William Fox's Liberty Theatre

Fox’s Liberty Theatre

By James Grebe

           This article is a response to an inquiring letter about theatre organist Agnes Griffin who played the organ at Fox’s Liberty Theatre in 1924.  A little background;     The Fox’s Liberty at 3627 Grandel Square  opened its doors in 1913 as the Victoria Theatre, and was built for the German Theatre Society.  It has 2 floors, the upper had a lecture hall and the lower had the theatre proper and seated 1500.  By 1917, there was so much distrust of anything German that it closed.  It next became the Libertyland and then William Fox leased the theatre and it became Fox’s Liberty and in 1918 he installed a Moller pipe organ ,(opus 2573).  It was a 3 manual. 17 rank organ under 5” wind pressure with a 2 HP blower motor. 

     The Liberty was one of many theatres not built specifically for movies but stage plays and vaudeville such as Loew’s Orpheum, which also had a Kimball pipe organ.  Louis Flint was the first organist to play the Moller in the Liberty and he went on to be one of the organists to be on the organist staff at the Missouri in 1921.  It was sometime after the organ installation when Agnes Griffin was the organist at the Liberty before leaving before July of 1925 to go to Shreveport , LA to open the Strand Theatre there.  Not sure if Agnes was a native St. Louisan, but she did study at the prestigious Kroeger Conservatory of Music here so probably this was early in her career.. 

     This Moller was probably the first of a number of Mollers that William Fox had built for future installation into his theatres.  Some of them do not even appear in Mollers Opus list.   In 1918, when the Moller was put in the Liberty it cost $5,500.00.  By the time the next one came along to install the price had jumped to $7,000.00.  One of the next ones was installed in the Los Angeles Hippodrome Theatre.  One of the differences in cost may have been that it took more money to ship to California than to St. Louis from Maryland. 

     William Fox also had other connections to St. Louis before the Fabulous Fox.  In the years between 1921 and 1922 William Fox also controlled the Grand-Arsenal and the Pershing Theatres, both with Kilgen 3m/13r organs and the Royal, later Rivoli and Towne.  In 1924 William Fox gave up the Liberty, the Moller was removed (wherabouts unknown) and as it was advertised, a $40.000.00 “Goldaphone-The Organ with the Human Voice, was installed.  I know the name seems garish but the makers were trying to compete with Wurlitzer “Unit Orchestras”, “Golden Voiced” Bartons, and Kilgen “Wonder Organs”. 

     A little about the firm who built the “Goldaphone.The maker who built the “Goldaphone” was the Gratian Organ Company from Quincy, IL.  Joseph Gratian arrived from England in 1857 and located himself in Alton, IL where he built a fair number of tracker pipe organs and died in 1897.  At that time, his son, John W. took over the business and unfortunately he had no business or technical skill and could not come up with a successful design of an electro-pneumatic action.  He wound up buying many components and sometimes even complete organs from Wicks to sell under his name.  It would have been during this time that the “Goldaphone” was produced and sold to the Liberty..  Things got so bad in the firm, after John’s son, Warren, joined the firm that they had terrible disagreements around the Depression and Warren burned most of the company’s business records.  Things were tough in that family.  After bankruptcy Warren went to work for Austin, Estey, and Midmer-Losch and finally established himself in the town of Bunker Hill, re-established a service business and retired in 1979.  There are no known records of what the “Goldaphone’s” size or pipe compliment.  Most likely, it was a small organ price, over inflated, re-badged Wicks and nothing is recorded as to its wherabouts or even when, or if,  it was removed from the Liberty.

     The Liberty Music Hall continued for a while and then the building became known under various names as the World Burlesque, the Sun and finally the Lyn, as its marquee bears today.  It has remained empty for at least 30 years and in the 1970’s I remember going in through an unsecured door on the east side of the building and stored were racks and racks of bowling balls and bowling alley fixtures.  As far as I know, the building is owned by the Koplars and there was even talk back then of them converting it into a broadcasting facility.  Maybe someone else knows the whereabouts of the infamous “Goldaphone” 

Sources: Charles Von Bibber, Gerald Alexander, Dave Junchen, Grebe archives

Copyright, 2008 Yesterday Once More Publications/James Grebe

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