A Letter from E.P. Miller, Operations Director, on John Hiltonsmith
I met John Hiltonsmith in the late part of 1995. I’m not exactly sure how he found me, but all he wanted was a chance to work on the “Saenger Robert Morton Wonder Organ”. He had a vast resume of the work he had done restoring the Memphis Orpheum organ. Being that the Wonder Organ was in such bad condition, and we had no money to spend on it, I figured why not. John didn’t want any money, except to be reimbursed for the few bucks he spent on material. He didn’t have a place to stay when he came to New Orleans so I put him up in the little known about apartment in the top of the Saenger theatre. After the first few visits it was apparent John was trustworthy enough to give him a key to the building. Little did I know this guy was going to devote countless weekends driving in from Memphis, stay in the apartment, (on occasion with Sherry, Jennifer and Julia). I would come down to check on John during his weekend visits only to find he was up all night working on the organ.
Before John, we could barely use the organ at all. Mr. Rene Brunet would do his best to play this fantastic instrument, but many pipes would stick or even not play at all. I can remember John spending just a few weekend visits here and the next thing you know the Wonder Organ was beginning to sound like a beautiful instrument again. As the weeks and months passed the Wonder Organ sounded better and better. Within the first year of John’s tireless work, he wanted to play in front of audiences before our summer movie series. Our staff thought it would be a good idea, so much to his delight we agreed. I had no idea the treat we were in for, John arrives back stage in his bright red Organist tuxedo costume covered from top to bottom with beads and sequins and the big red top hat. This was the most flamboyant tuxedo I have ever seen and could have been something right out of a Mel Brooks movie. The audience was in awe, and John was in his glory. We continued our summer movie series for several years, John always showed up (in costume) to perform. The Robert Morton Wonder Organ sounding better and better every year.
When Katrina hit New Orleans, John was calling me to be sure we had raised the console before evacuating. The massive blower in the basement, which feeds wind to the pipes, is only in working condition today due to John’s efforts. As soon as the water and debris was out of the Saenger basement, and the city was open to the public, John was working on the blower. For months and even years while we waited for the restoration of the Saenger, walking through the Saenger basement everything was in such disrepair, peeling paint, dingy floors and walls. The only piece of equipment that shined was the organ blower. John had taken it apart piece by piece cleaned and painted it to look as if it were brand new.
Whenever John heard me refer to the Robert Morton he would correct me “it’s the Robert Morton Wonder Organ”.
John Fredrick Hiltonsmith will always be remembered for his love and devotion of the Saenger Theatre’s Robert Morton Wonder Organ. I will always be grateful to John for the appreciation I have of the Robert Morton Wonder Organ and for his friendship.
Click Here For John Frederick Hiltonsmith Obituary