Advertisement
  1. Archive

MASTER OF THEATER'S MIGHTY WURLITZER DIES AT 61

Bob Baker was known for his enthusiasm and his creative costumes.

Bob Baker's name appeared in lights Friday night, shining down from the Tampa Theatre's marquee.

The volunteer organist for the historic theater gave his final demonstration of the Mighty Wurlitzer on Wednesday, hours before he passed away from a sudden heart related illness, his sister said.

Theatergoers who remember his showy rendition of Ain't Gonna Keep Me Down from The Unsinkable Molly Brown are invited to a memorial at 11 a.m. Sunday at the Tampa Theatre.

Baker, 61, was one of 15 active volunteers who played pre-show mini-concerts and showed how the organ worked on theater tours, said Tara Schroeder, the theater's marketing director.

But his creative costuming - like when he donned a nun's habit to play before The Sound of Music - and three- to four-day weeks at the movie house, made him one of the most popular.

"He was just a great showman," Schroeder said. "He could play the organ by ear."

She worked with Baker for 15 years giving tours and estimates he performed about 2,500 times for 750,000 theater patrons.

Organ music has been the sound track to Baker's life.

Born into a Illinois family of furniture store and funeral home owners, Baker gravitated to the organ in the parlor and learned to play by ear, said his twin sister Barbara Baker Chapin ofQuincy, Ill.

"We both studied at the same time," Chapin said. "And I can't play a note. He got all the talent."

He graduated to playing the pipe organ in church as they both got formal training.

"He mostly played the organ and piano," she said. "But he played the tuba too in the high school band."

The two were very close as children, Chapin said. "He was the rebel and I was kind of like his mother hen, always watching out for him."

But after graduating from Lincoln Christian College in Lincoln, Ill., music called Baker, and he answered.

He was a music therapist at both a women's correctional facility and a state mental hospital before moving to Florida to play organ at the Venice Country Club, Chapin said.

Baker worked for years at Nielsen Media Research Co. in Dunedin where he was an administrative assistant in operations. He was also the organist for St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Tampa.

But his favorite gig was always the Tampa Theatre.

Where else could he wear a green curtain with the rod still attached as he played a concert before Gone with the Wind?

He also didn't mind the pay.

"He used to rub his belly and say, 'I get paid in all the popcorn I can eat,'" Schroeder said.

Baker is survived by his sister, Chapin; a brother, James P. Baker; a nephew, John Andrew Baker; a niece, Kathryn Milliman; five great nephews and one great niece, all of Springfield, Ill.

Popcorn will be served after the memorial.

Robbyn Mitchell can be reached at (813) 226-3373 or rmitchell@sptimes.com.

Fast facts

Memorial

Tampa Theatre will celebrate the life of volunteer organist Bob Baker at 11 a.m. Sunday in the theater at 711 N Franklin St.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Advertisement
Advertisement