Chapter 1 Rumors
Harry Killman and Jimmy Day were in a great hurry because they were on a mission! If anyone had been watching they would have thought it a most curious thing. The two little boys would run a few yards, then stop as if listening, then run a few more yards, stop, listen, then run some more. One would wonder, of course, just what could cause such curious behavior.
The day had started in great excitement. It was the very first day of summer vacation! First grade was now left behind and the summer of 1913 lay ahead. This was also the first day they had been allowed to go beyond the limits of their own backyards without grown-up supervision.
Harry and Jimmy had decided to explore Willowbranch park first, which was just a block over from their street in a sleepy suburb of Jacksonville, Florida known as Avondale. There, to their amazement, they discovered a mighty sailing ship! It was really just an old shrimp boat which, though un-seaworthy and grounded, had found it's worth as a playground attraction for children. Harry and Jimmy started pretending to be merchant seamen on a sinking ocean liner. This game ended, however, due to a small dispute about whether that mighty ship ought to be the ill-fated Titanic or Captain Scott's ship, the Lena Nova, bound for the South pole expedition. Further playground investigation revealed more possibilities.
The sand box on the playground now became the hot, dry deserts of north Africa. The boys began to pretend they were in the Army at war far, far from home. They were poor American doughboys who had been left behind, out of ammo, running from the enemy, and dying of thirst. It was zero-eight-hundred hours and already the brilliant sun was beating down on this vast desert in the corner of the park.
As they lay dying of imagined thirst, the boys' soldier game on this hot and humid June morning abruptly turned into a real search mission when their ears caught the lilt of a musical sound, carried by the now quickening breeze from some mysterious location. It was the music of a pipe organ. It was a sound they heard in church every Sunday and it had caught the imagination of both boys. To them nothing was as powerful, nothing was as colorful, nothing was as mysterious as an organ, and nothing was going to keep these little soldier boys from finding this one!
Indeed, in those days the pipe organ was the only instrument that could thunder like rushing winds or whisper like shimmering breezes. The boys naturally loved music and the sounds of the pipe organ thrilled and fascinated them. While other children were restless and fidgety in church Jimmy and Harry would sit very still listening for the glorious sounds of the organ.
Conventional wisdom says that opposites attract. In this case opposites complimented each other and cemented a life long friendship -- the main ingredient of the mix being that Jimmy and Harry both had a great passion for music. This passion for music, and their head long pursuit of it, was why the boys ultimately did something that morning that they should not have done. Most seven year old boys routinely do things that a grown-up would not consider, but such is the stuff of boyhood, and such is the stuff of this adventure.
Harry and Jimmy were not bad boys -- quite the opposite. Both had “good” families of Scottish and Irish ancestry. Each had done very well in Miss Stewart's first grade class at the Willowbranch Elementary School. Both were tall and gangly for their age, but there the physical comparison ended. Harry was blond headed and freckled, liked to play baseball and loved to go fishing on the ocean with his Grandpapa. Jimmy was dark and pale, and much preferred the library to the ball field. Once he even got sea sick on the placid Saint Johns river.
The boys lived next door to each other and were the only children for several blocks. Their mothers, both intelligent and talented women, treated each boy as her own. Introduced to reading and books at an early age, both boys could read fairly well by the time they entered first grade, and reading was a favorite activity.
Anytime there was something about a pipe organ in a newspaper article or a magazine, the boys would cut it out and add it to their collection. This was kept in a cracker tin, hidden away in the old tree house in Jimmy's back yard.
One day Jimmy came across an advertisement in his mother's Vanity Fair magazine with a banner that read:
“The Wurlitzer Motion Picture Orchestra.”
There was a picture of the beautiful film actress Clara Kimball seated at the key desk of an organ console. Under this picture was inscribed in fancy print:
“Wurlitzer Unit Organs. Installed in a thousand theatres. The only organ whose echo is heard in the box office. Enjoy a motion picture in a theatre equipped with a Wurlitzer organ today. Clara Kimball says, “A Wurlitzer makes it real!”
Movies! They had heard rumors and grown-up talk about the picture shows, especially when the ladies of the neighborhood met at Jimmy's house. The ladies of the Tuesday Sewing Circle, being southern, religious, and thrifty, were convinced that the movies were the epitome of evil. Now, none of the women, nor either boy, had ever been to one -- but the hearsay was most enticing.
This talk made up a list the two boys had discussed over and over.
Item one: The pipe organ in the theatre that played the music for the movies must be different from the organ they heard in church. They had listened on Jimmy's uncle Marcus' new crystal radio set to a Mr. Jesse Crawford play an organ which they thought might be like this one. They just had to find out more about it.
Item two: They heard that people went to the movies dressed up as if they were going to church.
(Sacrilegious! According to the ladies.)
Item three: They knew that there was a special machine to cool the air inside the building.
(Progress! According to the ladies.)
Item four: They heard that moving pictures were made by “hee-thuns” (whatever they were) and that sometimes there were naked women in the pictures.
(Abomination! According to the ladies.)
Naked women! A “yukky” thought to little boys -- but still, very interesting!
Item five: They had also heard that the Theatre was decorated like the inside of a Sheik's harem house.
(Decadent! According to the ladies.)
Jimmy could not find “hayrum house” or “sheek” in the big dictionary at the library so neither boy was sure what one was but, nonetheless, it was interesting!
Yes, they had heard things about the picture shows. They somehow understood though, that while all of this was simply awful, movies must be lots of fun. At least the ladies seemed to have fun when they talked about it. Jimmy's mom and Harry's mom, however, always exchanged little glances when the topic came up in the circle but never contributed to the chatter.
Normally they ignored grown-up conversations, but one day the boys, who were playing at blocks and soldiers on the stairs in the foyer, heard the words `pipe organ' and `picture show' in the same sentence. Their curiosity peaked, they suddenly got very still, soldiers in hand but forgotten, and listened.
The discussion began as an update of a gossip item that had started last week. It seemed that Mrs. Meaks' former neighbor was visiting her son in St. Louis who was the alleged black sheep of the family. He was a young man who was quite talented musically, but was squandering himself by playing piano in speak-easies and establishments of questionable repute.
Mrs. Meaks began to dish the dirt: “I got a letter from his mother the other day and she wrote that she is quite relieved because Burton is going to some school in New York state to learn to play the pipe-organ for the picture shows! Now, I ask you what is there to be relieved about when he'll be playing music for such as those vamps as play in them shows? I intend to write her back and set her straight about the evils of those picture shows.”
To the boys' surprise Harry's mother made a reply to this.
“Now Violet, I understand that most movie houses are quite respectable these days. If Burton is playing in a picture house he'll be making good money and he will likely gain a reputation as fine musician.”
Jimmy's mom even had something to say:
“I agree, Evelyn! Playing the pipe organ for the movies seems a fine profession for a young musician to me, and all of those motion picture people are not so bad. You know Evelyn and I met that nice Mr. Edison when he was filming a movie here in Jacksonville. Why, isn't he a great and respected inventor?”
Harry and Jimmy were astounded that their moms spoke in favor of someone playing a pipe organ in a picture show!
On that fateful day that Harry and Jimmy were chasing the tones of pipes floating on the breeze no one could have guessed that the boys were about to become something of experts on pipe organs. This was because they were curious, it was summer vacation, and their mothers did not believe their little boys could get into too much trouble in their own neighborhood. Especially around a church.
But then, mothers rarely know everything about their little boys!