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Man plays Radio City Music Hall—for a price

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Kayla Bunge
August 23, 2008

Jack Moelmann spent three hours on a Saturday night with the equivalent of a full orchestra at his fingertips at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.


He paid $118,182.44 to rent the famous auditorium and play the mighty Wurlitzer theater pipe organ.


The Aug. 9 concert was a dream come true for the 67-year-old retired Air Force colonel, who has ties to Lake Geneva, where he graduated in 1959 from the former Northwestern Military and Naval Academy and where his family has had a summer home since 1960.


"Everybody fantasizes about what they want to do, and this is what I wanted to do and I just decided to do it," Moelmann said from his home in O’Fallon, Ill. "I looked in the mirror and said, 'Jack, you have a dream. Go for it.'"


It was the first time in history an average guy rented Radio City Music Hall to put on his own show.


Moelmann had no regrets, he said.


He labored for three hours through tune after tune from the Cole Porter classic "I've Got You Under My Skin" to the "The Star-Spangled Banner."


The New York Times' review of the concert said "his hands and feet were a blur at the console" of the organ and "the experience left him sweaty and exhausted."


Playing such a gigantic instrument was hard work, he said.


The organ at Radio City Music Hall, with its four keyboards and 4,000 pipes, is the largest theater pipe organ ever built by the Wurlitzer Company. And it sits on perhaps the largest stage in the world.


"It's like sitting in the cockpit of a 747," Moelmann said. "There are lots of controls on it, and you almost have to have an attitude readjustment to figure out what you’re going to do."


He said sound of the massive instrument inside the spacious auditorium presented a challenge to the veteran organist, who has been playing since he was a boy.


“You feel it,” Moelmann said. “But you can’t listen to what you’re playing.”


He said once he played a note and heard it, it was too late to acknowledge that it was the wrong note.


Playing at Radio City Music Hall was but another feather in Moelmann’s cap, adding the legendary pipe organ to the long list of organs he has played including those at Westminster Abbey in London, the Pantheon in Rome and many movie palaces across the country.


But this experience put his name in lights and earned him a standing ovation.


"It was a thrill," Moelmann said. "When I realized that for a day that that was my house for the day and I had all of that that was mine for the day, it intrigued me."


Moelmann was joined on stage by four other organists, but he was the star of the show, according to the New York Times review.


The concert—and the amount of money he paid to realize his dream of playing the organ at Radio City Music Hall—has gained national attention.


But Moelmann said he wasn’t playing for the acclaim.


"My whole idea in doing this was not for an ego trip," he said. "I was on the marquee. I got a standing ovation. But my reward was seeing people leaving the auditorium with a smile on their face."



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