Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Nice Place To Visit: The Allen Organ Company

It's a low, flat industrial building, far back from the road--certainly not the kind of place you'd associate with music. In fact, it is the headquarters of perhaps the world's largest manufacturer of church, theater, and home organs--the Allen Organ Company of Macungie, Pennsylvania.
How did this get to be here, in the midst of what used to be Pennsylvania Dutch farmland, in what are now the suburbs of Allentown? Why is it not in Bavaria's Black Forest?
The story goes back to the 1930s, to a young Muhlenberg College student named Jerome Markovitz. And at its heart is the fact that the Allen Organ is not a conventional organ, but an electronic instrument. This means it has many detractors, chiefly devotees of traditional pipe organs. On the other hand, it has been played by such great organists as the late Virgil Fox (who practically built the latter part of his career on it) and the late E. Power Biggs. And the Allen Organ Company supplied all the organs for the first visit to the United States of Pope Benedict XVI.
Furthermore, many churches and synagogues these days are finding it cheaper to buy and maintain an electronic organ than to purchase or maintain a traditional one. So, like it or not, the electronic organ is here to stay. As to Jerome Markovitz, he is its inventor, although there seems to be the usual amount of dispute. (There always is. Wait till we get to the subject of who discovered the North Pole.)
At least Markovitz's discovery story makes perfect sense. He came to Muhlenberg with no religious background; but, like all other students at the time, he had to attend chapel. The sound of the pipe organ attracted him; he had never heard anything like that before. His hobby was electronics. As he listened to the great old hymns and chorale preludes, he began to wonder: Could a sound like that be produced electronically?
It could be, and he did it. He then dropped out of college to found the Allen Organ Company. It was named after, and originally located in, Allentown. Markovitz liked the region and the people and the solid work ethic which he identified as Pennsylvania Dutch. Need for more space forced the company to relocate to Macungie later--but it's still in Pennsylvania Dutch country.
The Allen people enjoy having visitors, though they do ask you to call ahead and make reservations. Hours are 9 a.m.-3 p.m., Monday through Friday, and the street address is 3370 Route 100, Lower Macungie Township. Call 610-966-2202 to make arrangements for your visit.
It used to be--at least, I have this impression from my own earlier visit--that a plant tour could be arranged. Today, most likely for safety reasons, there are no longer tours. But you can visit the Jerome Markovitz Memorial Center. Here there is an organ technology museum and a small selection of gifts for sale; and you can hear the Allen Organ demonstrated. It's amazing what a variety of characters it can produce.
If you live nearby, sign up to learn about the company's recital series. It often features famous players, some specializing in the church organ and some in other areas, like theater organ.



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