Cletus Goens has an orchestra at his fingertips. And although he's not a conductor, he becomes a one-man symphony every time he sits down to play the Grande Page Pipe Organ at Embassy Theatre.
Goens, who is the Embassy's house organist, speaks passionately about the organ, describing the multiple keyboards and keys as giving him an opportunity to create “different colors” of notes.
Goens' love for the pipe organ started when he was 15 after he heard a pipe organ being played at Paramount Theatre in Anderson.
“From the moment I heard that big organ play, I knew I wanted to learn to play like that,” Goens says.
Learning to play the pipe organ is not something that is usually sought out by a teenage boy. Heck, playing the pipe organ is really not something many people do at all.
“It is a dying art form,” Goens says.
Which is why he takes every opportunity to play the organ when asked. His next chance is Sunday when he will accompany the screening of the Buster Keaton silent film, “The General,” at 3 p.m. at Embassy. Tickets are $10.
The 53-year-old says it takes a lot of careful timing to perform alongside the movie. With most other movies, the musician would be able to track down the original scores. But that's not the case with the 1927 film, Goens says. He actually composed his own score for the movie after watching it “many, many times,” he says.
He has actually performed this movie before. “What helps me (is) I have a good memory, so I remember what I've done from movie to movie and event to event,” Goens says. “I'm able to memorize my score rather than write it all out.” This allows him to concentrate on the movie and not the sheet music, he says.
Goens says the goal is to be the underscore of the movie. “If I play so fancy and so much that people notice me and not the movie, then I have failed,” he says.
The organ was actually a necessity for theaters like the Embassy during the 1920s, which used it, as well as orchestras, to accompany silent films of the day. The Grande Page Pipe Organ was installed at the Embassy in 1928.
The fact that Goens is one of several organists that still play the organ for such events says a lot about his skills and passion.
Goens was a well-versed pianist by the time he started playing the organ, having taken piano lessons since he was about 4 years old.
He says he got lucky and found a teacher in Muncie and took organ lessons every weekend. His instructor had been a theater organ teacher and was well connected with theater pipe organs in Indiana and the country. That's how Goens got introduced to Buddy Nolan, who was the house organist for the Embassy for many years.
Nolan took a liking to Goens, offering to help the young player. Goens would travel from Marion to Fort Wayne to play with Nolan and often would sub for him during the last years of his life. “I feel like I'm carrying on the legacy,” Goens says.
Goens, who works as the piano specialist in the piano showroom at Sweetwater Sound, moved to Fort Wayne about 20 years ago so he could be closer to the Embassy organ. When he is not playing the organ or piano, he enjoys spending time with his family, his cat and working on small projects around his 1915 home in the South Wayne addition.
And while he is not even close to retiring from playing, he is trying to find someone – maybe another young piano player who was struck with awe at seeing the pipe organ being played – to continue the legacy.
“I'm ever hopeful that we will find that right person,” Goens says.
In the meantime, Goens will continue playing the pipe organ whenever he gets a chance, giving back to the community by performing on a piece of history.
“It's all about preserving history,” Goens says, “I guess (this) is what I'm set out to do.”
Terri Richardson writes about area residents and happenings that affect their lives in this column that publishes every other week. Email her at email@example.com or call 461-8304.