Some Very Notable Conn Organs
Including the “Timbers” (Velsy Special) Organ, Custom 25 Pedal Spinet Model 580
And A Massive 3 Manual Drawstop Electronic/Pipe Organ Combination
See notes at end of page regarding Conn’s demise
Probably the best known of the special Conn organs
is this Custom built Conn Theater organ.
This particular Conn organ has a bit of a story that is quite interesting. Recently it was listed on eBay but I never did find out if it had been sold. The story begins about 5 years after I left the mid-west area to move to California to enter into a partnership in the organ retail business. I kept up many of the friendships that I had acquired while working with the Conn organization back in Indiana. The majority of those friends were either in the engineering or service departments both at the Elkhart plant and down at the Madison, Indiana facility. I enjoyed friendships with many of the marketing department personnel also, but was more involved with dealers throughout the country as a liaison for funding resources and also preformed for demonstrations and concerts. When the company went through a take-over (1969), I decided to move out west.
The organ pictured above has had a metamorphosis’ of names including some we cannot mention here. As I recall, (and anyone is free to contact me if they have a different recollection of those days) this project was originally brought to the company by our dealer in the area, George Martin for his client Robert Velsy. Velsy was a college professor at the University of Wisconsin at the Platteville extension campus. He also owned a very nice supper club called the “Timbers Restaurant” in Platteville, Wisconsin. This was a “cut above” restaurant in that they featured some excellent food at very moderate prices. Velsy also was a noted chef and could prepare food with the best of the chefs in the upper mid-west area.
When I first heard of this project in probably 1972 or ’73, it was called “Martin’s Folly.” I suppose so named for the dealer that brought this to Walter Behnke’s attention. Then it became the “Velsy Special” as the purchaser became known. But because of the “zillions” of problems associated with this monstrosity, it also had quite a few other names for reference by the crew back at Elkhart. And remember, the company (Conn) had itself recently gone through its own internal problems. Many thought the company should have been developing newer and advanced products like a digital system and not waste time on this project for a single user.
Here is the technical information I have previously posted on the ConnArtistes Yahoo group web site after receiving many inquires about this particular organ:
Well, just when you think you are done with something here, all kinds of
requests come in for more information. So I guess what I will do is post what
information I have on the special Conn organ for the Timbers Restaurant in
Platteville, Wisconsin on my web site with a few more pictures I have. Most of
the technical information is taken from engineering drawings that were sent to
me way back in the early 70s after I left the old or “real” Conn organization to
move west. There were two schools of thought about this instrument as I
mentioned before. The old-timers that were still on board with the company were
at opposite ends of thinking when it came to a large project like this. Many
thought it would be better had Conn directed the money and resources to consumer
organ improvements such as a new digital system. Allen had already introduced
their MOS system and many in our engineering department thought we could and
should get started on our own digital system as it was believed that digital electronics
would be the wave of the future. (Which it evidently was!)
When this project was first launched it was considered by some in marketing that
this installation would draw so much attention to the Conn organ that the
company would get a boost in sales for years to come. As that did not
materialize as planned and the fact that the digital organ was improving vastly
with each new generation, Conn sort of ended up with old technology and a lost
chance to retain their supremacy both in the institutional and home markets.
There are quite a few old “Conn” men who felt this “boondoggle” project was the
beginning of the end. They had wanted the R&D efforts directed towards the
digital race or at least towards an organ most people could afford. A lot of
time effort, and funds went into this one organ.
The owner of the restaurant, Bob Velsy was, or I should say is, as the eBay
listing seemed to imply that he is still around, a very pleasant person. He was
very affable and fun to be around. I think I remember that he told me he had a
Conn 650 or 651 with about 15 sets of pipe speakers on that previous organ. He
may have even had a set or two of real pipe ranks on that installation also. His
friend and our organ dealer in that area was George Martin who was really a
great salesman for Conn. Somehow he talked Conn management and Wally Behnke
into designing this installation for Bob.
The information I have is from some old friends back in Indiana with whom I had
kept in contact after moving out west. I can only see one set of initials on any
of the documentation and those are “DT.” We had, as I recall, some engineers
with those initials, Dan Townsend, Del Thorpe, and Don Terry. I have no idea who
sent these back in late ’73 and I doubt anyone could tell me to this day the actual
source of the information.
The organ had 188 stops and the equivalent of 16 ranks including Concert flute,
Tibia Clausa, Solo Tibia, Flute Celeste, Violin, Viola d’ Orch, Gamba, String
Celeste, Diapason, Clarinet. Kinura, Oboe Horn, Tuba, Orchestral Oboe, Post
Horn, Tuba and Vox Humana. As I said before, it also had a pedal rank (16’
Tibia) from the Palace organ in South Bend. Because of the many, many audio
channels (44) Wally configured notes that could come of from almost anywhere so
that it was more than just a stereo effect. (Almost qudraphonic) In the same
chord the “D” could sound from behind you, the “F#” from the left, the “A” from
in front and the “C” from the right in a D7 chord for example. It was very
interesting and the celestes were very “unusual.” It produced a very unique
tremolo effect also.
Back to the drawings – there are or were 14,699 diodes for coupling and four
triac switching units. It also shows a total of 3050 transistors! Compare that
with your Conn Model 651! One sheet shows total output at 1760 audio Watts but I
doubt anyone ever used close to that. It also had a fully computerized capture
system which was cutting edge in that day. There were three expression shoes and
one crescendo pedal. Don Baker assisted in the original voicing. He also
recorded for Conn at the time.
I remember it had about 15 or 20 pistons but they reacted differently from
regular pipe organ piston in that some were used to increase volume like some
later Conn models would do. I think also there were few black pistons but I
don’t remember exactly their function and the paper is very blurry so I can not
see where the wires terminate. The toe studs on the left side duplicated the
generals and the toe studs on the right activated Toy Counter effects. There
were also a bunch of special effects hooked up like the usual train whistles,
bird whistles, Sleigh bells, siren, etc, along with a Wood harp, Marimba, Xylo
(repeating) Orch Bells, Chrys, and Glock. I am sure there was more but I just
don’t remember and that section really has to be cleaned up more to make it
readable. I had travelled from Minneapolis to Platteville several times with a
good friend, Clyde Olson, who had rebuilt the Knabe player piano which could be
played directly from the Conn console. During these trips Clyde would fill me in on
Some of the workings of this organ. Minneapolis was of course my hometown and
I had family and many friends in the music business in that area and I would visit as
often as I could..
Located in the center of the console on the back rail was the rhythm unit
control (which was the same as used on a 651 or 652 or 653) and I recall thinking
that was a dumb place for it. I was too used to the lower left cheek block. During
my visits, I was always called upon to spend at least an hour “concertizing” as of
course any visiting organist was prevailed upon to do. The former Disneyland
organist who I think was more local played it during several of my visits. She
was pretty good too! Hector Olivera had said one night that he thought the
string ensemble was as good as it gets for an electronic organ of that day and I
would agree. Many great organists did visit in the first year or so and most all
were complimentary about the sound. Velsy himself was a pretty fair organist but
his day job was that of a college professor at the nearby U of W extension. By
the way, his restaurant also was very top rated by several associations, so he
was indeed a very talented guy in many areas. Every time I visited, he would be
wearing a white tux for his performances. I am trying to upload a couple of pics
but have not been successful so far. I will try to add a page about this organ on
my web site later. I never realized that there would be so much interest or I would
have done so earlier.
It would be well to remember that this particular instrument will most likely
never sound that well anyplace else as, just with most pipe organs, it was built
especially for that location. As most know, it is very rare that a pipe organ
sounds as good as it did in the original location. When and if purchased, the
new owner should also buy every piece of amplification equipment and the miles
of wiring for the next install. ---Posted to the Connartiste Yahoo Group July 6, 2010
Here are a few more pictures:
On the left is a picture of Bob during one of his performances. I am not sure who is at the console in the right hand picture but as I recall it was not Bob. It is hard to see, but the Knabe piano my friend rebuilt is just to the left of the console. While this was the largest theater style organ built by Conn, it was not the largest organ by any means.
There were several Conn/Tellers installations which usually had very large Klann consoles and up to 30 or more pipe ranks. I did notice one four manual console when I was back there in the early 70s but I have no idea where it was shipped. Unlike today’s electronic/pipe organ combinations these were very difficult installations to keep in tune and properly regulate. Tonal finishing was always a challenge and I remember many situations with the driver boards over the years. The organ business has certainly made a lot of advances over the past 60 years! The unit I have at my church has over thirty ranks and uses two consoles, the Moller three manual console up in the balcony (or organ loft) and the Rodgers 960 console with full MIDI down in the sanctuary. While there are some issues at times, those problems are nothing like what we went through in the 60s and 70s. (Thank God!)
I have a few other pictures of some famous Conns that may be of some interest so I will post them here:
This was a special 580 which belonged to a guy named Dean Peden as I recall. Note the toe pistons.
I think he also had MIDI installed. Nice looking and very nice sounding. Love the music rack!
Here is a 25 pedal Conn 580 with full MIDI and classical sound modules. Very innovative!
This was my old Connsonata 821C for practice while studying with Dr. Edward Berryman
Probably late 50s early 60s as I recall. Actually a good sounding classical organ.
My first Conn was a Connsonata Model 2D which I bought in the late fifties after I realized that
while I liked my Hammond for club work, it was not as suitable for classical studies. Below is a
picture of a 2D model.
Connsonata Model 2D Originally sold in 1950. I bought mine used after I was
discharged from the U.S. Army (Korean Service) and could not afford a new one.
I later had a Conn 830 and here is a pic of the setter board pulled out. I think this
would be about 1962 or so. It had a great sound and was fun to play and could
provide the challenge for classical my studies with Dr. Edward Berryman.
You’d be surprised at the sound of these things when you add about six of the Conn
Speakers. This was just before Conn partnered with Don Leslie to build licensed
systems for the Conn organs.
This is a Conn system ready for shipment back at the plant in about 1968. I
remember it was a 901 with licensed Leslies for a large church locally.
Here is the console front view of the 901. Those old Polaroid’s are beginning to fade.
This is a model 905 installed in a church. We also made this in a drawstop console.
Very special Conn three manual concert draw stop organ with special built console and a
lot of audio channels. The actual spec is bigger than the theater organ above and also was
capable of controlling many ranks of pipes. I don’t recall where it was installed but I do
remember Dick Ellsasser playing the dedication. (Very brittle Polaroid and not the best scan.)
Keep checking back as from time to time when I come across some more old pictures, I will add
them to my Conn “memory page.”
What happened to Conn?
Well, you might hear a lot of different stories about that. Probably the best description is the account offered by historian Margaret Downie Banks a college professor from South Dakota who researched the project. Her website is referenced below for you to peruse.
“The Greenleaf family successfully led C. G. Conn Ltd. for 54 years until the firm, estimated to be worth $35,000,000, was sold to the Crowell-Collier MacMillan Company, known primarily as a book publishing company, in April 1969. According to Leland Greenleaf's obituary in The Music Trades, Lee, at the threshold of his retirement, "recognized the danger of a takeover threat" and began negotiations with MacMillan after Conn's earnings and the price of its stock were "severely depressed" in the late-60s.
The MacMillan era (1969-1980) might be called Conn's decade of dispersal. The corporate headquarters were moved out of Elkhart for the first time in its history (at which time virtually all the company's historic records were deliberately destroyed) and relocated in Oak Brook, Illinois. The Conn Organ Division was moved to Carol Stream, Illinois, reed instrument manufacture was relocated in Nogales, Arizona, the Conn Guitar Division and the company's student brass production were shipped to Japan, while the Scherl & Roth subsidiary continued production in Cleveland. Selmer bought Conn's new brass factory in Elkhart's Industrial Park (now the Vincent Bach plant). The old Conn plant, built in 1910, was sold to Coachman Industries. All but a small portion of this 17-acre factory site between Beardsley Avenue and Greenleaf Boulevard was razed in 1979. Unfortunately for Conn, the labor-intensive manufacture of musical instruments was foreign to the MacMillan Co., not to mention unprofitable in comparison with their other holdings. Subsequently, Conn's historically fine reputation in the field suffered dramatically during the 1970s.”
Actually, Professor Banks is pretty charitable in her assessment of the MacMillian era. One of the Wikipedia posters was far less kind but far more accurate when he wrote the following:
In 1969 C.G. Conn Ltd. was sold to the Crowell-Collier MacMillan Company. Under their ownership the company's prestige declined further, because of company executives in charge who were not familiar with instrument manufacturing and their customers, and as a result of a sales force who knew nothing about what they were selling. By 1971, high costs, competition and union labor pressures forced the company into drastic measures. In that year the corporate offices were moved to Oak Brook, Illinois, and during the following year the Conn Organ Division was moved to Carol Stream, Illinois, the woodwind manufacture to Nogales, Arizona (formerly the Best Manufacturing Company, a maker of student-line saxophones purchased by Conn in the 1960s), and the Conn Guitar Division and all student-line brass instrument manufacture to Japan by Yamaha.
In 1980 the company was sold to Daniel Henkin of Kansas City, Missouri who had served the company as an advertising manager. In that year Henkin sold the organ division to Kimball under the name of Conn Keyboards.
There will always be differences of opinions, of course, as to why the Conn Organ Division went down and there was no one reason but a combination of factors starting with the take-over in 1969. As one who was there and lived through both eras (Greenleaf & MacMillian) I can say with certainty that in this case it was much better in the “good old days!” Conn organs were certainly some of the best electronic organs ever produced and their quality rivaled that of any manufacturer at the time. Perhaps the only other equal or maybe even slightly better analog organ of the time was built by the Associated Organ Builders of Auburn, Washington. They did not to my knowledge build a Theater Organ, however.
Bob Eby’s Artisan Organs Company of Los Angeles (and later of Newport Beach as “Newport Organs”) did sell excellent three and four manual Theater organ kits which were very popular in the early 60s. He also marketed some outstanding ITO classical organs both in kit form and plant manufactured. Unfortunately for Mr. Eby, Conn decided to bring out their vacuum tube theater organ models 640, and especially the 645, to the market in 1964 which essentially put Artisan out of business. In their heyday, Artisan did offer some very nice looking consoles and the kit builder could use “off-the-shelf” type components of any desired quality. For example, Herberger-Brooks keyboards were available through Eby, but the builder could use either better or lesser quality products if he desired if he had limited funds. The same was true for the mechanical and electronic components. Some of those old Artisans
were cheaply put together but there were many that had very high quality components and were very desirable for pipe organ combination projects. Eby sold the “Artisan” name to a Northern California company who later moved up to Washington and they are still in the business today with high quality ancillary products for organ enthusiasts.
Another viable kit organ of the day and sort of a “knock-off” of Bob Eby’s Artisan was the Devtronix which could also be built to taste. Many of their consoles are still functioning today as either VPOs or combo pipe/electronic organs. They had a ¾ size Wurlitzer console (like a 260) that was really neat and I almost ended up buying one for myself. Schober also had a kit organ available but it was marginally
accepted and required a fair knowledge of electronics to build but their owners loved them.
Some other organs of the day would include the Rodgers, which was just beginning and offered a fairly nice looking home model solid state theater organ but it never stood up to the Conns of the day. Allen was mostly popular with the “classical set” as their theater organs (and I owned one) really were pretty thin sounding. Thomas had an AGO Theater organ that looked great but was plagued with service problems. Baldwin’s Cinema models never sounded even close to any theater organs I ever heard. And the Minshall organ sounded like a cat mugging a canary in Central Park.
Definitely for the 60s and early 70s era, Conn was the leader in organ business.
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