For the love of a pipe dream: Mississippi man to be featured on TV program for historic restoration project

Published 6:15 am Monday, March 6, 2023

Burnley Cook and his pipe organ, salvaged from the long-lost Baker Grand Theater in downtown Natchez, will be part of a television feature on Mississippi Public Broadcasting on Thursday at 7 p.m.

Walt Grayson, who hosts the PBS show “Mississippi Roads”, plans a segment on pipe organs in the state.  Cook said Grayson came to Natchez a year and a half or so ago to talk to him about his pipe organ.

“Mr. Grayson had already come over a couple of times prior to this latest one,” Cook said. “Previous to that, I had been on little snippets he would do on WJTV, I believe. Out of the blue, he sent me a message the other day telling me I was going to be on Mississippi Roads on PBS. It seems like the program itself is going to be devoted to pipe organs in the state.”

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Cook has completely refurbished the pipe organ that was originally installed in the Baker Grand.

“It’s in my garage. It sits out there and I play it whenever the mood strikes me. I’m always flattered my neighbors are so accepting and often will bring out a chair and sit and listen,” he said. “The organ was installed just seven years before the talkies came out. It was only used for its intended purpose for seven years. After that, they played it during intermissions and special events held at the Baker Grand.”

Bob Shumway, who is the father of Ruth Powers and Michael Shumway, saved the pipe organ from the garbage heap.

Nine years ago — I think that’s when it was, time goes so fast — I saw on Facebook where Ruth Powers asked if anyone had any interest in the old Baker Grand organ, please come and get it. Otherwise, it was going to be taken to the dump. They no longer had room to store it,” he said.

Before the Baker Grand was torn down, Louis Spencer, who Cook said had salvage rights to the organ, contacted Shumway to see if he had an interest in purchasing the organ.

The organ was in such a state of disrepair; Shumway was not interest in placing a bid for it.

Apparently neither was anyone else, because Spencer called Shumway back and asked him to come get it “literally two days before they were supposed to start demolishing the building.

Cook said Shumway and his son Michael and a coworker rented a big van and basically started one day taking it apart and didn’t finish until 4 in the morning.

“They started tearing the building down three hours later,” he said. “All of the credit should go to him (Shumway) for saving it. There is so little memorabilia or artifacts from the Baker Grand. Most people don’t remember it ever being played there.”

During the many years the organ wasn’t used, he said kids would take out the organ’s slender metal pipes and use them for sword fights or as missiles.

“So many were damaged and missing. It was a Robert-Morgan Pipe Organ and I was able to run them down and get the same metal pipes made during that period to replace them. The wooden pipes came through well, but many of the metal pipes did not,” Cook said. “The organ was in storage from 1972 to when I got it in 2016.

“I gave myself five years to get it done and I got through with it in two and a half. I credit the local citizens because I had a couple of piano programs to raise money to buy the new pipe work and all sorts of other materials, as well as a GoFundMe, and had really wonderful response.

“I’ve always hoped The Ritz would be restored and the organ would be put into it. I would give it to the Ritz to be used for old movies or entertainment. Even if it turned out to be a restaurant, that would be the most appropriate venue for it,” he said.

The organ is in “a very movable state. I can move a whole bunch of screws and remove pipes and it can be moved to a new home. I want it to be somewhere everybody can enjoy it because it’s through the kindness of the citizens that it’s still here. I wish it could be more visible and more usable.”

Cook is well known these days for riding around in the back of his truck, playing his calliope.

“Some people think that is the Baker Grand organ. The calliope is a tiny thing compared to it. Other people say it’s Dr. Borum’s calliope. It’s not. I have wanted one for years and this one came up for sale,” he said. “The calliope was manufactured in 1992 and was built for the traveling road show for Showboat! They revived it on Broadway and sent it out on the road. They built three of them. The packing crate that it came in had the name of all of these cities it played in. It’s a special piece.”

Cook can be found every Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., playing the piano at The Carriage House.

“I have gotten requests from people for another organ concert, and it’s in the works. When I did the first one, people were all over the place. We had 120 people out there. But I was thinking I could not only do that but drop a big sheet and project an old Buster Keaton silent movie and use it as it is meant to be used.”