The Jefferson Theatre has endured nearly a century of wear and tear. It has outlasted hurricanes, floods, downtown deterioration and even an overzealous congregation who decided to destroy its original statuary, deeming the nude artwork unholy. The Jefferson Theatre Preservation Society (JTPS) has been working to rescue and preserve the historical site, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, since its inception in 1975. JTPS’s newest project is the restoration of the 86-year-old Robert Morton Wonder Organ, one of approximately 25 that still exist in the world.
“The organ was restored when the theater was restored in 2003,” said Carolyn Howard, president of JTPS. However, Howard said Hurricanes Rita and Ike flooded the organ chamber, causing significant damage.
“Thanks to the City of Beaumont, who now owns the theater, the organ chamber has been repaired beautifully, and now, JTPS is working to repair parts and to put them all back so that the organ will rise again,” Howard said.
The Organ Club was a popular attraction during the 1920s and ’30s, especially for children who were looking to beat the heat during a time when air conditioner was a luxury, even for the wealthy. They would pack the Jefferson Theatre to watch movies, cartoons and one impressive organist especially.
Larry Jene Fisher, often a feature attraction at the Jefferson Theatre, played the Morton Wonder Organ, which would rise up on a platform from the orchestra pit and emit almost every conceivable sound one could imagine at the time, captivating gathering crowds with its theater magic.
He also played for silent movies shown in many prominent theatres across the United States.
“During the 1920s, Fisher went on the road as an organ gypsy, playing in over a score of movie theatres in Texas, Arkansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska and Wyoming. During an appearance in Wyoming he was billed as the ‘Texas Organist,’ a title that stuck throughout a portion of his career,” C.E. Hunt writes in his book, “Big Thicket People.”
Although he was from Texas, Fisher only dressed as a cowboy when touring outside the state to match his title.
He also played the accordion and possessed many other non-musical talents. Known as “The Renaissance man of East Texas,” he was a filmmaker, a playwright and a Civil Air Patrol pilot who flew Nazi submarine detection missions out of the Beaumont Municipal Airport during World War II. Probably one of his most notable contributions to this area, however, was his photography, which not only captured the Big Thicket’s wildness and beauty, but also recorded its inhabitants’ way of life. Born in Wichita Falls, Fisher came to Beaumont in the late 1920s to work for Jefferson Amusement Company, which built the Jefferson Theatre in 1927. In 1940, Fisher moved to Saratoga to study the Big Thicket.
“As a pilot, he would fly over the Big Thicket … he was fascinated by it,” said Lamar University Archivist Penny Clark.
At Saratoga’s Vines Hotel — named for the invasive vines that strangled the structure — Fisher befriended and lived with “Mr. Big Thicket” himself, Lance Rosier, a naturalist who grew up in the forest.
“(Rosier) knew the Big Thicket like the back of his hand,” Clark said. “He knew every plant and animal species in the Big Thicket.”
Rosier gave tours of the forest to women’s clubs, senators, scientists, Supreme Court justices, students and scholars alike. He even led Texas Gov. Price Daniel and Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn on a tour when the two politicians were lobbying to make the Big Thicket a Texas State Park, which Fisher also favored.
Fisher would contribute his photographic skills to one of the most significant botanical publications ever constructed about the Big Thicket, Clark said.
Fisher and Rosier worked together to catalogue several plants in the Big Thicket thought to be extinct during the ’30s, working with botanists Hal B. Parks and Victor L. Cory who wrote the “Biological Survey of the East Texas Big Thicket.”
“(Fisher) worked in the first scientific study of the Big Thicket,” she said. “The Big Thicket is a place of incredible biodiversity. He documented the scientific study of these rare and unique places.”
Clark said Fisher photographed the country folk along with Big Thicket’s animal and plant life.
“The folkways of the South had come all the way from the East and they had migrated to this isolated area,” she said. “This is the last area that these folkways were being preserved.”
Fisher captured this lost way of life with his photographs, which featured the simple to the bizarre — hunting camp families assembling around dead game hanging from a tree, a sugar cane mill in operation, the inoculation of a pig for hog cholera, men working in a saw mill, and African-American turpentiners barking pine trees for resin. Probably the most peculiar was a photo Fisher had taken of the Perricone Quads. Born on Halloween 1929, they garnered fame as the world’s first known set of surviving male quadruplets.
“Multiple births was a phenomenal thing at that time,” Clark said. “He taught them the accordion and was a promoter for them.”
Fisher captured the spirit and labor of the Big Thicket people.
“He caught chimney dobbins when they were working on chimneys; he went to church services; he went to funerals; he went to revivals,” Clark said. “He realized that this was a very special place. This was the last call for these traditional ways of living.”
Perceived as unusual by the country folks he photographed, Fisher was even thought to be a Nazi spy during his photo escapades, according to a transcript of an interview with Lance Rosier’s nephew, James “Moe” Rosier, retrieved from LU Special Collections and Archives.
“He was just different to what the people had been used to around here,” Moe said. “He was a very intelligent person … and was just very courteous to everybody.”
Moe said that Fisher dressed in nice khaki clothes while the locals mostly wore blue-jean overalls.
“It started a rumor that he was a spy and they said one time the FBI was checkin’ him out,” Moe said. “Really, he wasn’t a spy. He was just a nice person.”
While many would be frustrated by such allegations, Clark said that she doesn’t believe it was a factor in Fisher moving to College Station during the 1940s.
“He wanted to pursue other ventures,” Clark said. “He was ready for new challenges and was exploring as much as he could.”
Fisher produced films for the Texas Forestry Service and later moved to Denton to pursue a career as an independent filmmaker. He died of pneumonia at the age of 53 in Nashville, Tenn.
Fisher’s collection was donated to Lamar University by various sources, including Maxine Johnson, who had received Fisher’s photographs and negatives from James “Moe” Rosier as a gift.
While there may never be another Larry Jene Fisher, Howard said that she hopes the organ he once played will be restored to its full capacity by late 2013 and will once again be a Jefferson Theatre attraction nearly 70 years after Fisher played his final engagements.
“We will finish it,” Howard said. There are people here who know (the organ) and I think (members) from the Houston chapter of The (U.S. Theatre) Organ Society would come play it.”
Fisher’s photographs are available for viewing on the Lamar Library website at www.library.lamar.edu . Click on Departments, Special Collections and Archives, Search Digital Collections and Browse. LU Special Collections and Archives scanned 8,000 images from Fisher’s collection and have almost 800 available for online viewing.
The Larry Jene Fisher collection is available for viewing by appointment at the Mary and John Gray Library. Call (409) 880-8660 for more information. A Larry Jene Fisher exhibit is also available for viewing at the Big Thicket National Preserve Visitors Center at 6102 Farm to Market Road 420 in Kountze.
JTPS is accepting donations to help restore the Robert Morton Wonder Organ. The restoration should cost about $10,000. Call (409) 838-2202 for more information.