30 September 2008

Legendary St. Louisan Stan Kann Dies

Because this is both a news site and a blog, I am able to write something that is meaningful and columnist-like, not just simple news. But it starts with sad news.

One of America's treasures has died.

Stan Kann grew up in St. Louis, and like any kid of his day, took music lessons which led to him playing in the orchestra at his alma mater high school, Soldan. He found his trade in music --- he was a born performer and showman. But what most people don't know outside of St. Louis unless they are dedicated to one particular form of music is that Stan Kann, who died Monday at age 83, was among the most prolific musical artists of his genre, not just of his generation.

It is true that many who read news on the internet regularly may not know the name Stan Kann. However, there is a group of Americans who know the man as a legendary "theatre organist" and will mark the passing of this short giant of a rare art form.

Stan Kann - the man - lived a long and somewhat storied life. In and out of the spotlight whether plying his trade by playing his music or simply having a conversation, he had a larger-than-life personality despite being short in stature. It was his smile, incomparable laugh, and fun personality that apparently struck someone in TV land just right. Mr. Kann's story would be incomplete without talking about his appearances on the "Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson" throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. On the tube he was Stan Kann the guy with a collection of vacuum cleaners which usually went comically haywire once they were plugged in for a demonstration. But unfortunately, Johnny and the Tonight Show Orchestra didn't have Stan play a theatre organ while guesting on the program. That means most of America never got to know one of the premiere musicians of the THEATRE. And when we say "theatre" in association with Stan Kann we don't mean the orchestra pits on Broadway --- but New York City played a part in his days as a "theatre organist".

In his younger days: Stan Kann had studied organ in St. Louis at Washington University, and when he visited Radio City Music Hall, he saw the massive theatre organ inside and made a mental note. The impression gave him an idea and upon his return to the gateway city he talked with the owner of the Fox Theatre in St. Louis and shortly thereafter became the regular organist. Most people who attended movies at the Fox from the 1950s through the 1970s, and again from the 1980s to the 21st Century when Kann was occasionally on the Fabulous Fox schedule, realized that Stan Kann could hold an audience spellbound through the magic of the mighty Wurlitzer organ with its ranks hidden deep behind the walls of the proud performance house. But one must realize that his talent to perform music along with a silent movie made him stand out. Yet, Stan gave even more of himself than just his musical talents. He was also the man who delivered the gag jokes for the audience --- as his boss and friend Mary Strauss would have him dress up in costumes which went with the them of the movies being shown. And his love of the laughs, the love of the theatre itself, and the heart he showed to his friends and acquaintences was evident nearly every week at the Fox Theatre. That's because he frequently worked as part of the staff who helped give public tours. It is obvious to most who knew Stan Kann that he would not and could not bring himself to actually retire because his work was never completely finished. There was always a plan for the next day, the next week, and the next weekend, if not further down the road.

It would be easy to stop any news article or column without discussing the organ with all its literal bells and whistles and drums and cymbals in addition to the hundreds of pipes, but it bears mentioning that to master the organ at the Fox one has to deal with a long delay of perhaps three or four seconds between the time you press the keys or the foot pedals and the time the sound actually comes out into the audience. It's like talking on the radio with a delay unit "on" all the time and wearing headphones listening to the delayed broadcast. It's NOT EASY.

Okay, when it comes to having known Stan Kann, I am one of the luckier ones. A person who grows up with music in their life will always appreciate it. I grew up with musical parents who just happened to know Stan Kann, so I was exposed to his performances my entire life. And I have heard hundreds of theatre organ performances by dozens of organists. The craft of playing the theater organ or theatre organ (you decide how you wish to spell it, but it'll always be theatre when I write it) is unique and --- many would say --- not easy to master. Stan Kann was more than a mere master at the organ in St. Louis and many of the other theatres worldwide. He could make it sing bigger than an entire orchestra. What he pulled out of the ranks and chambers could put you in a trance, with the exceptional personal compositions he played with a silent movie.

In fact, silent movies will NEVER be the same in St. Louis without Stan Kann. A memory I will treasure will be the time in 1989 when he performed for the silent movie "Phantom of the Opera" starring the late Lon Chaney. One of my friends was a fervent fan of the Andrew Lloyd Webber version of the classic story - and I made sure to pointedly tell her to see this special event: it was the anniversary of the opening of the Fox. Stan had a musical treat planned, weaving his way through some of the Webber music in the pre-movie concert, also playing several of his favorites for the theatre organ --- mostly songs from the early 20th Century for an audience which may have been born and raised then. Although we attended separately, I saw my friend during the intermission and she was smiling. I knew I had help hook another person on the interpretation of the silent film whose score was being performed by Stan Kann. By the way, Stan Kann not only performed it --- he was the man who wrote the score.

Stan Kann was someone whom you could meet and find interesting and likeable. Some would say he was a bit quirky with his love of the unusual and antiques. But it is meant to be that one of the greatest memories St. Louisans will have --- if they were fortunate enough to catch Stan Kann in concert --- is that little guy at the keyboard of the Mighty Wurlitzer organ at the Fox Theatre, making music surge throughout the seating, filling our nights with sounds that sometimes brought the silent pictures to life. Even if you never saw him perform for a silent film, and you saw him play the organ, you somehow knew you were witnessing something extraordinairy.

And so many in St. Louis, in Hollywood, and points across the U. S. were treated to his great talent at a keyboard, chiefly in a manner that gave people laughs and smiles. Stan Kann cannot be memorialized without adding that if you saw him once, you likely smiled wide for at least a long moment.


Sure, there will be some who label Stan Kann as a comic or silly man --- his vacuum cleaner joking was more than just a routine, it was part of who he was. But to many of us who knew the musician, Stan Kann will always be the best theatre organist who ever performed with a silent film.

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