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UP CLOSE: Organist Jeffrey Barker comes home

July 31, 2014
By NAJ WIKOFF - Correspondent , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - The Adirondack Film Society was launched on Nov. 13, 1999 with the a screening of William Randolph Hearst's million dollar silent film production, "Janice Meredith, the Beautiful Rebel" (1924) starring Meredith Davies and filmed in part in Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, and on the frozen Saranac River near Plattsburgh.

The true stars of this Revolutionary War drama were the Palace Theatre's Robert Morton Theatre Organ and the man on the keys, Jeffrey Barker.

That either the film would arrive on time or the organ restored was not a sure thing. The print was an original borrowed from the Library of Congress, a reluctant lender if there ever was one, and the restoration of the organ itself had not yet been accomplished by Barker and his crew of technicians. Barker was faced with bundles of non-colored coded wires that had been sliced and needed to be reconnected, water damage, dust and mouse dropping to be cleared, valves to be restored, and pipes tested.

Article Photos

Jeffrey Barker’s urn
(Photo — Naj Wikoff)

Restore it he did discovering a restaurant next door that served his favorite meal (roast beef) cooked to perfection, and his heroine and inspiration Kate Smith buried in the St. Agnes Cemetery. Those two assets combined with a theater that reminded him of the favorite venues of his youth and a bonding with the Clark family meant that Barker had found his home and his desired final resting place.

On that first night, as he was to do every other time he played at the Palace over the next 14 years, Barker arrived dressed immaculately in tie and tails. Barker took pride in his abilities, in the organ, and in his art form. He would play two hours or more non-stop. He knew hundreds of scores by heart. His conductor was the actors and action on screen.

"Jeff wanted to be buried as close to Kate Smith as he could," said Nelson Page, member of the Society Board and Barker's longtime employer as the Galaxy theaters where he was their organist in residence. "The first time we came up here, he thought it was such a long drive and wasn't sure that he would want to come back. I said, 'Let me show you something.' I took him through St. Agnes Cemetery and showed him where Kate Smith was buried. He said, 'This is where I want to spend eternity.' Every time I brought him up to Placid, I took him through here so he could feel a part of this place. He loved everything about this area. He loved the mountains. He loved the people. He loved the Palace Theatre. It was a trifecta of wonderment for him."

"Jeff meant everything to me," said Reg Clark. "He was a fine man. He was a very talented musician. He would always come up a day or two ahead of time to test out the organ and just play. I love the silent films. I don't know what we are going to do now, we have to find another organist and there isn't another just like him. He and George Reynolds were very special."

"He was a very sweet man," said Karen Huttlinger. "When he came to Placid, you could always find him at the counter of HoJos having breakfast. You could sit with him and reminisce. It was a lot of fun."

"Jeff was a wonderful guy," said John Huttlinger. "He was a wonderful addition to our community. He loved it up here. He added a whole element to not only the Adirondack Film Society's range of events, but also to the Palace Theatre because he brought that organ to life not only in his playing, but in the maintenance he did on it."

"Playing a theater organ is very different than playing a church organ," said Reg Clark.

"One is high pressure, and the other is low pressure," said Page. "One is meant to create a mood the other is meant to accompany an entertainment vehicle. Not too many church organs can replicate the sounds of penny whistles, tam tams, and bass drums like the Palace's organ."

"His favorite silent film without a doubt was 'Phantom of the Opera,'" said Page. "He knew the organist Gaylord Carter who had written the score for the original silent. He loved playing that score, and portions of the score, to keep Gaylord's memory alive as there will be people who will play some of the scores he used."

"He always closed a performance by playing 'God Bless America,'" said Page. "People always stood for that song. Jeffrey said it always assured him a standing ovation. At first he tried closing with the national anthem, but always got the key signature mixed up, so he closed with 'God Bless America' instead. Of course, once he started coming up here, it was representative of Kate Smith, who he adored."

"He found a little niche up here," said Barbara Clark.

In recognition of Barker's special bond with the Palace and the Clarks, John Huttlinger, chairman of the Adirondack Film Society presented at graveside Reg and Barbara Clark with a large golf-leaf framed portrait of Barker at the keys accompanied by copy written by T.J. Brearton that will be permanently displayed at the Palace.



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