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By Christen M. Stroh

There are many movie theatres in the South Hills, but there’s only one place where you can go to watch a silent film with live organ accompaniment – that place is Keystone Oaks High School, home to the only Wurlitzer organ playing in a public venue in the city of Pittsburgh and surrounding neighborhoods.

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The Wurlitzer organ in Keystone Oaks High School will be featured during a program on June 1 where an organist will accompany two silent Laurel and Hardy films.

Caring for the organ and utilizing it to entertain the public is the Pittsburgh Area Theater Organ Society (PATOS). PATOS, as a nonprofit organization, was started in 1970. PATOS has always had its roots in the South Hills, as originally the organ that PATOS had was in the South Hills Theater on W. Liberty Ave. When the theater closed sometime in the mid-1970s, PATOS was in need of a new organ and a new home. The current Wurlitzer was purchased in Brooklyn, New York in 1976 and installation into the Keystone Oaks auditorium took a couple years – it was unveiled to the public in 1978 and has been there ever since.

Dale Abraham, president of PATOS since 2014, stated, “We looked at a lot of places to put the organ, including in downtown Pittsburgh, but those venues weren’t set up for an organ like this, and we liked the idea of staying South Hills-centric, continuing to cater to the audience we’d always served.”

As president, Abraham is also the person responsible for the programming PATOS does. He got involved with PATOS as a board member during the 1989-1990 season and has played the organ all his life. In regards to the programs that PATOS puts on, Abraham explained, “There is a theatre organ industry, and there are theatre organ societies scattered across the country. The organists play for these various chapters and the talent will rotate among them, so that’s how programming gets selected.” While some organists specialize in concerts, others have a wide variety of styles and like to play for silent films, and still others look for ways to create programs that include audience participation.

Most recently, PATOS hosted organist Tony Thomas to play along with the silent film “The Camera Man,” starring Buster Keaton. The audience that turned out was one of the largest crowds that PATOS has seen in a long time, indicating to Abraham that there’s a want in the South Hills communities for this type of entertainment.

As such, the next event will feature Clark Wilson on the organ in June, accompanying two Laurel and Hardy films and featuring some concert selections as well. The event will be held on June 1 at 7:30 p.m. in the Keystone Oaks High School Auditorium.

PATOS hosts four events a year, and next year for their 50th anniversary, a special event will be held next spring. According to Abraham, “We want to make a big deal about it because we’ve made it 50 years - how many non-profit organizations can say that?”

For more information on PATOS, please visit pittsburghtheatreorgan.com.

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