When the lights dimmed at Loew’s Theatre, a low rumble shook the auditorium. A glorious blast of music arose from the orchestra pit as the mighty Wurlitzer organ slowly ascended to the stage.
A petite woman in a beautiful gown emerged into the spotlight. Her nimble fingers flew across the keyboard and her feet furiously worked the pedals as she wrung every last note out of that pipe organ.
Estelle Ruth was definitely in her element beneath the twinkling stars and rolling clouds of the atmospheric 3,400-seat Moorish theater.
“I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t play,” she once said. “It’s as much a part of me as eating or sleeping.”
She had the distinction of performing at the grand opening of Loew’s on April 20, 1929, and entertained there many times over the next 50 years when the South Main Street landmark was reborn as the Akron Civic Theatre.
As a toddler in Louisville, Ky., in the late 19th century, Marie Estelle Fossee listened to her mother, Rose, play classical music on a piano in the family’s home. The little girl was so entranced by the melodious sounds that she hugged a leg of the heavy instrument and wouldn’t let go.
She wanted to play the piano so desperately that she practiced stretching her fingers on the keys.
“I wasn’t really a child prodigy, I guess,” she recalled. “I never played those tremendous works that child prodigies are supposed to do before they can walk.”
But she did learn to play. The first song was The White Rose Waltz, a number that she never forgot. She took lessons and discovered a natural talent that led to childhood recitals on a baby grand piano with special pedal extensions. As she grew older, she studied music at Sacred Heart Academy, Louisville Girls High School and the Louisville Conservatory of Music.
In 1917, she married John Lloyd Ruth, a West Virginia native, and the newlyweds moved to Akron, where jobs were plentiful. John was hired as a highway inspector, received a promotion and worked for more than 40 years as supervisor of Akron street maintenance. The couple raised five children: John, Richard, Benjamin, Rose Marie and Virginia.
Estelle Ruth taught piano and organ lessons in the family’s Firestone Park home at 227 Archwood Ave., welcomed as many as 20 students per day and played the organ at St. Paul’s Catholic Church.
She served as president of Tuesday Musical Club, accompanist for Akron Civic Chorus and president of the Portage and Summit County Chapter of the Ohio Music Teachers Association.
Ruth also furthered her piano studies with instructor Franklin Carnahan in Cleveland, and performed at Stan Hywet, the Akron Armory, Mayflower Hotel and First Central Tower.
And, of course, Loew’s.
More than 14,000 people attended the gala opening in 1929. The bill, presented four times a day, included the “all-talking movie” The Voice of the City, five vaudeville acts, newsreels, comedy shorts and organist Estelle Ruth.
“Actually, I don’t recall much about the opening,” she told the Beacon Journal decades later. “I came in through the back entrance with the other musicians, but I could tell there was a lot of people and excitement out front. Hank Cuqua, our cello player, was late … and tried to come in the front door. But there were too many people in line and they wouldn’t let him go ahead. He had to run all the way around the building to the back door. He barely made it in time.”
Among the entertainers that first year were vaudevillian Milton Berle, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, magician Harry Blackstone and the Three Stooges. Ruth remembered playing Moonlight Madonna while fan dancer Sally Rand performed her routine.
“She was a stripper but she was so delicate,” Ruth said.
The organist worked at Loew’s for only a year or so. She said she got “lost in the shuffle” because the theater kept changing managers.
She made history in 1931 when she went to New York to study voice with Jean Teslof. CBS radio retained her for its experimental television station W2XAB, which debuted July 21, 1931.
“They wanted a regular accompanist and I was lucky enough to get the assignment — the first time the studio had indulged in a pianist for television,” Ruth told the Akron Times-Press in 1931. “I found I had to fill in with songs and gestures, make up with dark grease paints and otherwise become a regular entertainer. The little room where the artists perform is entirely dark.”
Among the guests in the primitive studio on the 23rd floor were George Gershwin, Kate Smith and Ed Wynn.
Ruth took part in the first “$1 million television broadcast,” a publicity stunt in which Natalie Towers, “Columbia’s Original Television Girl,” wore a fortune in Cartier jewels while 10 police officers stood guard.
In September, Ruth returned home to Akron. The television station suspended operations five months later and didn’t return until 1939.
Ruth found herself back at Loew’s after WADC radio hired her to perform Radio Sunbeam, two daily 15-minute programs from the Wurlitzer. Ruth found herself practicing in the auditorium after midnight to perfect her art.
“I’m never satisfied unless my program is the best ever, and even then I want it to be still better,” she admitted.
Ruth later performed on radio programs for WJW, WAKR and WTAM. She became known as “The Organ Lady” during the Beacon Journal’s annual Christmas parties for schoolchildren.
In 1942, Ruth graduated from the University of Akron after taking classes part time for 16 years. She was in the same class as her daughter Rose Marie, who majored in home economics.
That same year, Ruth wrote the words and music to Victory, a patriotic song during World War II, which she played at local events. She continued to teach music lessons for the next 40 years.
In 1977, a petite woman in a lovely white gown took the stage at the Akron Civic Theatre during the Bank Night Film Festival. She picked up right where she left off.
“Good evening. I’m Estelle Ruth and I played this organ at the opening of this theater in 1929,” she told the crowd.
She became a regular again at the Civic, and participated in the theater’s 50th anniversary celebration in 1979.
“The Organ Lady” politely declined to reveal her age.
“Let’s just say I was very young when I played here in 1929, but I’m much better now,” she said.
Estelle Ruth was inducted into the Akron Radio Hall of Fame in 1984.
She passed away Sept. 21, 1996, in Conneaut as a great-great-grandmother.
Only then was her age revealed: She was 100 years old! She had been teaching music lessons into her 90s.
A funeral Mass was held at St. Paul’s Catholic Church, where she had played organ for decades. She was buried next to her husband, John, at Holy Cross Cemetery.
“Music was her life,” the Beacon Journal editorialized. “Her life added immeasurably to the history and culture of all of ours in Akron. Each time children gather to gawk as the Wurlitzer rises at the front of the Civic, many adults will remember and thank the woman whose fingers brought it to life.”
Copy editor Mark J. Price is author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.