Stan Kann, master organist delighted audiences


Stan Kann, who entertained generations as the master organist at the Fox Theatre, and whose hobby of collecting vintage vacuum cleaners led to his being a frequent guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, died Monday, Sept . 29, 2008, at St. Louis University Hospital, after complications during heart surgery. He was 83.

Stanley Gustavus Kann was born in St. Louis on Dec. 9, 1924, the son of the late Bessie (Marx) and Stephen Kann. He began playing the organ at age 4, and the piano as a student at Soldan High School. He majored in classical organ at Washington University in St. Louis, wher he earned a bachelor’s degree in music. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that he gave his last performance at the Fox the weekend before his passing.

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Mr. Kann played the Fabulous Fox Theatre’s Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ from 1953 to 1975, performing between movies and at special events. Among his most memorable performances was providing the organ “score” for a screening of the original black-and-white film version of The Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney, Sr., at the Fox. He also scored numerous Charlie Chaplin and other films of the silent era. During his original run with the Fox, Mr. Kann also performed at the old Ruggeri’s Restaurant on the Hill and Stan and Biggie’s restaurant. From 1964-1975, the NBC Radio Network broadcast those performances nationally every Saturday night.

Among Mr. Kann’s many local admirers is Mark Richman, himself a popular singer and entertainer and former photographer for the Jewish Light. “I knew Stan for more than 40 years,” Richman told the Jewish Light. “A great guy, brilliant mind, probably the finest theater organist in the country, and without a doubt, the owner of the most complete vacuum cleaner collection anywhere on earth, and seen 77 times on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. The Fox Theatre, St. Louis and everyone who ever heard Stan at the Mighty Wurlitzer will miss him.”

According to the Post-Dispatch, Mr. Kann fell in love with show business when, as a graduation gift, his parents gave him a trip to New York, where he saw his first theater organ at Radio City Music Hall. He then convinced Ed Arthur, the owner of the Fox, to let him restore the theater’s Wurlitzer.

As noted, Mr. Kann began collecting vacuum cleaners when he was a young man; he claimed he could identify a specific model from across the street. He owned more than 150 antique sweepers, which he kept in his home in the Holly Hills neighborhood.

Television viewers met Mr. Kann in the 1950s, when he served as the musical director for The Charlotte Peters Show and The Noon Show, both produced by KSD-TV (now KSDK), Channel 5. The P-D reports that his involvement with Peters’ show led to his becoming a national celebrity.

Mr. Kann met comedian Phyllis Diller, who lived in Webster Groves in the 1960s and occasionally filled in for Peters. She liked Mr. Kann’s music and thought he was funny in sketch routines. When Mr. Kann showed Diller his vacuum cleaners “something clicked” according to the Post. Diller introduced Mr. Kann to Johnny Carson, who found the collection to be interesting as well as amusing.

On June 8, 1966, Mr. Kann appeared on The Tonight Show. “His haywire demonstrations of his antique vacuums cracked up Carson and his viewers,” the P-D reports. “Mr. Kann appeared on The Tonight Show 76 more times, always demonstrating strange gadgets that never seemed to work.”

Mr. Kann was a lifelong bachelor. He moved to the Los Angeles area in 1975, and returned to the St. Louis area in 1998.

Mr. Kann is survived by cousins Jean Volson Auer of San Diego, and Richard Lowenstein of St. Louis, and by special friends Norman E. Delaney, Julio A. Lewis, Philip Ambrosio, Lindsay D. Barth, DPM, Daniel G. Armbruster, Mary Strauss and Judy Feinberg Brilliant, among many other friends and fans nationwide and worldwide.

Memorial contributions preferred to the Stan Kann Scholarship Fund, c/o The Fox Theatre, 539 Grand Boulevard, St. Louis, Mo. 63103.