History of the
Gulf Coast Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society
featuring the Robert Morton 4/23 at the Saenger Theatre on Palafox Street
in Pensacola, Florida
Webmaster and Host: John E. Ellis of Mobile, Alabama
Photo courtesy Lottie M. Ellis of Navarre, FL
Brief Early History:
An unlikely combination of events brought two organ enthusiasts together, Robert (Bobby/Bob) Sidebottom and your host,
John E. Ellis. Every day after school at Pensacola High School, around 1964, Bobby and John would separately spend afternoons and evenings talking to each other and others on the Citizens Band (CB) radio (anything to avoid homework!). During one of these conversations, it was discovered both liked organ music and a friendship developed. It was Bobby who first mentioned the Robert Morton theatre organ at the Saenger Theater. Together they made arrangements with the management to see it and obtained permission to play/work on it. Permission was granted as long as it didn't overlap movies which were still playing at that time. They even got a key to the theatre. After sitting unused for nearly 35 years, it was playing again! (but very much out of tune). Original installation in the Saenger was 1927 and was a 2/8.

 Bobby, who had already graduated from Pensacola High School in 1963 and would stop by after school in his Volkswagon Karmon Ghia to pick up John who was still attending and they would rush down before the movies played. John would play
(or more often hold down notes) while Bobby was in the right pipe loft (there was only one at that time) tuning the pipes.
This went on for several years until John moved to Mobile, Alabama to attend the University of South Alabama. By that time other people became interested and Bobby, along with several others started the Gulf Coast Chapter of the ATOS with all being charter members. It was open console at the meetings. John would play 'at it' as others were too shy. The first real house organist was Tom Helms, who went on to obtain a degree in music and  to a career teaching and becoming  a professional entertainer. The organ was named 'Lola'.

Enter Dr. Rhea, one of the most dedicated organ enthusiests around. He personally embarked on restoring the organ and took it to his home/garage where two additional manuals were added and the console beautified to what you see today.
In addition, the left pipe chamber, which was previously  empty, and a lift, were added. The organ  was out of commission for a couple of years but well worth it. Dr. Rhea had meetings at his house using a smaller organ. After re-installation, Tom performed Phantom of the Opera and such notables as Bob Ralston thrilled audiences.
In 1981 the University of West Florida obtained the Saenger and converted it to performing arts. Later Ogden Management was hired to run it and because of various problems and situations, has left the organ mostly unavailable for several years.
A sad state of affairs causing the disentigration of the membership. As President of the GC-ATOS, Dorothy Standley has admirally carried on the society for many years. Unfortunately, Bobby (Bob) died in a auto accident in the early 1990's.

It is he who should be credited with initally rescuing the organ.
Bobby in 1963                              Lola
Copyright 2000-2006 by John E. Ellis