A flamboyant concert organist returns to his hometown to perform a memorable show at Prouty Gymnasium
On Nov. 3, 1970, Princeton’s own brilliant world famous organ virtuoso, Virgil Keel Fox, came to town and presented a superb organ concert at the Princeton High School Prouty Gymnasium.
The place was sold out. The console of the organ was situated directly underneath the east basketball court net so that both sides of the gym and the center floor accommodated the eager crowd.
Needless to say, Fox was not only an outstanding organist worldwide, but was also quite a showman.
“I am as controversial as hell,” said Virgil Fox in a Time magazine interview, “and they say I am a showman, and I am proud to be one!”
Virgil Fox was born in Princeton May 3, 1912, the son of Birdie Nichols Fox and Miles Fox. He had one brother, Warren, in California, who passed away several years ago. Fox’s grandmother, Abigail Nichols, brought one of the first pianos into Illinois.
Virgil’s father, Miles, owned and operated the Apollo Theater here in the early 1920s when motion pictures were silent. Fox bought and installed a small 2 manual 8 rank Mosshart pipe organ in the Apollo. It was loud and very pretty, Fox told me at one time.
This is where Fox was “introduced” to the pipe organ, where he played and practiced day after day and at night after the theater was closed. He told me that he never did play publicly at the Apollo organ – and from then on it was his way of life.
Etna Nichols, Virgil’s mother’s sister, told me that in the early 1920s, she took Virgil to the fabulously beautiful Chicago Theater where world-famous theater organist Jesse Crawford was playing there at the twin 4 manual 29 rank Wurlitzer theater pipe organ with his wife, Helen Crawford. THAT sent Virgil into orbit.
At the age of 10, he was playing the pipe organ. He studied and took piano lessons from Hugh Prince. At the age of 14, he played before an audience of 3,000 in Cincinnati, Ohio. This young man was chosen winner of the National Federation of Music Clubs contest at the age of 17.
Virgil graduated from Princeton High School and was salutatorian of his class of 1930. The Princeton Loyalty Song was composed by him and it is still used today.
A scholarship to the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore was accepted in 1932, and Mr. Fox held a certificate of church organists from Peabody. Further study was done in Paris, and his professional debut was made at the age of 19 in New York City, and later before the American Guild of Organists at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933.
Fox studied with French organist Marcel Dupré and returned to become head of the Peabody Conservatory of Music in 1938. From 1942 to 1946, he served as an enlisted man in the Army Air Force. In 1946, he became organist of the prestigious Riverside Church in New York City, where he held that post for 19 years.
A bachelor, he lived in a 26-room, gray stone mansion in Englewood, New Jersey. He kept fit by swimming 30 laps daily in his 70-foot heated indoor swimming pool.
Honored as one of the great organists of his time, he made three appearances at the White House. He was chosen to represent the U.S. at the International Conference of Music at Bern, Switzerland. An honorary degree of Doctor of Music was conferred on Mr. Fox by Bucknell University.
In one season at thee Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, he performed the phenomenal feat of giving five complete recitals, each one a different program played from memory.
Mr. Fox visited Europe in 1938 and gave 10 recitals there, playing in some of the most renowned and awesome churches of the world, including St. Thomas in Leipzig, which was forever associated with Bach.
In addition to his post at Riverside Church, Fox gave over 80 concerts a year, compared to some of his conservative colleagues who usually gave only a few recitals a year. He had a flair for showmanship and half of his musical talents ranged not only from church music, but the other half with a “light show” – usually associated with rock bands – and he loved it!
“Musicological purists are ‘barnacles on the ship of music,’” said Fox at one time. “Communication is what an artist lives for, audiences on their feet screaming for more!” Anyone who has been present at a Fox concert can attest to his effectiveness.
He made many recordings, and four of his LP’s were taped at some of his performances and cracked the Billboard charts!
His concert that night of Nov. 3, 1970, in Princeton – his hometown – was on a portable organ that could and did respond to his artistry, and he demonstrated that his artistry was maximum.
He had four standing ovations of the crowd of 1,600 people – attested that his all-encompassed mastery and stage manner had captured them. This hometown boy came home and gave conclusive proof that he knew and practiced almost all there was to know about the organ.
Virgil Fox dedicated one of his numbers to Grace Farwell, 90-year-old resident of Prairie View who gave him his start in the music field. Miss Farwell was a Princeton church organist and music teacher until her retirement. Fox stated that he remembered her pretty complexion – even at 7 in the morning at the Lincoln School for his lessons.
Fox’s first half of his concert included selections by Wagner, Bach, Pierne and Reuoke, which put Fox through a wide range of artistic and technical demands, and he WAS totally in command.
During the second half of his program, he showed a side that other hometowners remembered. Obvious was his relish with the humor of his playing of variations on “America.” He invited the audience to laugh if they were amused, and to chuckle and even to guffaw, and they were heard. Some remembered when he played in the high school band with some of their “novelty” tunes.
After the concert, he met with all his family and friends in the school cafeteria – but not until he took a 20-minute shower and put on different dry clothes.
When Fox played at ANY concert, he was so intense in his concentration that he literally was soaking wet with perspiration at the end of every concert. He always wore a black cape to keep from catching cold in some of those drafty auditoriums or theaters or concert halls. He also would practice 4 or 5 hours a day and even an hour or so on any day of his concert.
Whenever Mr. Fox had a scheduled concert in this vicinity, I would take his aunt, Miss Etna Nichols, to his concerts. We went to Rockford several times over the years, and one time we went to Galesburg on a cold, wet and dreary night late in the fall. We attended his concert and afterward went to a hotel restaurant where we dined and visited for several hours with the down dignitaries and Virgil’s friends. We talked and chatted for hours.
Fox was intensely interested in everybody and called them all by their first name. After lunch, we drove southeast of Galesburg to a farmer friend of Fox’s, who had a pipe organ installed at his palatial home. There we spent most of the night visiting and listening to many of his varied experiences, and relating stories of long ago Princeton when Virgil was a boy. A night I never will forget and the most memorable nights I can ever remember – Virgil Fox was as common as an old shoe.
Can you believe that I came home – back to Princeton with a grand lady of 90 years old – at 5:00 o’clock in the morning? – Miss Etna Nichols – the grandest of them all – and it seems only like yesterday – OUT OF THE PAST!
Note to readers: Virgil Fox died in 1980 in Palm Beach, Fla., at the age of 68. Bill Lamb, who died in 2013, wrote this story originally in 1992 for his “Out of the Past” series in the Bureau County Republican. It and the accompanying photos taken by Lamb were retrieved from the archives of the Bureau County Historical Society, which granted its permission to republish them.