/Contributor

(Published Dec. 27, 2006, 11:38 a.m.)

John Cornue is building his dream. In a warehouse. It's so big that it needs four rooms for the pipes and three turbines to pump the air. It's big.

And it isn't finished yet. When he completes his dream, it will be the one of the largest theater organs in Wisconsin.

Cornue began loving pipe organs when he was about 12 years old. People who were interested in pipe organs gathered at Fred Galnick's house in Como to listen and play the organ. Cornue helped build
additions to Galnick's organ and that started Cornue's quest to build a pipe organ of his own; in high school he began collecting organ parts and did a lot of trading to get the parts he really wanted, "just by being in the right place at the right time," Cornue said. When Galnick died in 2003, he bequeathed his pipe organ to Cornue.

Some of John Cornue's organ pipes are made of
wood and some of metal. Terry Mayer/The Week

Cornue explained that the organ technically consists of consoles and pipes. The console is the part that people see; it has keys and the stops.

"This is basically the nucleus of the instrument," Cornue said, indicating Galnick's console. "Organ manufacturers were like car manufacturers," Cornue explained. Galnick's console is a Barton, and it is a two-manual-it has two keyboards. "This is actually the secondary console. The main console is over here," he said as he rolled back the cover on a ponderous shape sitting among pipes and boxes. He revealed an ornately decorated console with a golden patina. "This one is from Piccadilly Theatre in Chicago and is a Kilgen."

Since this particular Kilgen was the only one they produced with four keyboards, it was quite a find for Cornue. He got it in 2004 from an organ chapter in Atlanta. "It needs to be rebuilt," he said. Once he gets that done, he will connect it to the pipes with electricity. "It's what's called an electro-pneumatic organ - electricity running pneumatic valves." When the key is pressed on the console, it sends an electrical signal to open the valve which emits the note. This was the way it was done mostly in the '20s and even today.

"This organ is what you would call a hybrid, because it's made up of a lot of different manufacturers." Besides Barton and Kilgen, he also has Kimball, Wurlitzer and Schaefer. "The neat thing about a hybrid is that no one will know what it's going to sound like, because it's never played together before," he laughed. "It will be powerful."





John Cornue says this ornately decorated console
with a golden patina is from Piccadilly Theatre in
Chicago. Terry Mayer/The Week

He added, "There will be a lot of bass in this organ." The pipes are housed in four chambers, or rooms, at one end of the building. A rank is a set of like instrument sounds, such as a set of trumpets or a set of flutes. Cornue has bass pipes installed around the perimeter of each chamber that's about the size of a small living room. The pipes are huge; some are made of wood and some are metal. He pointed out that the tuba ranks are from the Miller Theater in Woodstock.

Parts of the pipes extend below the floor where they are connected to the boards. Three turbines push air into the boards with 22.5 horsepower. Cornue pushed a wire on the bottom of a valve and the pipe responded with its note. The floor above shook with the timbre of the low note. "All these wires will be hooked to a relay system. This is all technology from a hundred years ago," Cornue said, although 100 years ago, the relay system would have been big enough to have its own room.

Cornue will use solid state relays that will fit inside the console. "It's just basically circuit boards. There is a lot of mechanics involved in wiring. That's one of the reasons I like it so much, because I've always been intrigued with mechanical stuff. I really developed a passion for this; I never get bored with it. It's like a creative outlet." Not surprisingly, he also works as a mechanic for Lenon Bus Service at its Wilmot terminal.

Once Cornue gets the rest of the pipes installed, he will cover the chamber openings with shutters or shades from the Barton in the Chicago Stadium. "I was really fortunate to get some of that." Opening and closing the shades controls the volume while concealing the pipes.

There is a lot of history behind the parts. One story he loves is about two sets of pipes that he found in Denver. One 1917 set was in the Denver Municipal Auditorium, and the 1915 powerful Wurlitzer wood bombard set was in the Isis Theater in Denver. "Just by coincidence, I have parts from these two instruments that were down the road from each other."




Parts for John Cornue's pipe organ take up four
rooms.Terry Mayer/The Week

Cornue is a member of the American Theater Organ Society, as well as the Dairyland Chapter of Southeastern Wisconsin. Through these networks he found leads to parts he needed.

That's how Cornue got some pipes from Illinois. A friend called Galnick about some pipes that were going to the dump. Cornue and Galnick went down and not only got the pipes, but also other organ parts that were scheduled to be trashed.

John Cornue's dream is to
put this organ back together.
Terry Mayer/The Week

Cornue could not afford to hire people to do all the labor he is doing himself, but he does have help: Zach Frame, like Cornue, plays and constructs pipe organs. "He's been a huge help with this project. It's really amazing that there's someone that close by that has the same interest. There's not so many of us around. He has a lot of enthusiasm."

Another person who has helped is Charles Spooner of Delavan. "My dad has been a tremendous help, too," he said. His father, Lloyd Cornue, has been very supportive, as well as his sisters and his wife, Laurie, who plays violin in the Lake Geneva Orchestra.

"It's a hobby," he said. "It's a lot of fun." He has a plan and does a little bit at a time. He added, "The end result is I get to play it.

"I want to have it here for anybody who wants to enjoy it. This was how Fred was; I'd like to do the same."


For more information about the American Theatre Organ Society online, go to:

To view the Kilgen organ in Chicago's Piccadilly Theatre, 1927, go to:



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