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Life Remembered: Warren York brought pleasure to Virginia shows
CHAMPAIGN — From now on, anyone who plays the Mighty Wurlitzer at the Virginia Theatre will have to wear red socks.
The Champaign Park District wants to require that in memory of Warren York, whose name was synonymous with the theater pipe organ now undergoing restoration at Buzard Pipe Organ Builders in Champaign.
An Urbana native, Mr. York, 73, died at 6:42 a.m. Monday (June 27, 2011) at the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System in Danville, where he had lived the past two and a half years.
"He was a huge part of the shows at the Virginia Theater — everyone who came to the theater and knew the organ was going to be part of the show pretty much expected to see Warren at the keyboard, red socks and all," said Laura Auteberry, marketing and development director for the Champaign Park District and Parks Foundation.
"It's a huge loss."
Mr. York said earlier this year that he wore his signature-color socks, as well as red shirts, to give people something to look at other than his back.
The self-taught musician played the Virginia's Wurlitzer, which rises from the orchestra pit, during silent movies, at The Chorale's annual New Year's Eve Gala and other events, among them Roger Ebert's Film Festival.
"He was our faithful friend and invaluable pepper-upper before screenings," Ebert said via email on Tuesday. "He was known for his red socks, but I suspect his real reason for wearing them was his happiness in drawing attention to the versatile pedals on the Mighty Wurlitzer."
Bobbie Herakovich, executive director of the Champaign Park District, said it will be hard to find someone with Mr. York's passion for the instrument. "We had hoped he would get to experience the restoration of the organ," she said.
So had Mr. York.
"I hope I can live long enough to play it again," he said in January. "It's going to be something else."
To honor him, the Parks Foundation established the Warren York Fund to pay for restoration of the organ beyond the $145,000 the foundation initially budgeted; Gifts are tax-deductible. The restoration is expected to be completed in October.
The money from the York fund will pay primarily for two sets of pipes that the Wurlitzer company would have added in 1928 to the organ, which is original to the 1921 Virginia Theatre, said John Paul-Buzard of Buzard Pipe Organ Builders.
"This will give the organ a 'wow' factor it would not have otherwise," Buzard said. "This is something Warren York for years had wanted to try to do, except the organ itself was in such poor condition."
Buzard called Mr. York a "blessed man" for his and his friends' unpaid work to keep the organ going through the years. It is one of only a few Wurlitzers remaining in its original theater home, Buzard said.
Mr. York had begun tinkering with the instrument — he considered the organ the first music synthesizer — in 1989.
"Different things had been removed from the organ, like the crash cymbal," he said earlier this year. "The tambourine pipe and one clarinet pipe had been taken out. We added things to it, like stops. We more or less kept it going. We kept it going to keep it in the ears of people."
Besides maintaining and playing the organ, Mr. York discovered in the Virginia basement vintage glass sing-along slides. He eventually catalogued 1,010 of them. They were used for the sing-along at the Chorale's New Year's Eve shows.
A self-taught mechanice, Mr. York always loved machinery and considered theater and electronic organs as "some of the most complex machines you can get into."
As a teenager, he built a rig to drill a well in his family's yard. He dropped out of Urbana High School to start York Well Drilling, his lifelong vocation.
He was a teen when he first fell in love with the organ, after hearing it at county fairs. Though he didn't read music, Mr. York began playing the instrument professionally when he was 21, at area bowling alleys, taverns, restaurants and even a late-night strip club in Belgium in Vermilion County.
"It was a lot of fun," he said.
To donate to the Warren York Fund go to http://www.champaignparkdistrict.com/ and click on foundation. Or mail checks to Champaign Park District, 706 Kenwood Drive, Champaign, IL. 61821.